The big fight for little magazines: A close look at Little Magazine Library at 40

By Bulbul Rajagopal

Nestled in 18M Tamer Lane off Kolkata’s College Street, an inconspicuous bright yellow building sparks curiosity as one draws close to it. The small entrance to this family home opens up to reveal wall after wall of books, stacked high in hoards. This is the Little Magazine Library. Walking space here is limited due to the sheer number of tomes, but quantity alone is not what makes this library special. It is the nature of these books that marks out the Little Magazine Library as one of its kind. Seated in the midst of these mountains is its founder Sandip Dutta, quietly working and fighting a battle that is hidden, much like his library.

In 1972, Sandip Dutta visited the National Library in Kolkata to study their collection of little magazines. It was then that the spark of rage was lit within the then 21 year old.

The library when it first opened in 1978. Credit: Bulbul Rajagopal

“When I walked into National Library, I saw that the little magazines there were lying in a state of misuse: they were thrown on the floor carelessly, some of them were tied up with ropes and dumped in the corner. Dust and worms had wrecked most of them. I thought it was absolutely insulting. I realised the need to fight for them right then,” he said. His modus operandi was to counter the government-backed library with a library of his own, but one that flourished in independence. The idea for such a library occurred to him after organising a protest exhibition that very year which showcased about 750 little magazines from his own collection. By 1978, he was successful in setting it up, and on June 23 this year, his Little Magazine Library celebrated 40 years.

Mr. Dutta was not alone in this battle during the 1970s. India was affected by a slow-brewing storm called the Little Magazine Movement. But what are little magazines? They are periodicals and magazines that are independent, that is do not have state funding, and they also appear and are circulated irregularly.

The movement made its way across Maharashtra, Kerala and especially West Bengal, and changed the face of the literary world as it gave a voice to the marginalised and lesser-known writers and poets. The movement gained steam in Bengal due to the advent of postmodernist writing in Bengali literature. With the arrival of the Hungry Generation writers and periodicals such Krittibash (edited by Sunil Gangopadhyay and Dipak Majumdar), Sabuj Patra, Kali Kalam, Kobita Saptahiki (edited by Shakti Chattopadhyay) and Kallol, little magazines started becoming popular.

However, the place of these little magazines in literary history was jeopardised due to poor maintenance and preservation. This was the task Mr. Dutta took up as part of “a social responsibility”. One of his aims was to clear the confusion surrounding the concept of little magazines as well: “People often confuse ‘little’ in this case to mean ‘for children’, but few realise [that] it is a non-commercial, parallel establishment in its own right that celebrates artistic voices from all walks of life.”

Despite fashioning a library out of three rooms of his ancestral home, finance was a concern for Mr. Dutta. He still had expenses in the form of collection and preservation of little magazines. His funding came from four places: a part-time job as a school teacher in Midnapore which earned him a monthly salary of Rs. 100, night duty at a local newspaper which accounted for another Rs. 50, money saved from quitting smoking, and the occasional coins he fed into a piggy bank named Threepenny Opera in honour of Brecht and Hauptmann’s play. Starting out with 1500 magazines, the library caught on due to the spontaneous conversations that Mr. Dutta struck up with the students, scholars, and professors who frequent the famous boi para or ‘book lane’ of College Street. The library, which was initially known as “Library and Laboratory for Bengali Little Magazines” and is now known as “Kolkata Little Magazine Library and Research Center” has now expanded to house approximately 60,000 periodicals. 1,600 of these have been digitised, but Mr. Dutta now denies organisations from continuing this project. These digitising projects not only eat into his earnings, he also feels that digitisation would kill the tradition of visiting a library and scouring through the works there. For this reason, the Little Magazine Library is more of a reading room that allows photocopying of materials, rather than a place that lends out books.

Mr. Dutta is a local legend, and his visitors are plenty. Comprising mostly young scholars and students, they depend on his library and his extensive knowledge of the genre for their academic purposes. Arranged by decade, Mr. Dutta knows the exact position of every work that belongs to his gargantuan collection. His gentle and soft-spoken demeanour, punctuated by the occasional admonishment towards his visitors, casts the air of a helpful grandfather-figure.

Students going through the research materials at the Little Magazine Library. Credit: Bulbul Rajagopal

Arpita Das, a doctoral candidate of the nearby Calcutta University and library member, recollects the time when Mr. Dutta handed over numerous reference materials to her in a matter of a day. “His door is always open to enthusiasts of literature,” she says. Since opening up a membership system in 1979, the library has about 150 members out of which fifty are members for life. A small but steady stream of members visits the library every day, and they are always greeted by its every-ready pioneer.

Filmmaker Jojo Karlekar recalls the help Mr. Dutta had provided during the development of the former’s documentary on the Little Magazine Movement called Little Magazine Voices: “He is a keeper of the faith, and I have an astounding personal connection with him. My documentary is supposed to lend more light on his library but I don’t think it is possible to ever be comprehensive about Little Magazine Library. Its contributions are that vast.”

Over the years, a few notable personalities became familiar with the library. The poet Mahasweta Devi was a regular here, and when she lost the manuscripts and published copies of about fifteen of her poems, Mr. Dutta was the one tasked with retrieving them from his archives. Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Shankha Ghosh, and Arun Mitra were also well-acquainted with both the founder the and library. Mr. Dutta also used to compile bibliographies in his spare time, and the one he wrote on Satyajit Ray’s movie Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) earned him praise and acknowledgment from the director himself.

The library not only houses Bengali literature, but also contains research material on 60 other topics, ranging from film, music and recitation to politics, feminist theory and subaltern studies. Mr. Dutta argues that Bengali literature can never be understood in a vacuum; it has to be examined within the context of other subjects and sciences. The library’s vast collection even drew the attention of William Radice, a poet, translator and senior lecturer of Bengali at the University of London. Poet Joy Goswami is also closely associated with Mr. Dutta’s efforts: “Three of my five collected poems came to light because of him and this library. He has helped me a lot and these past forty years are a testament to the fact that Little Magazine Library is responsible for building a complete history of the genre with respect to West Bengal.”

Though the library has hit the 40 year mark, Mr. Dutta has no plans of stopping. His son lives in Copenhagen, and slight worry marks his face when he wonders about the future of the library after he is gone. The time he dedicates to his library has often kept him away from his family. “My wife had playfully threatened to lock up the place and set it on fire,” he jokes while helping a new member find the required periodicals. He doesn’t call his creation “a complete library, but a mission” that will continue for as long as he lives. “But in his idealism, he has managed to institutionalise it. So even after he is not there, the library will continue,” says a hopeful Mr. Karlekar.

The reach of the Little Magazine Movement is something Mr. Dutta is aware of. But he is certain that his is the only library dedicated to the cause, and that the medium is the most expansive in Bengali than in any other language. Mr. Karlekar also feels that though the movement made its mark in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and even Punjab, “none were on the same scale as it was in Bengal”. His documentary also features Mr. Dutta, who says in it that most magazines in the past were written with commercial gains in mind. He hails Sabuj Patra as the game changer that brought the little magazines to Bengal’s attention: “Modern little magazines can be said to source from Sabuj Patra — even Buddhadeb Basu said this. It didn’t have a single page of advertisements, and it had its own band of writers. None of them were established like Rabindranath and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.” Ultimately, he feels that this magazine, which was launched in 1914, started a campaign for colloquial writing in Bengal.

Almost half a century later, as times has caught up with him, Mr. Dutta may appear quieter, but he still carries on his fight by maintaining his library of little magazines. “I believe in counter-establishment. Anti-establishment is a philosophy. But counter-establishment is a situation where ‘they’ are a giant, and I, who may be small, will still put up a fight.” With every new member who joins and with yet another magazine read, he feels he is winning the battle, both against ravages of time and against those who are apathetic to grass roots literary movements and spheres, in one form or another.

Bulbul Rajagopal is a writing analyst at Qrius

KolkataLittle Magazine LibrarySandip Dutta