At 64, Sahitya Akademi is making bold moves to engage new readers
About two months before the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults, one 64-year-old government institution was already taking brave steps to celebrate the contributions of India’s queer community.
On July 17, the Sahitya Akademi organised a literary meet in Kolkata, exclusively featuring LGBTQ writers and poets. The event was anchored by a transgender woman, included five published authors and was so popular the 150-seat venue ran out of standing room.
The Akademi, India’s central institution for literary dialogue, publication and promotion, which undertakes activities in English and 23 regional languages, hasn’t had a particularly risk-taking history. Though set up by the government, it functions autonomously, hosting seminars, lectures, translation workshops and awarding grants for authors’ research and travel.
Over the last three years, however, a quiet but determined transformation has been in the works. The Akademi, which runs one of the country’s largest multi-lingual libraries, opened its first bookstore outside of its New Delhi headquarters - at a Metro station. It has launched an initiative to take literature to rural pockets. And it’s creating digital records of tribal language translations in English and Hindi.
Subodh Sarkar, a Sahitya Akademi award-winning poet and the convener of the Akademi’s Bengali Advisory Board, says Kolkata’s LGBT meet almost worked like a prelude to the Supreme Court ruling. He found Dr Manabi Bandopadhyay, India’s first transgender college principal and vice-chairperson of West Bengal Transgender development board, to be the “obvious choice” for an anchor. Bandopadhyay underwent a series of sex-change operations in 2003 and 2004 and identifies as a woman, changing her first name from Somnath to Manabi, which means beautiful woman.
For 25 years, Bandopadhyay has also produced a Transgender Magazine in Bengali called Ob-Manab (sub-human), so she says she was “familiar with the literary works of the LGBTQ community”.
The event featured the voices of poets like Rani Majumder and Prosphutita Sugandha, who read out original works on themes of sexual identity, repressed desire and rejection.
Sarkar wasn’t prepared for the response. “The Sahitya Akademi auditorium can seat 150,” he recalls. “We didn’t arrange for a bigger venue because we didn’t think many people would attend.” The venue was packed out with other LGBT authors. One group of Kolkata transgenders even gatecrashed - insisting on performing songs they had created themselves.
“They mistakenly thought that if you turned up with any writing, the government would pay you,” explains Bandopadhyay. “We had to explain that the only money involved was an honorarium offered to participating poets and writers. But they came hoping to get their voices heard, so we let them perform. I don’t think they’d ever been before such a large audience.”
Right on track
In 2015, the Akademi broke free of its Ferozeshah Road offices in Delhi to open its first bookstores at the Kashmere Gate and Vishwavidyalaya Metro stations. The stores, called Metro Reading Rooms, are a treasure trove of books in Bengali, Dogri, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Maithili, Odia, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Urdu and more. The institution plans to open bookstores at three more stations — Rajiv Chowk, Noida and Gurugram.
“Sahitya Akademi bookshops at New Delhi Metro stations are part of long-term strategy of targeting readers in major cities,” says Akademi secretary K Sreenivasa Rao. “We want to promote better reading habits among commuters especially adolescents. “We are also keen on creating small libraries along with the bookstores and have requested the Metro authorities for approval.”
Away from the Metro and metros, is the village outreach programme Gramalok, which has been identifying the literary talent in rural spaces for the last year. The aim is to encourage rural litterateurs who often do not get the exposure their urban counterparts do. Gramalok has been to 150 villages so far, making a pool of undiscovered talents.
One of their discoveries is 14-year-old Sri Anthakarana from Shivamogga in Karnataka. Anthakarana has been writing since he was nine and has published 25 books — novels, poetry, short stories. “He attended the Gramalok programme with his latest Kannada novel, Gwalimar Rahasya, a thriller,” says Sri Sarjashankar Hiremath, Anthakarana’s father. “He conducted a workshop with a group of students, teaching them how to write and inspiring them to be expressive with a pen.”
Change is constant
Much of the Akademi’s changes are aimed at making the institution relevant to a younger demographic and reflect India’s evolving literary focus, says Rao. “Organisations that produce literature of any kind, be it prose or poetry or economic or religious or scientific literature, have to evolve with their readers,” he says.
For a 64-year-old institution with a focus on the hundreds of languages in India, this is no easy task. “The most difficult part of tribal and oral literature is collection and documentation,” he says. “The challenge is to link such literature with nearest mainstream language. Only then can we think of video and audio clips, and podcasts.”
Since 2017, they have published English and Hindi translations of many tribal songs, epic poems and folktales on CD. “It’s never too late,” says Anil Dharker, writer and director of the Mumbai International Literary Festival. “All this time, Sahitya Akademi has been seen as a kind of a musty quasi-government organisation, moving at a slow pace.” He cites the example of their 2013 Sahitya Akademi Young Writer Award for the English Language. The Akademi awarded Janice Pariat, then 31 years old, for her debut collection of short stories Boats on Land. Pariat is the first writer from Meghalaya to receive an award from the Akademi for a work in English. “Generally you have to be old and venerable to win an award. Now they are actively looking for young people with promising talent, going to unexplored areas,” he says. “It’s a welcome departure from playing safe.”