Avant-garde in their orientation and irreverent in their tone, the little magazines of the ’60s created an ecosystem of a kind for some of India’s best poets, writers and artists, writes Karthik Venkatesh.
In September 1965, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, along with his friends Amit and Alok Rai, published the first issue of damn you/a magazine of the arts. This came about after Mehrotra and the Rai brothers had read a magazine in an alternative journal called Village Voice, sent by the Rai brothers’ uncle, Vijay Chauhan, then studying in Columbia University in New York.
Village Voice was an alternative newsweekly founded in 1955 that often featured prominent New Yorkers active in the arts. And this particular magazine, that Mehrotra and his two friends read, was called Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, a product of the ’60s counter culture. It was published from New York and was a literary periodical that often featured new voices. Inspired, the trio borrowed the name for themselves, modifying only the first name of the magazine and settling for a slightly less-controversial one. Between 1965 and 1968, damn you appeared a total of eight times.
Its title pages stencilled by Mehrotra in a variety of calligraphic styles, the issues (the first one consisted of 10 pages, an off-white cover and was entirely typewritten) have achieved something of the status of an important historical document today, even finding place in the British Library in London as well as the Cornell University Archives in the United States. It is not so much the literary merit of damn you that grants it a mention in several histories of Indian English poetry; it is the fact that it existed at all. And by existing and almost flourishing for three full years, it created something interesting.
Damn you falls into the category of what came to be called “little magazines”, which were both an idea and a statement of sorts. Avant-garde in their orientation and irreverent in their tone and editorial policy, damn you and several other little magazines in India, many of which came into being in the mid- to late-Sixties created an ecosystem of a kind for Indian English poets as they strove to publish their poems and win recognition, both for their genre and for themselves. In a sense, these little magazines are portraits of a time in Indian English poetry, indeed Indian English writing, when it was truly coming into its own, shedding its colonial baggage and attempting to imbibe the very best of all that was taking place in British and American writing at the time, besides establishing a uniquely Indian tradition of English writing which went beyond what the rest of the English-speaking world deemed “proper”.
Mehrotra’s little magazine was by no means the first magazine to feature Indian English poetry. The fabled Writers Workshop of Prof. P. Lal from Calcutta had been publishing Miscellany since 1960. A bi-monthly, Miscellany’s early group of contributors was a virtual who’s who of post-Independence Indian English writing. Nissim Ezekiel, Anita Desai, R. Parthasarathy, Adil Jussawala and others were featured in its early issues. Miscellany, though a journal devoted to creative writing, was in a sense a successor to magazines like PEN, Thought and Quest, which along with the mainstream Illustrated Weekly of India had begun the practice of giving space to early Indian English poets.
Besides damn you, Mehrotra was involved editorially with ezra (1967-71) and fakir (1968). The name ezra was a tribute to Ezra Pound, the writer and poet who had chronicled such magazines in a 1930 article entitled Small Magazines and drawn the attention of the American public to the existence and the creative sensibilities of such magazines. Fakir published Dilip Chitre’s translation of Tukaram in its only issue.
Around the same time as damn you, Mehrotra’s friend (and later, brother-in-law) Pavankumar Jain published Tornado between 1967 and 1971, which besides publishing Marathi and Gujarati poetry was also striking on account of its radically new approach to magazine design. Tornado often randomly had postage stamps, railway tickets and other such items stuck in it such that no two copies of the magazine were identical.
Besides being an erudite editor, Pavankumar also seems to have had interesting ideas about the look and feel that little magazines should have. It was on Pavankumar’s suggestion that the fourth issue of ezra had masks stuck on its covers—purchased from a local kirana store—again ensuring that no two copies were identical. It was a time of unbridled experimentation and a time of great creativity which threw established norms of journal production to the winds even as wonderfully inventive poetry was being published in the pages of these magazines.
Earlier in the decade, a year before damn you had begun, another little magazine had created a stir in Bombay. In 1964, the Beat poets Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg had visited Bombay and Calcutta. Adil Jussawalla and R. Parthasarathy, later to become important members of the Indian English poetry canon, heard them recite their poetry in Bombay. And Parthasarathy, inspired by the rebellious mood of the Beats, had proceeded to start a magazine with two other friends, S.V. Pradhan and Abraham Benjamin, called Bombay Duck.
The first issue of Bombay Duck quoted Henry Miller in one of its articles and was promptly banned by college authorities (all its three founders were college professors). The combined second and third issue was confiscated as “obscene” by the police owing to the erotic content of one of its pieces. Another little magazine of this time was Dionysus (1965), started by Pradhan and Benjamin which published Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar and the two editors. Besides Bombay Duck, another magazine that Parthasarathy was involved with was Blunt, in 1967-8.
In 1966-7, none other than the high priest of modern Indian English poetry, Nissim Ezekiel was involved in a little magazine project, Poetry India, which ran for six issues and published Gieve Patel, Kamala Das, and Adil Jussawalla among others, as well as translations by Arun Kolatkar, A.K. Ramanujan and Dilip Chitre. The quality of Poetry India was dazzling and it remains perhaps the finest example of the little magazine genre of that time. Another interesting magazine of this time was Pritish Nandy’s Dialogue-Calcutta published from Calcutta from 1968 to 1970. Later, between 1972 and 1975, it ran as Dialogue-India.
Also interesting is the connections some of these little magazines and their editors had with similarly struggling figures in the world of art. Tornado, for instance carried images and doodles by the artists Bhupen Khakhar and M.F. Husain. For the third issue of Poetry India, Akbar Padamsee donated the proceeds of the sale of one of his paintings, and Husain donated a painting with the understanding that it could be sold to fund the issue.
All of these little magazines were short-lived ventures. But, their impact was clearly larger than the sum total of their longevity or their print run. From the many names who featured in the issues of these magazines, almost all went on to become important voices in the then-nascent poetry scene. The magazines also created a literary culture of sorts with poets reviewing and commenting on each other’s work, thereby benefitting everyone involved.
Eventually, the little magazines of the ’60s were responsible for the publishing ventures initiated in the ’70s by the usual suspects (Jussawalla, Mehrotra and others)—publishing ventures like Clearing House and New Ground which laid the foundation for the next generation of poets to emerge in the ’80s. In addition, these little magazine poets of the ’60s were also able to get prominent mainstream publishers like the Oxford University Press and Orient Longman interested enough to publish Indian poetry in English, thereby triggering the journey (as yet underway) that brought poetry from the sidelines of the publishing world to the mainstream.