Urvashi Butalia: The feminist who redrew India's publishing map

Ati Metwaly from Jaipur, India, Wednesday 22 Jan 2014

At India's Jaipur Literature Festival, Ahram Online speaks to Urvashi Butalia ahead of her Egypt visit in April of the voices she chose to see emerge with her Kali for Women publishing house

Urvashi Butalia
Urvashi Butalia (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

This year's Jaipur Literature Festival, held between 17 and 21 January, hosted Indian feminist, publisher and historian Urvashi Butalia. To wide audiences she is recognised as a co-founder of India's first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women and author of works tackling India's history, culture and politics. Her award-winning book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, is considered one of the most important and influential studies to emerge from South Asia that look into the on-the-ground realities enveloped within many painful events of the 1947 partition of India.

With her large resume in feminist activism and publishing, Butalia became one of the seven advisors to this year's Jaipur Literature Festival. Though obviously preoccupied with many tasks, when she describes her responsibilities to Ahram Online, Butalia's sense of humour gently surfaces: "I play a very nice role in this festival as I do not have to do the actual work. The festival's organisers are those who work hard, advisors are those who enjoy the festival. With other advisors, we only discuss ideas. And since we are involved from the start, we feel that we belong to the event and to this place."

During the Jaipur Literature Festival, Butalia also participated in a number of discussions, including a session titled "Words without Borders", during which she hosted Mauritian author Avanda Devi who spoke about her decades-long literary career. In another session, Butalia presented Indian diplomat, author and translator Navtej Sarna, whose most recent work, Savage Harvest, is a translation of Punjabi partition short stories. The topic of partition again resurfaced in a final session of the festival, discussed by Butalia and a selection of Indian authors.

Following her busy schedule, Butalia, when not on the stage, was always to be found among the Jaipur Literary Festival crowd. At times she appeared at the authors' lounge, while at others she could be spotted with reporters who frantically tried to snatch a few words from this renowned Indian figure.

Urvashi Butalia
Urvashi Butalia (left) in discussion with Avanda Devi during a session titled "Words without Borders" 17 January 2014 (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Outspoken feminist and activist, Butalia's career goes back to 1984 when, together with Ritu Menon, she set up Kali for Women. In 2003, Butalia established its imprint: Zuuban Books.

Although Kali, as Indian goddess, encapsulates the concepts of violence and death, the negative undertones – as in many aspects of Hinduism – are equally infused with positive notions. While emerging from the idea of empowerment, Kali's annihilation model is triggered by a fight for a better world. "Kali destroys ignorance to create the world of knowledge based on inclusive principles," Butalia explains.

"We established Kali for Women simply because there was no other publishing house giving voices to women," Butalia simply and straightforwardly explains to Ahram Online. "Publishers did not see that women had many interesting [things] to say. I was quite involved in the women's movement in India, and since there was a lot of literature coming from that movement, we thought it not only fair but also necessary to have it published," she continues.

While Kali for Women worked hard to gain visibility and recognition in India's large publishing market, women started coming forward with their writings, finding support and a platform which boosted their confidence. The very emergence of a publisher who embraces women unveiled a number of previously unexplored areas of knowledge and experiences. In this sense, Kali for Women became an important breakthrough in thematic content in Indian literature, a podium for women writers and an amazing discovery for readers, historians and researchers.

Further conversation with Butalia reveals that though she concentrates on publishing books by and about women, focusing on Indian writers, she also welcomes authors from around the globe. "We published two Egyptian writers in translation: Nawal El-Saadawi and Salwa Bakr. We are also interested in works by Miral El-Tahawy," Butalia explains to Ahram Online.

Butalia additionally points to a significant interest in Egyptian literature among India readers, finding it to be a rather natural phenomenon. "This interest in Egypt from the Indian community is related to the long relations that India has had with Egypt for many decades now. Also, the many cultural similarities between two countries draw people to one another."

With the rapid growth of electronics, India – like the rest of the world – is faced with the new challenge of winning readers over the games, social networks and diverse online activities stealing the spotlight. Butalia does not see the Internet as a threat, but rather an opportunity for necessary transformations that the publishers need to adopt, such as incorporations of online publishing into standing practices.

Jaipur Literature Festival
Bookshop at Jaipur Literature Festival, India (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

"Before discussing the influence or threat of the electronic age on the print publishers we need to realise that though there is a small percentage of Indians using the Internet, with such a populous country this small fraction already represents quite a large number of people. No doubt, the form of publishing is changing and print is being paralleled by electronic products. It is a mixed situation; yet once the concept of Internet spreads wider in India, we'll face a really huge potential for growth."

Butalia sees that it is still difficult, especially in a country like India, to formulate concrete conclusions regarding the print versus online publishing market. "India is one of the rare countries in the world where the whole book market is not yet saturated; it still has a lot of potential," she comments to Ahram Online. "Remember that we publish in 22 languages; our market is very fragmented. This is a good thing, but it also means that in any one language you can only publish a limited number of books corresponding to the market of that language."

Questions of the new form of publishing in the changing world were among the most important topics tackled in the Jaipur Bookmark, a platform launched for professional publishers between 18 and 21 January. According to the festival's website, this new initiative, running in parallel with the core literary festival, focused on "new developments, trends and formats in publishing and their impact on the industry, as well as creativity and the generation of content."

Over her long career, which saw her cooperate with numerous international publishers, Butalia came in touch with one of Egypt's publishers. In 1995, she conducted a writing workshop in Cairo with a number of Egyptian women. She will share more of her experience with Egyptian audiences in April 2014, when she is expected to visit Egypt during the second edition of India by the Nile, a festival of performing and visual arts.

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