Chennai's Kannadasan Pathippagam goes beyond books and business

It was a stimulating experience to hunt, unearth, and collect the artiste's unpublished works from his 40-year-long career, reveal Kannadasan's son and grandson, the owners of Kannadasan Pathippagam.

Published: 14th March 2022 02:12 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th March 2022 04:02 PM   |  A+A-

Murali Kannadasan (Photo | Debadatta Mallick, EPS)

Murali Kannadasan (Photo | Debadatta Mallick, EPS)

Express News Service

It is impossible to miss the large portrait of Kaviarasu Kannadasan with his wide, beatific smile, hung outside Kannadasan Pathippagam on Kannadasan Road. The building that accommodates the bookstore and the printing press of their publishing house is also the late artiste's only residence, one that functions as a living museum. Together, they stand testament to the legacy of the poet, lyricist, and writer. 

Enter the bookstore and one discovers a wellspring of Kannadasan's contributions to Tamil literature - poetry volumes, novels, novellas, a compilation of speeches, film song lyrics, and more. It was a stimulating experience to hunt, unearth, and collect the artiste's unpublished works from his four-decade-long career, reveal Kannadasan's son and grandson, the owners of Kannadasan Pathippagam.

"Aiyya would be sitting at his desk and a composer would enter in a hurry, requesting for a lyric, and he would write and dictate lines instantly and they would be used in a film song," they share.

It was when Gandhi, one of Kannadasan's 14 children, started learning more about his father did the idea of an in-house publishing house begin to brew. "I knew of Kannadasan as my father. When I was in college, studying law, I began to discover more of the man, the public intellectual, the apple of the masses’ eyes," says Gandhi.

(Photo | Debadatta Mallick, EPS)

It was then that Kannadasan, during his DMK stint, had helmed Thendral, a weekly magazine espousing Dravidian ideals.

Visiting the printing press further kindled Gandhi's mind, leading him to learn the tricks of the trade, and he set up Kannadasan Pathippagam (originally named Geeta Samajam) in 1977. Initially, Kannadasan’s works, particularly the first few volumes of the 11-volume bestseller Arthamulla Indhu Matham (his simplistic explanations of Hinduism) was printed by Vanathi Pathippakam.

Later, Kannadasan Pathippagam acquired full printing rights; establishing themselves as the sole publisher of Kannadasan’s entire body of work. Gandhi believes that they forayed into the field at the right time, crediting his knowledge of the changing market demands.

There was a surge of interest in self-development books among Tamil people in the 1980s, and so, he acquired translation rights of English titles and tasted success, shares Gandhi. Then, they brought out Tamil translations of mystic Rajneesh Osho's books, which were snapped up.

Continuing to crest on this wave of profitability, the publishing house introduced Tamil computer science books and manuals towards the end of the 20th century, to coincide with the mushrooming of CSC computer education centres. Thus, from being a household name, Kannadasan Pathippagam became an industry leader.

Passing the baton

When Gandhi's son Murali, who was born a year after Kannadasan's death in 1981, returned from Australia as an MBA grad, he needed to not only understand all the processes but also reinvent them to suit a 21st-century reader. He reveals that voluminous literary titles didn't hold his interest, spurring thought on how young, busy people could appreciate classics. That’s when he moved to audio-visual media.

"I found speeches made by my grandfather and uploaded them on YouTube to play along with rare visuals unearthed from private collections, and made them episodic to cater to ever-shrinking attention spans and multiple technological devices and formats. I also found an uncle, who has the closest resembling voice to my grandfather's, to record episodes from his works, and they are available on our Kannadasan Tattuvam app. We have received tremendous response on both mediums," he details. 

Like with any generational business, convincing the forebears to evolve with the times took years, says Murali. From buying ISBN codes in dollars, to changing the labour-intensive nature of the printing process, to certifying that their e-book content did not get pirated, Murali spearheaded several risky moves to herald the publishing house into a new era.

"I have one principle - everything from the making and selling to the consumption of content should be accessible. Simplification of the process is equal to efficiency in trade. We listen to those at the grassroots - what they want and need - and we bring in services that fulfil those," he elaborates.

Revisiting Tamil

In 2020, when the world was tilted on its axis by the pandemic, the family remained resilient and focussed on the exclusivity of their content and their comparative pricing models.  

"Today, our typical bookstore visitor is someone in their 30s and 40s, craving to regain their lost reading habit and improve knowledge of their native language. They would have had English schooling and moved to different places, learning several languages for work," he reveals, throwing light on the reasons behind the limited use and consumption of our vernacular languages and literature.

Just being on Amazon and the Kindle bookstore is not enough to promote visibility and awareness of a publisher’s various titles in the sea of competition, voices Murali. Kannadasan Pathippagam is one of the convenors of the recently launched Virtual Book Fair, a B2C (Business-to-Consumer) marketplace for authors, publishers, and readers to connect directly.

They are also dabbling with Tamil supplementary textbook guides for schools to provide both the student and the teacher a resourceful guide to the syllabus replete with engaging visuals, less text, and self-help charts.

Making legends accessible

Going beyond books, Murali wants Kannadasan Pathippagam to become the sole repository of all things Kannadasan. "Here, you can get glimpses from the life of the stalwart. His books, his memorabilia, including the chair he sat on… are all here. We, as a family, are privileged to possess this wealth of knowledge on the man. And we want to make him accessible to everyone, not just Tamils in the country but to the diaspora in other parts of the world," he says.

Murali's dreams stretch to digitised, ethereal permanence as well with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of Kannadasan’s signature.

Under the Kannadasan Pathippagam umbrella, there is now The Right Publishing, an imprint for modern Tamil auteurs where they are experimenting with a hybrid business model. Murali explains, "It's a 50-50 process where the writer invests in their work and we believe in our selling ability and brand value."

They desire to see the brand being associated with literature that isn’t confined to Kannadasan and his literary inheritance, thereby paving way for newer vistas. The publishing house hopes the separation between the labels will make budding authors approach them to publish original, contemporary writing. 


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