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“The intuitive is the essential”: Naveen Kishore and the spirit of Seagull Books

Interview by Joseph Schreiber.


I travelled halfway around the world to get there. A pilgrimage if you like. One that was sparked during what was, at my end of the day, a late night exchange with Seagull Books publisher Naveen Kishore. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but when I expressed my desire to visit Seagull someday, an impossible dream became a possibility. I’d set aside money for a weeklong retreat close to home, but a quick online search revealed that the same sum would more than cover a flight to Kolkata. In my heart I was instantly committed. A few months later I booked my ticket.

What is it about a publishing venture that would inspire a reader to embark on such a journey? As a book lover, there are a few dedicated, independent publishers to whom I feel a special devotion. They are all singular, determined, and dedicated to making real a literary vision they want to see in the world in defiance of standard market calculations. Seagull Books is one. My affection for their beautifully crafted creations was cemented almost instantly when I received the first Seagull book I ordered—the first to come to my attention—Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories. This eccentric collection of prose pieces, illustrated with individually designed plates (yes, plates), carried the mark of a publisher attentive to detail, yet willing to highlight work that defies easy classification. Over the past few years, my collection has grown, as has my admiration for the integrity and spirit of this small, Kolkata -based enterprise.

Founded in 1982, Seagull Books is perhaps a philosophy as much as a publishing company. The subjects of their early publications—such as nineteenth century woodcut prints and the script of an award-winning film—seemed unlikely choices. Their own self-proclaimed mandate to craft books “with an eye to both exceptional content and radical design” endures today as a “passionately felt need of the hour” promoting “manuscripts that need to see the light of day, to reach a readership, to stimulate minds, to change outlooks.” Their extensive catalogue includes an impressive selection of literature translated from European languages, along with a growing collection of works from Arabic and African writers. But with the establishment of the not-for-profit Seagull Foundation Arts in 1987, this ambitious mandate expanded to include the advancement of cross disciplinary collaborative and experimental activity through a diverse range of commitments across the arts throughout India. The Foundation presently supports three initiatives: The Seagull Gallery, the Seagull School of Publishing, and PeaceWorks. It was a desire to learn more about all of this dynamic work that drew me to Kolkata in February.

The first book published by Seagull

I don’t know what I expected, but I arrived in the city completely unprepared for the sensory experience that would assault me. The congested roads, the fearless street dogs, the crowded sidewalks, the waiting rickshaw drivers, the gauzy filtered light, the incessant medley of car horns. When I first ventured out, late in the afternoon of my first full day in India, I followed close on the heels of the man sent to guide me through what seemed an interminable maze of winding roads between my residence and the Seagull office. We emerged onto S. P. Mukherjee Road, the streets and sidewalks a hubbub of activity—the well-heeled and the homeless, and everyone in between, working, walking, waiting.

And then, at the end of the first block, just as you turn the corner, there it is, the glass storefront and familiar marquee seemingly wedged into the jumbled commercial façade of the ground floor of a six-storey apartment building. As I passed through the entryway and climbed the cast iron spiral staircase on my way up to the office, I looked down on the store which seemed so much smaller than I’d imagined. I was still adjusting to reality, as an experience so long-anticipated was slowly coming into focus.

However, once I reached the vibrant, colourful office—the central heart of Seagull Books—I couldn’t help but feel I’d entered a place where magic happens. The open area is lined and divided by low shelves bursting with art books and topped with a menagerie of figurines—birds, elephants, cats, and other creatures. Old movie posters, paintings, masks, and Naveen’s enigmatic black and white photographs decorate the walls. The space speaks to creative spirit and energy, but make no mistake, the editors are all busy at their computers. It’s a very small team and the days are long. Across the road, a second rented location, no less colourful, houses the gallery space, the school, and the PeaceWorks office.

Over the following two weeks I would make a number of visits to the office, lead a masterclass at the school and have two opportunities to meet and hear Kenyan writer, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o speak. But I also spent days exploring the city on my own and with friends. Kolkata continued to threaten me with sensory overload for a while, but as routes became familiar, my comfort grew and the rich, complicated intensity of the city started to work its way into my system. And yet I wondered, how had such a small, dedicated publishing effort arisen here—producing such a wide range of literary, artistic, and socially conscious texts, each beautifully designed and presented—and survived for so long? And why had they stayed when it seemed that so many commercial enterprises had long since relocated to one of India’s thriving modern business centres?

It was not until my last full day in Kolkata that I began to fully appreciate the depth of the rich cultural and intellectual heritage of the city, to fall under its spell and come to understand that there really isn’t a more perfect place for a Seagull to nest.

I was finally ready to share my observations and formulate questions for publisher Naveen Kishore. The following conversation was conducted via email after I returned home.

Photo by Sunandidni Banerjee

3:AM: I know it’s well travelled turf, but as I understand it the Seagull name originated with Seagull Empire in the early seventies when you were working in the arts and theatre, with lighting, audio-visual and events management. If I’m correct, Seagull, the publishing venture, began with the desire to document theatrical events in a common language. With the wisdom afforded by hindsight, it seems that the evolution of Seagull Books, as it stands now, has had an organic, natural trajectory. Of course, in the moment, it rarely feels that way.

Naveen Kishore: Indeed yes. The name Seagull originated from a Rock concert, “Seagull Empire”. Produced while we were still in college by a dear friend-mentor, Sumit Roy. I was his Stage Manager. This was in March 1972. It was a successful concert for many reasons and later when I did another rock concert on my own it was under the “banner” of Seagull Empire presents!

The books grew out of a need to document theatre and film and off-the-beaten-track art. More than just events. So yes. Organic and always in “retrospect”. The logic I mean. Or if you will, the method in what seems at the time of “doing” to be an impulsive act. Though the impulse to create has always been what led to the things we did. And the way. We did them. This coupled with the immediacy of survival. I had to start earning a living from age sixteen for various reasons. The only clarity from the beginning was the fact that it was the arts you wished to survive within. This, in our cultural context, is of some interest because the arts at the time were always meant to be an after-five hobby! You were never meant to make a living from the arts!

3:AM: You have spoken of an intuitive approach to publishing—that rather than a rigid structural approach to business, you operate on the belief that things will work out if you don’t give up. You continue to reach out to kindred spirits, to friends at home and abroad to find those who are inclined and able to help you realise the goals you have. This sounds like an act of faith, a faith I want to say, in the desire of others to be part of a greater creative vision. What keeps you going when plans fall through, funding for a project seems elusive, or people try to take advantage of you?

NK: The intuitive is the essential. In quite the same way that, say, breathing is. At Seagull it is also a way of life stemming from the untrained nature of our learning. Untrained as in the “formal”. The manner in which everything that is taught. And therefore learnt. Here the learning is through the practice of the intuitive. Or if you wish the natural. That which arrives in quite the manner in which unexpected guests do. Uninvited but nevertheless precious. As in the instinctive way of solving problems. Or the instinctive way in which we negotiate the art of being human. The way we are with other people. The way we are with ourselves in relation to others we work with or nurture or allow into our lives. Become the community we have. Become.

Don’t for a moment let this make you feel that it is all up in the air or some romantic notion that things will just. Happen. No. There is a swift mental math that happens. In every decision you take. But it is the math of often un-balancing books. Not its opposite. The figures don’t always match. Or even add up in the time-tested way of all commerce. So yes, the romantic is not just a wishful space where thought and extreme affection for an idea conjoin. It is in fact a hard-earned ability verging on an ideology that practices this notion of Romance. You love the idea presented to you—as event, as book, as art, as performance, as design—and you see the possibility of making it happen. Regardless of the odds. Romantic therefore in the sense that you take immense pleasure in battling odds to create something that may not have at that moment in time happened otherwise. Period.

An act of faith doesn’t betray an adoration of some superallpervasivepower omnipresent and benevolently watching over us. It is precisely what you say “in the desire of others to be part of a greater creative vision”. This is very aptly put. The “faith” is in the “making possible”. The act is the impulse that triggers the activity we engage in our dailyness. The awareness that runs parallel to all of what we do is that there is always a solution. This too is faith. As in the strong belief that the seeking of a solution is what needs to be translated into the finding or locating of one. Not simply some notion that things have a way of getting sorted! The people around us instinctively buy into this because it sounds sincere. The sincere is full of possibility. Even hope.

Having said that, all of this also often goes wrong. So the possibility that is promised could go either way. And when it does there is genuinely no desire to level blame on others. Nor does one brood over feeling let down by circumstance disguised as “other people”. Sustainability is not linked to the time-bound nature of project funding. It is a part of the whole picture from 1972 to 2018. The fact that we have sustained our beliefs for four decades is what it is about. So when in practical terms you run out of funding like we have for the Publishing School, you just have to find ways of carrying on. Until the status quo changes. Or until the sheer force of what you manage to achieve with a particular project builds up a natural ground swell of support. Indulging beyond the brief human temptation of wallowing in some sense of being let down is not an option. Yes, it creeps into our beings. Like hurt. And is embraced. Like hurt. But not for very long. There is no room for self-indulgence or feeling sorry because luckily it is not in our nature. You move on without wariness. You continue to trust. Other people. And yourself.

3:AM: In an article published at Scroll you said:

We are not aiming for anything beyond the excitement of content and craft. The rest is logistics. I am never worried about what it will mean to the reader, because I don’t have a reader profiled! I simply hope that it will work for many people if it works for me. Besides, who knows with complete certainty what the reader wants? 

I want to suggest that there is a Seagull reader, and that that reader (who is of course, also the purchaser of your books), no matter where in the world he or she may be, is responding to the very same essential elements—the excitement of content and craft. And further, that because Seagull is not a rigid, hierarchical institution—that is, it is still at heart a small, people-based operation—the reader feels like they are a part of something special. That grassroots, independent spirit persists.

NK: I agree with this assessment.

3:AM: To what extent does social media, with which you are well engaged, allow you to facilitate that connection?

NK: I’m only on Twitter on behalf of Seagull Books. And for all its worth there is a direct connect but it is in a minor key. It isn’t as if we have that many followers for us to gauge direct reader response. The loyalist yes. I agree. But not entirely sure. But yes on the whole there is a much better sense of being connected through this medium I guess than being completely in a shell!

3:AM: I would imagine the rewards work two ways—that is, reaching out to further the spread of your books, and knowing how deeply others across India and around the world respond to Seagull’s vision and love of literature. And, I would assume, it helps keep the backlist alive and vital which appears to be critical to your modus operandi.

NK: This sounds about correct. But there is no way of measuring this chain of goodwill except perhaps in cases like yours, which are far and few between, where the connect is instant and solid. And involves a two-way reaching out and being hospitable to each other in an instinctive and intellectual manner through the umbilical cord of the books themselves. Ultimately it is the work we do that attracts.

Whether this keeps the backlist alive and to what extent is not clear. Yet! There is some hope in this. But not enough active proof. The circle of well-being is so small that often it is not possible to keep tabs on the results. A backlist, in today’s number-crunching world, is a passion that is kept alive by those of us who feel it to be essential. Often this is construed as an ideological “illusion”. Not just by the more “rational” minded amongst us who like the idea of keeping books from being pulped, but recognise the reality of storing large inventories year after year in the hope that these will find buyers. But also by those of us who cloak our misgivings by insisting that the destruction of books is not an option. The Seagull story is clearly about a strong backlist. Including often the “reinvention” of the older titles in different ways. We keep most of our books in print. It has helped us. In practical terms. But at a price. There are no easy answers. The modus operandi you speak about is a combination of the emotional—as in our love for the books we create—and the practical. As in different generations will seek out books that last and it is our duty as publishers to keep them safe. Keep them in print.

3:AM: After almost two weeks in Kolkata, a city which overwhelmed me at first, I began to think that perhaps some of the very magic I had responded to from my initial encounter with Seagull Books is in fact rooted in what, to an outsider, seems like an innocuous location for a world class publisher. Foolish, perhaps but it was a eureka moment for me.

NK: No. I strongly believe that it is the people. We could be anywhere in the world and make Seagull work. Because of our way of being human. Having said that the city is a nurturing and hospitable one. More so when some of us were growing up. Perhaps a little less so now. Therefore, it will have played a role in shaping my inner landscape for sure. So your instinct is not off the mark.

3:AM: On my last full day in the city I had the opportunity to talk with Senior Editor and Designer Sunandini Banerjee about Kolkata, to share some of my observations. She told me that the city and the state of West Bengal can have a reputation for being a place where it is difficult to get quality work done, that people are lazy, etc. Not that this is deserved, but the resources are somewhat more restricted, compared to, say, Delhi. However, there is a sense that Kolkata walks to its own rhythm. It is a city that, due to its colonial history, grew up very much at home with the west, and boasts a vibrant cultural and intellectual heritage. Yet, customs, vocations and even a cash culture persists here in a way that is disappearing elsewhere in India. All socio-economic levels of exist side by side. It’s also slower paced, less pressured.

She said that she thought you and the team are happier not to be in one of the modern business centres, and that margins are places where work of great value can be produced.

NK: This is a reading that I can accept. But it is a “reading” after the event. As in, because of the way Seagull is, we can try and look back at some of the reasons for it being so. Our being happier here is because this is where we started and remained all these decades. So, any kind of shifting or moving is an uprooting we wish to avoid. Not sure about your margins comment except that, yes, if you are away from the “centre” you have a different perspective. I guess I still insist that we could create a Seagull anywhere in the world and it would still survive regardless of the pace and rhythms of whichever place we locate it in.

In any case, as the so-called founding publisher it has never consciously occurred to me that I am what I am because the city has a certain influence on me! It is all just a natural unfolding. Or coming together.

3:AM: What challenges have you encountered?

NK: Hard to say. Any independent initiative of this kind faces challenges or at least what appear as uphill tasks. You just work your way through them. I don’t have a conscious list of challenges that we may have encountered. And overcome. Yes, you have things coming at you that need tackling. Problem solving. Logistics of survival. And I suppose each location comes with its own unique problems. Again, not something I focus on.

3:AM: Can I ask you about the Seagull Foundation for the Arts? How is this an extension of the values that you personally, and Seagull Books, hold to?

NK: Some things are best sensed. The Foundation is a ploy. Albeit an affectionate one. To nudge the otherwise-focused majority around us into believing that we can learn to live. With difference. That sums it up today. It started perhaps with the intention of trying to do things “differently” in the arts. This still continues. And in some ways it is what has been extended into the PeaceWorks philosophy. Or values if you will. Beneath both. Beneath all socially concerned impulses that we as “aware” humans respond to lies the need to actively engage with the times. Regardless of how dark these times present themselves to be.

This is the core urge behind all that we as a foundation wish to do. Respond. To our times. At any cost. Pay the price that clearly needs to be paid. Take the risks that make us visible to the powers that be.

And with no funding support. Who will support attempts at being “good”?

Once again our values are not a mystery. Many people all over share the same. Values. You do for sure. What is a mystery is why more and more opposition to these values is the norm in these times!

3:AM: Now that I have been to Kolkata, taught a class at the school, seen much of the art work in the gallery and on display, had an introduction to the impressive achievements of PeaceWorks, and attended Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s talk at the Victoria Memorial, I have a fuller appreciation of Seagull as a multi-faceted endeavor.

NK: This is very dear to me your comment: Seagull as a multi-faceted endeavor

3:AM: What is the joy and satisfaction afforded by being able to contribute to the arts, the publishing industry, and broader social concerns in this way?

NK: I think by now you have answers to this one! The joy that comes from doing. What most would walk away from.


Joseph Schreiber is a writer from Calgary, Canada. He is criticism/nonfiction editor at 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 9th, 2018.