Anindya Bhattacharya is an avid reader and essayist. His main focus is on political economy but he has also dwelt on media, alternate political commentary and other emerging socio-economic trends. He is deeply involved with the Little Magazine Movement in West Bengal
In Encyclopaedia Britannica, little magazines have been defined as ‘any of various small periodicals devoted to serious literary writings, usually avant-garde and noncommercial.’ What is its objective then? Britannica further clarifies, ‘A little magazine usually begins with the object of publishing literary work of some artistic merit that is unacceptable to commercial magazines for any one or all of three reasons—the writer is unknown and therefore not a good risk; the work itself is unconventional or experimental in form; or it violates one of several popular notions of moral, social, or aesthetic behaviour.’ In fact, after the boom of the print industry and its accessibility to the common people, along with surfacing of ‘Right to Expression’ in Europe, countries like UK, Germany and France witnessed a phenomenon called ‘little magazine’ flourishing widely since late 19th century. The prevailing morals of the society were then crumbling down, political upheavals were changing the DNA of the political spectrum and new ideas were capturing the imagination of the people. Precisely, that was the breeding ground of little magazine movement. But that’s only an ephemeral and partial depiction of the entire movement in the present day context.
Though this had its impact in India too, Bengal being at the centre-stage of British aggression by then had already produced a breed of ‘modern’ intellectuals during the 19th century who were capable of expressing their ideas through writings and speeches. Though most of them were British stooges, a few could indeed carve out an independent domain of seeing and bestowing ideas. One of them was Harinath Kangal from Kusthia in the then Bengal Province in the late 19th century, who founded and edited the Bengali weekly ‘Grambarta Prakashika’ which became a pioneer voice of the oppressed peasants during that epoch.
It was here the legendary Lalon Shah and his songs were introduced to the people. I would consider this weekly as one of the earliest and truest little magazines in Bengal. It was Kangal Harinath who set the trend of going beyond the prevailing norms. Nevertheless, during that time capital investment by businessmen in periodicals on a commercial basis was still not thought to be a worthy idea, so the printed magazines which came out were all artifacts of passionate individual zeal of keen literary acumen, of whom some were vocal against social injustice.
It was only during the 20th century that big investment crept into the domain of print media, and the individual passion and efforts were pushed into sidelines by elements of big marketing and campaigning strategy. By the mid-20th century, with the advent of radio and daily newspapers, the mainstream media in Bengal got a reasonable shape and mounted a robust commercial campaign dominating over the imagination of the commoners. The independent and solicitous mind felt the necessity of a demarcation as well as space. Thus, the significance of alternate publications gradually got an explicit prominence. The war-torn 40s, with famine, disaster and partition created strong voices across all the fields of media in Bengal and created an enlarged domain for the unheard and unsung. The emerging alternate media, a section of which was later termed as ‘Little Magazine’ (coined by Buddhadeb Basu, editor of a little magazine ‘Kobita’) eventually became an effective tool of expression against all odds and dominance.
The mid-sixties and the seventies changed the literary scenario in Bengal in a major way. The political upheaval and the upsurge of the peasants, students and youth under the far-reaching influence of Naxalbari movement heralded a break in contemporary thoughts and conventions. Rebel ideas with newer elements surged into the thought-spectrum of the then Bengal and ushered a new era of content and form in writing.
The little magazines took the lead and steered the change. To name a few – Frontier, Aneek, Manifesto, Anrinyo, Prostutiporbo, Onyo Ortho, Barricade, Ekkshon, Utso Manush, Bortika and a lot many. Although, except a few, the little magazines had their limitations and most of them were irregular and short-lived. Besides, the mainstream media and their periodicals with its money-power and a cluster of powerful writers too had its influence. It was an uneven battle between the little magazines and the big media, where the impact of the latter was far more. Many of the enthusiasts and writers of little magazines were also eager to fall in the gaze of the big media. Eventually, some of the writers found solace in the lap of the big houses. But there were exceptions as well.
But this dominating feature of the big media waned in the first decade of this century. Finally, the little magazines could become a major literary force, thwarting the attempts of the big media to keep it under the carpet. It was vividly felt during this period that the big media was falling behind the pace and vigour of the little magazines in all aspects. How it could be possible?
Foremostly, it was the upsurge of the peasants in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh, which brought to fore the question of basic perception in reading ‘development’ and ‘progress’. The varied interpretation of these two terms created a wide chasm between the big and the little magazines. The impact was felt more due to rise of power of social media. The little magazines could now acquire a wider platform through social media to interact with a vast section of the readers that were so long beyond their reach. A quick metamorphosis was about to happen and did occur.
The little magazines soon swept the audiences by their reach and arguments. It was seen when the big media tried to mobilise the masses in favour of so-called ‘development’ by TATA in Singur, the little magazines steadfastly stood by the peasants and exposed the hollowness of such myths. Moreover, that was the first time the little magazines came forward to form a platform of their own to air their views in a cohesive voice. On 18 December 2006, 18 little magazines assembled together in Kolkata to form the ‘Little Magazine Somonnoy Mancha’. Soon it became a force to reckon with. The subsequent gatherings of the little magazines after 18 December swelled like a wildfire and converted into a parallel little magazine fair in the then Presidency College (now Presidency University) ground in January 2008, by the Mancha throwing a challenge to the official little magazine fair by the West Bengal government in Rabindra Sadan-Nandan complex.
Nearly 150 little magazines participated in the alternate fair and created a history in the annals of little magazine movement. Later on in 2011, out of revenge and fear, the then government pushed out the fair from Presidency College ground. The organisers’ desperate effort, however, could find a place at College Square. And the fair continued up till now with more enthusiasm and vigour.
For long, the little magazines were confined to writers expressing their views in its pages. Now it became a practical movement on the streets as well, mobilising a vast section of the readers around its literary endeavour. In brief, it became an independent and unified exertion on an enormous scale on its own. This activism grew wide and became a point of mobilisation; the little magazines were on the streets for the first time and forever. The entire phase of Singur-Nandigram movement witnessed a series of battles waged by the little magazines on streets as well as in their pages. This new upsurge elevated the little magazine movement to a new height. To name a few such little magazines who took a pro-active role – Ekak Matra, Aneek, Banglar Mukh, Bhasabondhon, Bhumodhyosagar, Sohorot, Nirontor, Manthan, Kalodhwoni et al. Besides, the blogs and social media posts and comments too emerged as a strong tool of expression of the commoners along with the little magazines, which made the contents of the big media irrelevant. The readers, especially the younger ones, did waste no more time to pick up a commercial magazine from the newsstand, and instead preferred to go through the texts of social media and little magazines.
One of the major reasons for this choice was the relevance and rich substance of little magazines that actually met the hunger for knowledge, and their keeping away from biasness. We entered into an era of little magazine boom. Innumerable little magazines emerged, may be of short life and irregular, but the literary fabric of entire Bengal got tuned to it. Over the last five years, it was vividly observed that the mainline book fairs in the districts withering away to make space for little magazine fairs. During the last fair season from November 2017 to April 2018, Bengal witnessed more or less 20 little magazine fairs all over the state. That was a colossal phenomenon. The enormous footfalls in most of such fairs indicate that the future readership belongs to little magazines. There were no sponsors, no government support but were held mostly under the initiative of local youth by raising fund from the public. In a way, the little magazine movement garnered a massive social support which inspired them to construct newer texts with no fear and obligation.
The intertwining of little magazine movement with social media campaign evolved a new literary phase of social and political literature where the big media lost its entire relevance. In forming of opinion and consent, the little magazines came up with the lead on major occasions in the recent past which helped some of the social movements to reach its goal. To mention from recent past, the support by the little magazines to the Bhangar peasant movement and the Calcutta Medical College students’ movement added an impetus to the entire scenario. Both the blogs and printed forms played an effective role in disseminating information and carrying the alternative analyses to the broader masses. The aftermath being, the big media followed suit.
Now, coming at this textual juncture, the readers of this article would obviously wonder about the present day content of little magazines. Is it really worrisome for the ruling elite? Is it a guide to the thinking masses? To delve deeper, one needs to understand that the content of little magazines lies in the very nature of livelihood of the commoners. These are published by persons who mainly emerge from the middle and lower middle class acquainted with textual and literary practices, and are convenient in expressing themselves in different literary forms. The editors and associates, on the one hand, are caught up in the daily struggles of life and on the other, relate their crises to the broader socio-economic perspectives. This dual existence builds up the vast domain of little magazine activities, which in brief is an expression of the trauma, reality and dialectics of everyday existence. This is reflected in their poems, short stories, anecdotes and analytical essays. There are other experimental practices too. But the point to harp on, this upsurge of alternate ideas and thought is the core of the little magazine movement. Who will deny the character of ‘Herbert’ and the crew of ‘Fyatarus’ who are the so-called outsiders of this society but can surreptitiously incapacitate the supremacy of the dominant, as created by Nabarun Bhattacharya (an activist of little magazine movement) in his best-selling books? The little magazines, sometimes, are like Fyatarus, who can dethrone different forms of authority at varied levels by the power of words. The voices of the subaltern through little magazines become louder and critical, so that it is deemed to be heard. Over the last 10-15 years, in many instances, they were heard indeed. Evidently, the ruling authorities don’t find the little magazines very expedient for themselves. They keep an intense gaze on it and its activists. The Little Magazine Fair that was initiated in 1998 in Kolkata by the then Government of West Bengal was shifted this year to an obscure place, the participation and the footfalls decline. But the little magazines are never dependent on doles and relief. So in a major way, a large section of them were able to boycott the event and continued with their own fair in College Square ground where a surging crowd thronged the place with exact spirit. The little magazines are the mainstay of the subaltern. The days of ‘manufacturing consent’ are gone. The unheard now has a media to air its dissent. The time is difficult but the battle continues in a more meaningful fashion.