CHENNAI: It was the mid-1970s. Publishing was a niche business and apart from the British publishers like MacMillan and Orient Publishing House, Indian publishers were only a handful. The Indian publishers got together for one of their monthly sojourns, an imposed activity as the members felt they were not meeting enough. A seed was sown during one such meeting about the possibility of conducting a book fair and a consensus led to the first Chennai Book Fair at Mughal-e-Azam School on Anna Salai (then Mount Road) in 1976. Only one of the members, who was part of the organising committee of the first book fair, is alive today.
Young kid on the block
K Srinivasa Murthy (63) works out of his palatial house in T Nagar. Except for the Apple Macbook on which he works, everything else in his house is old school. “I was just 23 — the youngest among them all. We had a meeting at the BI Publications office on Mount Road, where it was proposed that we (publishers) do something to encourage reading. My father, late publisher K Krishnamurthy, was one of the signatories of the association when it was known as the Federation of Publishers and Book Sellers Association in India,” he says.
K V Mathew, credited to be the father of the book fair movement, was then general manager of B I Publications. “The government liked our idea of fostering the reading habit and agreed to give us a hall for free and in the first fair we had a little over 20 stalls,” recalls Srinivasa.
Until the first book fair was organised, the association, a small yet scattered group, had not come together for anything. “The association itself was a brainchild of a Ceylon-based publisher Peter Jaysinghe who formed the association in 1954. A decade earlier, Jaysinghe founded the Asia Publishing House — also known as the first Indian publishing house to induce professionalism into the publishing business,” he adds. “The association, however, became dormant over years and met only when the publishers had issues to sort out.”
More readers, more business
It was the year before the first book fair that the members decided to meet every month and during one such meeting, evolved the idea of book fair. “Of course, it also came out of enlightened self-interest. If more people bought books, it was good for business.”
In 1976, when the book fair was held, the Tamil publishers were riding piggyback on the English publishers. “Only Vanathi and Arunodhaya had set up stalls in the initial years. To encourage Tamil publishers, the stalls were rented out in concessional rates,” he informs. Cut to 2016, the tables have turned drastically. “There are 400 stalls for Tamil publishers and hardly a 100 for English,” says Gandhi Kannadasan, president, BAPASI (Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India). Son of renowned poet and lyricist Kannadasan, Gandhi had worked with BAPASI for over 30 years.
At his office, he is busy interacting with the organisers of the Neyveli Book Fair. As president, he had to ensure that the fair is conducted for the interests of those in the trade. With the fair being postponed from Pongal holidays due to the December floods and a shift in venue this year, he faced a lot of challenges. “We have set up 100 stalls less than in the previous year,” rues Gandhi. “It’s a pain to get government area to conduct a book fair. Till date, we don’t have a permanent place.”
For a long time, BAPASI organised its book fair on the premises of the Quaid-e-Milleth College for women before they eventually moved out for lack of space. “Our schedule had to coincide with that of the winter holidays of the college and the number of sanctions required from government departments were tiring.” he says.
However, records show the patronage from the government and the media played a huge in the success of the book fair. At least 10 media houses have set up stalls, with a few even covering the events live. The Straits Times of Singapore had a fairly big coverage of the Chennai Book Fair, with books of the writers from the island nation featuring at the fair.
TV — A boon for book fair
The surge in popularity, according to Srinivasa, is due to television. “In 2000, we began advertising in TV. One of the channels gave us a slot free of cost, and another gave it at a concessional rate. That year, we couldn’t handle the crowds,” he smiles.
A well-wisher sent a two-page note to the organisers on what they lack on safety and those issues were also addressed over the years. Today, ambulances and fire engines are on standby at the event venue. “The people are good to us. Imagine a family filling fuel in their vehicles, buying entry tickets and spending on books. That’s a happy family to me,” chuckles Gandhi. He is sceptical of the knowledge spread through Facebook and Whatsapp and believes the books are here to stay, despite the surge of online sellers and reading itself going digital. “Vaasippu ninnupochu na ulagam ninnudum (The world will stop if people cease to read),” he says.
BAPASI has plans to bring a ‘Read’ movement to encourage the habit of reading among children. It also gives authors a platform to interact with their readers. “A fan came to me, held my hand for about a minute and left. He never spoke to me, didn’t tell me his name. Just held my hand,” says Manushya Puthiran, author-publisher. “The fan later told me that he wanted to feel his favourite author’s energy. Instances like these are satisfying.”
Not a hit this year
But he feels the present book fair is a flop-show. Most of the publishers earn 40% of their revenue from sales during the fair and this year, it was not possible. The reason, publishers say, is the fair coinciding with the school season and families sceptical about investing in books. There are crests and troughs. There are unhappy people in the way things are run.
However, BAPASI has ensured the book fair has become a cultural movement. A movement that has encouraged more publishers and more authors — all thanks to the avid readers of Chennai.
A METEORIC RISE
For a long time, BAPASI held its book fair on the premises of Quaid-e-Milleth College for women before they moved for want of more space
Patronage from the government and the media has played a huge role in the success of the book fair over the past few decades
The surge in popularity began with BAPASI began advertising in TV channels from 2000. One of the channels even gave them a free slot
BAPASAI plans to bring a ‘Read’ movement to inculcate reading among school kids