India’s Women’s Movement and Publishing

Urvashi Butalia — one of India’s first feminist publishers — has spent more than 40 years in the publishing industry! She co-founded Kali for Women with Ritu Menon back in 1984, though the two parted ways and set up Zubaan and Women Unlimited, respectively a few decades later. Butalia takes SheThePeople.TV through some of the major highlights of her journey and discusses some of the ‘successes’ of the feminist movement, tracking the journey of publishing in India over the past decades, but also the challenges facing an indie publisher in 2016, including a very existential question… What’s the relevance of an alternative voice, when there are now so many non-mainstream voices to be heard? Here’s Urvashi in conversation with Amrita Tripathi

How India’s First Feminist Publishers Began…

Urvashi Butalia: Kali for Women started in 1984, at an interesting time, when the women’s movement was at its peak, raising all sorts of issues, dowry, rape laws and so on. Many of us were involved. There were questions that many of us were facing — where these issues were were coming from, why was dowry taking the shape it was taking

There was no literature, nothing we could read that could help us to orient ourselves, get  a context, get a history, all of that. I was working with OUP till the late 70s and was increasingly dissatisfied at the lack of any material by women on women. Basically, when these questions started to arise in the women’s movement, the idea was if mainstream publishers were not interested, then maybe I could do it myself. I was young and adventurous so I decided to abandon the job and do this.

Had it not been for that moment, when there was a need for material, it would not have been the right time to start. Those things came together very nicely. For me what came together nicely was my political involvement in the women’s movement and my professional work as a publishing person at that time. Those melded nicely.

Since then there have been a few moments that have been interesting and important for us. One I think is the early ‘90s, when the whole publishing scene in India begins to change — It begins to change because we are beginning to transition from being a British-dominated, ex-colonial publishing industry to becoming an Indian industry. So that means all the British companies etc are leaving, but at the same time, because we didn’t have that many books of our own especially in English, our imports are very high. Then the dollar becomes very expensive against the rupee in the early 90s and it becomes quite expensive to import books. And a little bit of space opens up in book shops… and that’s where Independent publishers like ourselves or Ravi Dayal who had started by then, can find an entry.

The publishing industry – hitherto dominated by ex-colonial publishing houses in English and by textbooks also begins to open to general books, what are known as trade books.

Then comes this other moment, when India starts opening up to foreign capital by which time, there are quite a few independent publishing houses doing interesting things, but the big publishers come in and are able to publish a lot of authors. So the independents are able to do a lot of the ground work and create new areas, the big publishers are publishing them, and you get a different kind of competition.

Along this way, what starts to happen is a lot of the editorial positions in publishing houses are dominated by women. So women are the ones who are controlling the content even in the mainstream and independent publishing houses. So that’s a big change from when I started in publishing, when you could count the number of women on the fingers of two hands. Now there are hundreds and hundreds of women.

In 2003 when Kali splits into two, when Ritu (Menon) and I decided to split, one of the big questions for us, was, Was there room in the market for two feminist publishers. One of the pleasantly surprising things was to find that not only was there room (that too, two of us doing many more titles, about 40 to 45 titles a year, between the two of us), there’s Stree, who does 15-20 titles a year and smaller imprints elsewhere…And all the independent publishers publish on women…And all the mainstream publishers publish on women. So actually the market is expanding for books by women and about women. So that I think is another interesting moment.