EPW: the little magazine that grew up

C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY

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THE little or small magazine – in a broader sense than the literary magazine which was the original concept – has been around in India for the better part of the past 125 years. India’s little magazines were born in the freedom movement. Gandhi’s Young India and Harijan were true little magazines, but they were not the only ones. From the late 19th century onwards, across India and in all languages, pioneers of a kind began weeklies, monthlies, or publications without any regular schedule, all with one purpose – to spread the message of freedom.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, most of these publications died with the coming of independence. The cause had been accomplished, and there seemed to be little reason to continue. A new generation of little magazines was, however, born, in a way further taking the cause of the first generation – to discuss what the new India should be and how it should be built.

One branch in the post-independence generation of little magazines placed economic policy at the centre of its mandate. In English, a number of publications on the economy and business were launched, mainly from what were then Bombay and Calcutta. They were backed by large business houses or were part of publication firms. The more important among them were Eastern Economist and Commerce. There was one little magazine among them – Economic Weekly (EW), established in 1949. Almost as a tribute to its spirit, EW was the one that went on to acquire a lasting reputation, though the others did survive for some years with the influential Commerce the last to close shop in the 1980s. Other than one brief sputter in 1965, this little magazine has managed to not just survive, but also grow as the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) over the decades.

 

What is it about the little magazine EW/EPW that helped it grow up? This is best understood in a chronological order. We unfortunately do not have a history of either EW or EPW, but we know enough of the time to thread a story together.1

EW was born at a time when there was excitement in the air among the elite, and a thirst for discussion. Its energy came from the passion of ‘a personality’, in this case Sachin Chaudhuri, a brilliant economist who dabbled in many things before settling on founding and editing EW, and who by all accounts was a true child of the Bengal Renaissance. The magazine was published from Bombay, a city that in the late 1940s and early 1950s had an intellectual and political energy about it. Bombay had one of the best universities in the country, it was the scene of a thriving communist/socialist movement linked to the textile industry; and it was home to a very exciting theatre and arts movement.

EW’s editorial offices were in Colaba in South Bombay – the ‘intellectual centre’ of the city at the time. With the university and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) close by, there were streams of economists who dropped by to exchange ideas, and even to help with writing and production.2

EW’s first editorial rather prosaically argued that there was ‘a dour need’ for ‘an independent weekly to deal primarily with the economic problems in the country’. Yet, there was nothing prosaic about how EW was produced. While it was commercially backed by a firm run by a group of cotton merchants (the Seksarias), the funding did not come from an open tap. The editor and the journal always found it difficult to make ends meet (a characteristic of little magazines). But the vitality of EW undoubtedly came from the salon that Sachin Chaudhuri ran at his residence at the ‘Churchill Chambers’ (also in Colaba). For a decade, this was where writers, artists, politicians, intellectuals of the social sciences, and the hungry young scholar seem to have gathered for discussions in the evening, ending only late in the day.3

 

Economic Weekly then had all the ingredients of a successful little magazine. The timing was right, the location was right; it had the involvement of an enthusiastic group of writers and readers, and perhaps most important, it had an editor who was both brilliant and a personality.

EW was initially very much a journal of the times – Nehruvian in its approach to economics and supporting his politics internally and internationally. This did not mean there was no criticism; indeed, there was much vehemence in its comment. And what EW said was taken seriously by many who mattered in Bombay and New Delhi. In retrospect, the heyday of its impact on policy was in the 1950s and early 1960s, before it became more of an academic journal as also one of dissent.

 

In its early days, EW was a journal of comment, with news reports and analyses of commodity markets and stock exchanges. The academic flavour came gradually and it was not until the late 1950s that important research papers began to be published in its pages.

Sachin Chaudhuri was linked to a countrywide network of academics and commentators, and kept seeking out young writers. By the early 1960s, EW had established itself as much more than a journal of comment – it had become a leading journal of the social sciences. It was still predominantly a journal of economics, but it had begun to branch out into sociology and politics, all the time seeking an interdisciplinary focus to its writings.

There was nothing fortuitous about the success of EW over the first 15 years of its life – a period long enough for little magazines to be born, grow, and die. It owed its success, first, to the editor’s talent, determination, and openness to new ideas and writers, and, second, to his ability to build a group which was passionately devoted to EW. This group, mainly in Bombay and Delhi but elsewhere as well, was forever willing to pitch in with intellectual support and, as was to happen later, with financial and administrative support as well.

However, by the mid 1960s, the strain of running EW had begun to tell – on the health of the editor and on the relationship between the editor and publishers. In 1965, the trust between EW’s commercial backers and the editor broke. Sachin Chaudhuri ended the arrangement. And since he was EW and vice versa, the magazine stopped publication with the last issue of 1965.

This was where passionate writers and readers of EW from across India – many leading lights in their own fields – stepped in. No one wanted EW to die. But rather than revive it, within a few months they sought to launch a new weekly with the same ideas, the same principles, and with the same Sachin Chaudhuri as editor, but this time the weekly would be independent of any commercial publisher.

 

The 50 odd signatories to an appeal issued in early 1966 for funds totalling at least ‘Rs 2.5 lakhs’ to launch a new weekly of economics and politics make for interesting reading. They came from all shades of the ideological spectrum. They included senior academics in economics (A.K. Dasgupta, K.N. Raj, and V.M. Dandekar) and other disciplines (M.N. Srinivas, S. Gopal and Tapan Raychaudhuri), senior economists in the RBI (K.S. Krishnaswamy, M. Narasimham and Deena Khatkhate), senior government officials of the time (P.N. Dhar, H.Y. Sharada Prasad and Pitambar Pant), other well known and younger academics (Ashok Mitra, A.K. Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, Romila Thapar, and Arjun Sengupta), journalists (Romesh Thapar, B.G. Verghese, and R.K. Laxman), and even entrepreneurs (Sudhir Mulji). A longtime supporter turned out to be H.T. Parekh, promoter of HDFC.

The plans were for much more than a journal. An independent trust would be set up, which would not only publish the new journal, but also help teach economics, organize workshops, assist in research, and publish educational material.4 The trust was given a thoughtful name, Sameeksha (‘critical reflection’), and its first chairman was no less than the recently retired Chief Justice of India, P.B. Gajendragadkar. An anecdote has it that K.N. Raj suggested the addition of ‘Politics’ to the title of the new journal in a reflection of the growing understanding that economics could not be understood without politics.

 

The Economic and Political Weekly began publication in August 1966 but Sachin Chaudhuri passed away in less than four months. But this was not the end of the infant EPW. It already had Krishna Raj, a young graduate of the Delhi School of Economics, who by then had put in three years of working with the old EW and the newborn EPW. The Sameeksha Trust, however, brought in R.K. Hazari from the University of Bombay as editor. He was editor for just over two years, but he is said to have made the first attempt to systematize the working of a cottage industry.5

If Sachin Chaudhuri was the editor who gave EW/EPW its élan, spread, and following, it was Krishna Raj, in the editor’s chair for 35 years from 1969, who built it into an institution. There were many phases to his editorship. A common thread was a continuation of the Chaudhuri era in some form. The journal continued to evoke strong views for and against, and it built up an ever widening circle of passionate readers and writers.

Another common factor was a paucity of finances. The Sameeksha Trust collected funds to launch the journal but not much afterwards. And Sachin Chaudhuri’s brother, Hiten Chaudhuri, who had been a catalyst for EW’s launch, worked for extended periods to husband the limited resources at hand for the new journal. Though the Sameeksha Trust had a galaxy of pre-eminent academics of the day, it did not until the 1990s make a major effort to build up a corpus that could sustain EPW. When D.N. Ghosh, a former chairman of the State Bank of India, became the Managing Trustee of the Sameeksha Trust in the early 1990s, he went about mobilizing funds to strengthen EPW’s financial resources.

 

This meant that for the greater part of his tenure Krishna Raj had to struggle. Subscription rates were low in the belief that the message could spread only this way. And while there was some commercial and statutory advertising, this was given entirely on goodwill. That Krishna Raj could keep the journal going week after week, with some delays but with no break at all, was a tribute to his ability to motivate a small team employed on measly remuneration. This was the little magazine at work again. A labour of love and living a precarious existence.

The EPW lived in tumultuous times and its pages reflected them. Politically, it moved sharply to the left during the 1970s and 1980s as it embraced the global youth uprisings of the late 1960s and the struggle against US aggression in Southeast Asia. It gave support to the wave of militant struggles that swept the country in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. It extensively covered both the Naxalite and the mainstream left movements. But by the late 1990s, it shifted back to the centre, and even to the right in economic policy. Even as it did so, it reported with sensitivity on Kashmir, and editorially rejected ‘national security’ as a justification for the use of force in the Northeast and Kashmir.

 

The editorial content of the EPW under Krishna Raj is too rich to document in a few lines. But looking back, one can discern certain broad patterns of evolution. One, EPW became a platform to articulate dissent and critically interrogate orthodoxy. Reports about state brutality, repression of movements, and in general articles on human rights came to find their place in the journal from the 1970s onwards. This was when it acquired its identity of being independent and of the left.

Two, the research section of EPW established itself more distinctly. Papers on a range of social science disciplines came to be published. Informative, critical, and thorough, they were widely read by policymakers, teachers, and students. By the 1980s, EPW had acquired its reputation as the pre-eminent Indian journal in the social sciences, even if some social scientists dismissed it as ‘not peer reviewed’. Three, the strengthening of the first half of the weekly as a section for critical comment, and its second half as a section for research, gave EPW it a unique identity as a journal of two halves. Four, EPW was always looking for new kinds of writers and new areas to cover.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of EPW in those decades was the sense of community fostered by Krishna Raj, much like Sachin Chaudhuri did, only this was on a much larger scale. With its independent character and the absence of identification with any business or political group, EPW was able to give its writers and readers a feeling that this was ‘their’ journal and no one else’s. If there was a political persuasion that could be pinned on EPW during the 1970s to 1990s, it was that it was ‘left’. But it could never be accused of being closed, because it often opened up to the most non-Marxist of critical comments and research papers. That indeed was what gave EPW its standing in the larger community of intellectuals, activists, and academics.

EPW’s third editor ran his own salon, not in his residence, but in the cramped office in ‘Skylark/Hitkari House’ in the Fort area of Bombay. There was a regular adda as passers-by, visitors to the city, hopeful authors, and eager students made their way to what was EPW’s home for almost four decades. EPW was still run as a little magazine. Authors would have to wait for months to hear what had happened to their submissions, the submissions themselves could disappear, and, like in many little magazines, there were some writers and columnists who were constants. Foremost among them was AM’s (Ashok Mitra’s) ‘Calcutta Diary’, a column that had passionate followers and bitter critics, and ran from the 1970s to the early 2000s.6

 

But even as its circulation touched 8,000-9,000 (with a readership of more than 100,000) in the closing years of Krishna Raj’s editorship, EPW retained some characteristics of a little magazine. And consistent with this, there were strong reactions when the editor, after strongly critiquing the economic liberalisation process of the 1990s, embraced it in the late 1990s. While the pendulum of opinion kept swinging, Krishna Raj’s sudden death in January 2004 seemed to open a new phase of uncertainty.

 

Could EPW survive after an editor of 35 years departed? Many did feel it would not. It did. Maybe that was the first sign that EPW had ceased to be a little magazine – much like an established organization, EPW quickly picked itself up and moved on. It needs someone on the outside to look at the EPW during my tenure as editor after Krishna Raj between September 2004 and March 2016. Here, I would only briefly state that we kept its independent character, we kept it open, we sought to give it a new energy by injecting topicality and widening the coverage, and we innovated on the digital edition. However, with EPW having become large in many respects – for one thing, in terms of submissions and the areas it covered – the weekly needed systems. These were put in place, and they reduced the semi-anarchic nature of the little magazine. As EPW became more of an academic journal, it attempted to turn more ‘professional’, which also took some of the little magazine out of it. And the new editor was an outsider, so the adda/ salon ended, the little magazine spirit fading a bit more.

It seems as if the price of growing up was that a certain kind of spark, which ignites all little magazines, had got snuffed out. Yet, in one important respect, EPW remained small. As it believed in its independence and did not enter into any commercial tie-ups, it had to stand on its own feet. Circulation grew, so did advertising, but neither was enough. At a critical time, a handful of donor individual/institutional supporters stepped in with generous one-time grants, which stabilized EPW’s finances. However, an independent publication needs a steady accretion to its financial reserves every year, which can help it through bad times. That did not happen, and in that respect EPW remains a little magazine. In early 2016, though it was in better financial shape than ever before, but there was no saying which ill-wind would try to bend it.

I was sometimes asked what made EPW a success. How was it that EPW has been able to grow over many decades while many other little magazines died? Were there any rules that others could adopt? It is difficult to draw up a list of dos and don’ts. Each successful institution has its own rules and circumstances that contribute to its success (or failure). This magazine (Seminar), which is roughly the same age as EW/EPW, has succeeded and its rules of success have been unique to it.

About the only thing that can be said for sure is that EW/EPW benefited by having two outstanding editors who displayed single-minded dedication to the institution. Brilliance and dedication are, however, not enough. An equally important factor was their ability to develop and maintain a sense of community around EW/EPW, a community that both sustained the journal and supported it during difficult times.

Can we have another little magazine like EPW? I doubt it. There remains an eagerness for debate and more writers than ever before are looking to express themselves. But the age of little magazines in print is over. Paper and printing are too expensive and young readers are more interested in comment on the internet. So it will be a foolish enterprise to launch a print magazine today. One could still try on the internet, though ink on poor paper seemed so integral to little magazines. There are little magazines in the hundreds of thousands on the net – mainly as blogs. But blogs are too individualistic. They do not have the collective spirit that is so essential for a little magazine. So perhaps the age of little magazines is tragically well and truly behind us.

 

* This article was written in August 2016.

Footnotes:

1. See the tributes paid to Sachin Chaudhuri on his death for a feel of EW (EPW, 4 February 1967). Also Ashok Mitra’s many overlapping reminiscences in EPW (2 January 1999, 11 November 2006, and most recently, 20 August 2016), and those of Deena Khatkhate, K.S. Krishnaswami, Anand Chandavarkar, George Rosen and V.V. Bhatt in ‘Economic Weekly: 60 Years Ago’ (EPW, 3, 10, and 17 January 2009).

2. K.S. Krishnaswamy, who retired in the 1970s as Deputy Governor of the RBI and was Chairman of Sameeksha Trust in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was apparently one of those economists. It appears he veritably ran the journal when Sachin Chaudhuri was travelling, and even otherwise contributed ideas and pieces (anonymously). But he was not the only one. See the reminiscences cited above.

3. It was not just economists who gathered there. Devika Rani and Nicholas Roerich visited the salon, as did Rammanohar Lohia, and a young V.S. Naipaul, and many others looking for an argument or wanting to listen to a discussion. Among the economists, right or left, everyone was welcome, including one who would later turn out to be the most right wing of them all, Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago, who was in India for a while in the 1950s.

4. In the event, the Sameeksha Trust’s main activity has been publication of what came to be known as EPW. A quarter of a century later, in 1991, in accordance with its earlier mandate, it established the EPW Research Foundation, which has made a name for itself with quality work on macro-economic data.

5. Hazari later became well known as chairman of the Industrial Licensing Policy Inquiry Committee of 1966 and then joined the RBI as deputy governor from where he retired in the late 1970s.

6. In the early 1990s, a group of writers/readers led an attack on Krishna Raj for what they said was the loss of EPW’s independent identity because it favoured writers of a left persuasion. There were many rounds of correspondence for and against in the letters pages, but what was remarkable was a lack of awareness on all sides of how difficult it was to produce the journal. Indeed, then and later, while there was wonder that EPW came out regularly and with quality, few – neither the members of the Sameeksha Trust nor the EPW community – seemed to understand the difficult circumstances under which the weekly was being produced.

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