Interview with Indira Chandrasekhar by Critical Collective
CC: You set up Tulika in 1995, after an early career in academia and publishing. What made you choose art as a niche category, especially given the domination of houses like Marg and Roli in determining the bar on critical thinking on art?
IC: Tulika Books as a publishing house was set up only in 1995 but my association with publishing in the arts goes back to several years before that. I was associated with the Journal of Arts & Ideas (JAI) as a part of its editorial collective from its inception in 1982 till 1999, the date of its last issue (except for around three years in-between}. So my interest in arts publishing as well as my base of authors who are also friends/colleagues date back to those early years of the Journal. Also, while Tulika started its publishing wing, bringing out books on a regular basis, only in the mid-90s, we had set ourselves up as a desktop publishing unit offering editorial and print production services on a turnkey basis (under the name Tulika Print Communication Services) in 1988, coinciding with the entry of the Apple Macintosh into the Indian market. It was therefore but natural that once it was set up, the Tulika office functioned as the subscription and circulation office for the Journal – this, in addition to my involvement in the editorial and production processes of JAI.
Our first art book, Contemporary Art in Baroda, edited by Gulammohammed Sheikh, was published in 1997 – a volume outlining the lineages of what is informally referred to as the 'Baroda School', and tracing the evolution of Baroda as an important centre of art and art education from the nineteenth century up to the last decade of the twentieth century. That book was a major breakthrough for Tulika and I consider it a privilege that we were able to publish it. Most of the contributors to that volume, as also the editor, were associated with the Journal of Arts & Ideas in one way or the other. You've referred to Marg and Roli in your question. I will refrain from talking about Marg because they started out much earlier and had a different trajectory, and limit my observations here to Roli, but that too only as a point of comparison. I personally think Roli's list of illustrated/art books is quite different from Tulika's list – ours being a much smaller list of course in terms of both focus and content. We publish books on the visual arts, cinema, theatre, music, dance, etc., critical writings on all these arts, books on individual artists, collected essays on specific themes or by major art critics. There is an interdisciplinarity and criticality in our approach towards arts publishing that has its antecedents in the Journal of Arts & Ideas. And an impetus to push the bar, if you like, in terms of exploring new thematic areas, formats and design options.
CC: Many trace the worlding of Indian art to the mid-1990s, when a generation of artists challenged institutional hegemony and debunked the gallery circuit. They heralded interdisciplinary practices that dislodged notions of hierarchy and 'value' in art. As a publisher how did you react to this critical time?
IC: I must put forth a disclaimer here, that while publishing in the arts is close to my heart and while I'm aware that Tulika's art books constitute an increasingly recognized though small list in the field of art publishing, the mainstay or staple of our publishing programme continues to be books in the social sciences and humanities-in disciplinary fields like history, economics, political science, sociology, etc. This is linked, on the one hand, to my initial training in publishing as an editor in the academic books division of Macmillan India, and on the other hand, to my interest in academia via my own brief foray into university teaching as well as the fact that many of my friends/comrades (turned authors) are intellectuals and academics in their own right. Alongside Journal of Arts & Ideas, Tulika was, and continues to be, the editorial and subscription office of a much older (now in its forty-eighth year), reputed journal in the social sciences called Social Scientist, with which too I have been associated for many years. So, importantly, both these journals have lent direction, acted as an impetus and shown the way to collaborative projects in the line of publishing that we are identified with.
Art books, then, are not Tulika's sole focus. But the art books we have published, almost always as collaborative projects, are books we are immensely proud of. There are a range of books on individual artists, specially designed and varying in structure and organization. The archival two-volume cased set on Amrita Sher-Gil's art and life, letters and writings (edited and introduced by Vivan Sundaram, and designed by Sonal Jha), cross-referenced and mediated through events in her lifetime and running to almost a thousand pages. Books on individual art projects of Vivan Sundaram: Re-Take of Amrita, reproducing digitally montaged/manipulated photographs, with annotations; History Project (with essays by Geeta Kapur, Saloni Mathur, Arindam Datta, Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, and designed by Suhani Arora Sen), on the huge site-specific installation on modern Bengal staged in Victoria Memorial, Calcutta; the recent book on his photography-based works, titled Vivan Sundaram is not a Photographer (authored by Ruth Rosengarten and designed by Anusha Yadav). Among retrospective volumes of individual artists: Trace Retrace: Paintings, Nilima Sheikh, (edited by Kumkum Sangari, with essays by Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Kaushik Bhaumik, copublished with Gallery Espace and Chemould Prescott Road); Arc Silt Dive: The Works of Sheba Chhachhi (edited by Kumkum Sangari, with essays by her, Gayatri Sinha and Nancy Adajania, copublished with Volte Gallery); and most recently, At Home and the World: The Art and life of Gulammohammed Sheikh (edited by Chaitanya Sambrani, with essays by him, Coilin Parsons, Karin Zitzewitz, Marcia Kupfer, copublished with Vadehra Art Gallery) – all designed by Sherna Dastur. These are books that include essays by writers often coming from different disciplinary contexts, serious expositions and theoretical texts discussing and interacting with various aspects of the artists' practice, besides reproductions of images of artworks, so that they do not remain solely at the level of visual documentation.
CC: To what extent do you conceive of publications as an alternative site of art discourse that might even be independent of gallery shows or the normal networks of exhibition? The volume Project Cinema City, for example, bringing together a host of essays and archival materials, and meticulously designed, could be considered one part of a three-pronged programme comprising of exhibitionary, research and discursive components. In that sense, it does not necessarily follow the temporal logic of an exhibition catalogue, which often acts as no more than a notice of the physical exhibition.
IC: This is precisely what we were trying to do, with clear intent if not a clear mandate to ourselves. We do not wish to bring out art books that replicate or resemble catalogues. The predominant form of art publications in India generally, with a few important exceptions, was the exhibition catalogue, which has a much shorter shelf-life than books, simply because they are directly linked to the exhibition they set out to document. At Tulika, we were very clear right from the beginning that our books should have a serious research and discursive component apart from and besides recording the exhibitionary moment. Our books, even when they are developed around or deal with the specific exhibitionary practices of individual artists, have features, I believe, that extend them temporally to a longer life-span. The exhibition is not the only peg on which the book hangs-and I remember an instance of the making of such a book,which I did with the help of an advisory group of friends and colleagues, that brought this home to me very clearly; published on the occasion of a multi-arts exhibition held in the early 2000s in the House of World Cultures, Berlin, titled body.city: siting contemporary culture in India. The curators of the exhibition, dealing with four art practices were Geeta Kapur, Jyotindra Jain, Ravi Vasudevan and Anuradha Kapur. The devising of that volume (copublished with the House of World Cultures), in consultation and discussion with Geeta [Kapur], was for me, personally speaking, an educative process. The book opened with curatorial essays by the four curators, and ended with a section cataloguing the visuals of the four-part exhibition on the visual arts, popular culture, cinema and theatre. The middle section of the book was devoted to previously published, seminal texts by authors from the social sciences and humanities, based on the themes of the exhibition, becoming a kind of discursive arena as it were, from where to view the curatorial intent of the exhibition. It was a way to try and overcome the temporal boundedness or logic of an exhibition catalogue. Similarly with 'Project Cinema City: Bombay/Mumbai', the books we published-one a smaller, somewhat quirkily designed (by artist Shilpa Gupta) volume (titled dates:sites) developed to a timeline of the cinema and the city of Bombay/Mumbai, and the other a lavishly conceived and produced large-format volume (titled Project Cinema City, designed by Sherna Dastur) – were at once one component of and the culmination of a huge multi-arts project initiated by Madhusree Dutta and her team at Majlis, Mumbai. In the case of Vivan Sundaram: History Project, published almost twenty years after the artist's architectural-scale installation was staged in Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, in 1998. the layout of the book evokes the exhibition through a recall of its itinerary with annotated images, through essays by cultural theorists and art historians, through cross-referenced shots from the video (Structures of Memory) that accompanied the exhibition, and a last section reproducing pages from the artist's notebook relating to the realization of the project. So these books are all examples, we hope, of ways in which physical exhibitory events are lifted from the temporal limitations and logic of a catalogue.
CC: Even when we think about exhibition practices it shouldn't just focus on its intended self. I think this ties very well with the interdisciplinary approach that Tulika has had from the beginning so that's come in even when you have publications that have focused on exhibitions and installations.
IC: I think that's also because arts practice itself has increasingly moved towards interdisciplinary, multi-formats and collaborative forms: installation art, video and multimedia art, performance art, etc., which are relatively new trends within modern Indian art practice. We are no longer looking at singular forms within art practice-so I think the two complement each other quite well in that sense.
CC: As an avowedly left-leaning house how have you contended with the influential presence of market forces, which would at one level have enabled the book publishing trade to flourish?
IC: Yes, we are left-leaning, but we are also a for-profit, independent publishing house. And there's no contradiction between the two: the content of our publishing is guided by a broad left perspective but we rely on revenues earned from sale of our books in the market, probably to a left-leaning readership in turn, Ia continue our publishing activity. We also rely on the market for promotion, dissemination and distribution of our books. The publishing industry in India has always been predominantly a private sector enterprise except in the arena of textbook publishing which is publicly funded by the government. The difference in the publishing world of India today is that in earlier years, when I entered publishing, the market forces at play were internal ones. The competition was between players within India-in academic (social science) publishing, for instances, there were the big three: OUP [Oxford University Press], Macmillan, Orient Longman, Asia Publishing House before that, then houses like Manohar and Vikas came up, and so on. The difference over the last ten to fifteen years is that international players, some of them large conglomerates, have entered the Indian market, and now it's a different kind of challenge altogether. Alongside this, there has been a positive trend: the rise of small and independent publishers whose primary motivation is not to publish for the market, not to publish merely what 'sells'. We all have different ways of defining what we do: publishing for social change, taking a stand in favour of the oppressed and the exploited, making heard voices from the margins, publishing on issues such as gender and caste which do not get the importance they deserve, and so on. I believe that it is the small and independent radical houses that keep the flag flying, that take the risks and create readerships rather than succumbing to the dumbed-down and standardizing guidelines of the market. If we were all obedient followers of the dictates of the market, which pronounce that such-and-such is what our people read, we would all be publishing substandard tomes in, for instance, the 'self-help' genre-easy enough to mass-produce with no challenge either in terms of content or production quality, and with good returns to boot.
Tulika Books publishes from a broad left perspective, and I do believe that there is a demand for our kind of publishing and for the kind of content we publish both in our country and abroad. We are able to reach the readership we publish for through market-determined modes of distribution, but that does not interfere with the content or form of what and how we wish Ia publish. Our main modes of dissemination and distribution adhere to market-dictated norms-of wholesalers and retailers, exhibition sales and book fair displays, etc.-even as we try to carve out our own differentiated spaces by forming collectives and dedicated distribution channels with other like-minded independent publishers. We do not pretend that we can function and survive outside of the market, even as we continue to try and create alternative channels. We do have a space within the market and we claim that space for ourselves.
CC: You have mentioned in a 2013 interview that the limited growth of the e-book market in India was due to the limited digital penetration in the country. Even today, e-books still constitute only 2-3% of total book sales according to one report (Scroll.in, 2020). Will the new contingency created by the pandemic force a change in this structure?
IC: The pandemic has indeed created a new contingency which many of us are hoping is a temporary phenomenon, but we really don't know – it's too early to say. In response, many of us are looking to online sales and e-books. For instance, Tulika Books, as part of our celebration of 25 years in publishing, has set up an all-new website, and we are also promoting our books on social media and other e-commerce channels. However, the fact remains that digital penetration in our country is just not good enough, and the digital divide is far too sharp. The fact is that even in a premier institution like Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital city of Delhi, not every student can afford a personal computer/laptop/smartphone/e-reader. Accessing online classes or webinars, or online journals and other reading material is also difficult for many. This is a basic limiting factor due to which I don't think e-books or digital books will ever constitute a large proportion of total book dissemination and sales. Online book sales have to coexist with offline sales of physical books. Right now, because of the lockdown due to the pandemic and the major disruption in the physical bookselling chain, online sales and e-books will probably get a boost-which is necessary and welcome. Hopefully it will lead to longer-term viability for e-books but we have to wait and see, for in a fundamental sense, the book trade in India is a very conservative one that is slow to change. The low volume of online book sales in India is also linked to the fact that warehousing and manual labour come cheap here-whereas in the developed countries, e-books have taken predominance because warehousing is expensive and they cannot afford Ia stock physical books. All-told, I don't think existing structures in India are going to change in a big way except perhaps among the top 5 to 10% of our readers who can afford e-reading devices. We may have a temporary rise in e-books and online sales for contingent reasons, but I don't see physical books being displaced or overtaken for a long time to come.
CC: Apart from this, what do you anticipate will be the domino effect of a shrinking of the global art market, already beleaguered since the 2008 recession, on the sphere of arts publishing? Already one of the casualties of the previous crisis was a decrease in volumes and monographs on art, adversely affecting upcoming artists. As we look forward to a future where physical shows will be curtailed, how could publishing emerge as a different site of art production? Embrace Our Rivers: Public Art and Ecology in India brought out by Speaking Tiger for example, became the receptacle of an art project that could not be realized in the gallery.
IC: This is a very interesting and exciting question. One of the main constraints of publishing art books is the cost of production. If, say, I have a budget for ten books a year as an independent publisher, and if I had to bring out an art book without any subsidy, the budget that will have to be allocated for it would be at least five to six times that is expended on a book in any other category. Exciting and interesting as our art book projects are, we are also dependent on financial support coming from galleries and arts institutions as collaborators and copublishers. The other problem we face is after an art book is published is that we do not have specialized book stores in our country, and the book we have published with such care and commitment inevitably has to jostle for space, even in premier bookshops, with coffee table books ranging from books on how to look after your pets to gardening. Distribution is, therefore, a huge challenge, and perhaps one way to overcome it is for art galleries Ia dedicate a small space within their premises for display and sale of art books.
If every gallery in the country, small and big, came together to try and set up such a collective chain of art book counters/ space – not just for books on the artists they represent or show but all art books across the board – it just might help move those books languishing on the shelves of publishers' warehouses into the hands of art lovers and art book readers. Such a venture would further encourage collaborations between art book publishers and art galleries, with the artist or art project at the centre, and lending value to the activities of both. Build on the model of, say, Vadehra Art Gallery, which has an art bookshop that has unfortunately shrunk in space-but build on that idea and link up with galleries and publishers across a wide spectrum.
Another exciting collaboration that has recently opened up for us is in association with the Sher-Gil Sundaram Art Foundation (SSAF). The plan is to publish a range of books on artists, the arts and cultural studies, including art-historical, critical and theoretical writing, under the publications programme of SSAF-Tulika Books. We have brought out one book so far under this joint imprint, which is a collection of the writings of art critic K.B. Goel, introduced by Shruti Parthasarathy with a foreword by Geeta Kapur. Immediately forthcoming publications include a book on the Kasauli Art Centre authored by Belinder Dhanoa, which contexlualizes and examines the activities and events of the Centre for almost two decades from 1976 within the broader framework of the cultural scene in India; and a collection of writings by the artist Vasudha Thozhur, the first in a series of publications called 'Documents of Art', which will include writings by and on artists, resource books/manuals for practitioners in the various arts, conversations across forms and disciplines of art.
But beyond these examples of publishing as a site for collaborative practice and production, what about new forms of book making? What about thinking of books other than as a space that reflects a practice of art, as a site for art production itself? I think that's a very exciting prospect- and though I must confess I haven't given it enough thought, it's something that we could do. I would imagine that the SSAF–Tulika collaboration could extend to initiating or supporting such projects.
CC: This is similar to how certain artists have also used the form of the book as art work itself through the form of artists books, so converting that and making it available as also a book itself I think crosses both these aspects, which is very interesting.
IC: In fact, there are several examples of artists who take to or adapt the form of the book in their art-making – Gulammohammed Sheikh's accordion books, for example (which are reproduced in the retrospective book we have published), as well as younger contemporary artists. Then there is the instance of a book that is being published by SSAF-Tulika Books next month (October 2020) – Portal: The Curious Account of Achintya Bose, by the artist-photographer Shan Bhattacharya, a project for which he was granted the first Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Grant for Photography (2016), instituted by SSAF. In the words of the artist, 'My ongoing project, Portal, constructs dated photographs held together by a fictional narrative in the form of a diary.' And this singular art object will now be converted into multiple copies of a printed book, transforming its status from that of an artwork to a mass-produced object. All this points towards interesting possibilities and opportunities that are both exciting and challenging. I think it's a two-way process: publishers can learn as much from art production as artists can learn from book-making, so that it becomes another kind of collaboration.