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     Volume 8 Issue 58 | February 20, 2009 |

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Cover Story

Muktodhara's Journey

Elita Karim

It was the urge to do something for the country that led to the birth of Muktodhara, a publishing house, which began on May 28, 1971 in Mujibnagar, Kolkata. Chittaranjan Saha, born on January 1, 1927, along with many other famous writers and poets of the time would get together in Professor Syed Ali Hassan's house in Kolkata. "It was around the time of Liberation of Bangladesh and everyone wanted to do something for Bangla," says Advocate Jahar Lal Saha, Chittaranjan Saha's brother-in-law who had been with Muktodhara right from the beginning and also the current owner of the publishing house. "Theoretically, we also wanted to be a part of the war. Chittaranjan Saha decided to fight along, not with weapons, but with knowledge and books thereby instilling the love of reading amongst the Bangalis. That is how the idea of establishing a publishing house came about." It was in Professor Syed Ali Hassan's home when Chittaranjan Saha, the then young Jahar Lal Saha along with other writers and poets coined the name Muktodhara, representing the free mind and an independent soul of a Bangali man or woman.

Inside the Muktodhara office in Bangla Bazaar.

Under the banner of Shadhin Bangla Shahittyo Parishad, Muktodhara started publishing essays, biographies and various literary discussions besides a few novels and poems as well. In 1971, Muktodhara had the hit the market with 33 books. One of the first few books published from Muktodhara was a collection of articles based on the Liberation War, 'Roktatto Bangla' written by well-known writers -- Shawkat Osman, Ahmed Safa, Dr. Anisuzzaman, Syed Ali Hassan, Shatten Sen, Shantosh Gupto, Jahir Raihan, Ranesh Das Gupto, Ramendu Majumdar and many more. Famous artist Kamrul Hassan had designed the cover of the book. "This year at the Boi Mela, we are reprinting this book," informs Jahar Lal. "In fact, after so many years we are also going to use the same cover done by Kamrul Hassan." Along with 'Roktatto Bangla', this year, Muktodhara plans to bring out reprints of editions of biographies, essays and poems that had become extremely popular with readers more than thirty years ago.

After Liberation, Chittaranjan Saha and his family moved to Dhaka. By then, Muktodhara had become much more than a mere hobby and an initiative to publish a few editions a year. Muktodhara had become very popular amongst Bangali writers, both established and aspiring. What attracted them to Muktodhara was the fact that the publishing house was very selective in terms of publishing materials. Jahar Lal says that Muktodhara has always been in the habit of checking and rechecking proofs of manuscripts. "Even today, we make sure that we go through at least four proofs of our manuscripts before publishing them," says Jahar Lal. "Times have changed. Today you might even find a so-called writer who, for the sake of name and fame, will spend a single night writing trash and then get a publishing house to publish it. What makes it worse is that these publishing houses do not bother to proofread the materials or even question the literary significance of the material they publish, let alone running a check on these materials, which might have unhealthy information for the readers."

Books that had come out in the early 70s from Muktodhara. Some of them are being reprinted this year.

Back then, a seven-day event used to be held at the Bangla Academy grounds, commemorating February 21, in the memory of those who had fought for the Bangla language. In 1972, Chittaranjan decided to display some of his books at the Bangla Academy. "We found a spot on the grass and displayed our books on a small jute-mat for the visitors," remembers Jahar Lal. Very soon, Muktodhara had hit it off with quite a number of readers. For the rest of the week, there was a huge demand for these books, something that was quite unexpected by the Muktodhara team. "We did the same in 1973," says Jahar Lal. "In 1974, we built a proper stall for ourselves besides the mango tree in the Bangla Academy grounds, where the security is placed this year. Artist Pranesh Mandal had even designed a gate. In 1975, a few more bookstalls joined Muktodhara, making the seven-day event an unofficial book fair. We had with us Khan Brothers, Ahmed Publications, Boi Ghor from Chittagong and a few more. That was when we decided to have the 'unit-system' for each stall. Back then, 8 feet by 8 feet was the normal size for one unit. The publishers would take up one or two units for their books. But today, the unit size has come down to a mere 8 feet by 6 feet which is not enough for us to accommodate all our books, even if we take up two units."

Eventually, as the number of bookstalls began to grow, attracting a lot of people, the Bangla Academy took the book fair under its wings and would organise it every year for the whole month of February. In the 1980s, a list of criterion or popularly known as the nitimala was also formed to maintain a standard of the publishing houses and also the kind of books that they published, so as to participate in the fair. Today, a publishing house will have to publish at least 15 or more books in a single year to participate in the fair. "A committee was formed to make sure that the nitimala was followed," says Jahar Lal. "Chittaranjan Saha was one of the members of this committee." Presently, the Boi Mela is known as the Ekushey Grantha Mela.

Many think that Muktodhara should be given a fixed spot at the Boi Mela.
Jahar Lal Saha

Chittranhan Saha died on December 26, 2007. At the Boi Mela in 2008, the Bangla Academy authorities offered a token of respect to Muktodhara and specially mentioned Chittaranjan Saha as someone who had pioneered this whole event. Many intellectuals and famous writers, however, think that Muktodhara should be given a fixed spot at the Boi Mela, which will remain unchanged every year. "This is not a lot to ask for from the Bangla Academy," Jahar Lal Saha says. "The Bangla Academy has a fixed spot at the fair as well. I believe that Muktodhara should have a fixed spot as well. We want to reprint all our old books once again for our readers and for this we need a bigger space." Every year, through a process of lottery, each publishing house is given a spot according to the number of units that they want. "Muktodhara should not go through such a lottery process," asserts Jahar Lal.

Jahar Lal Saha also says that the authorities have to work harder to instil the habit of reading books amongst children and develop reading habits amongst older children. "To do this, we need to make sure that our children develop a habit of reading from a very young age. Each classroom in schools, starting from the Kindergarten to the senior classes should have shelves filled with both old classics and contemporary books. I am not against the 'computer technology', but we also have to make sure that our children do not ignore books because of the computers."

Secondly, he says that we should have a Boi Mela, not only in Dhaka but all over Bangladesh. "If people in Chittagong, Khulna, Sylhet and other districts are not exposed to the quality and quantity of books like those in Dhaka, then how can we expect these people to create a demand for books?" says Jahar Lal. "A proper distribution is very much necessary." He also talks about distributing Bangla books to Bangalis living in foreign countries. "Not only in Kolkata, but there are thousands of Bangalis living in the United Kingdom, United States and all over Europe," he says. "If the respected High Commissioners in these countries can arrange a three-day or a five-day book fair and invite publishers from Bangladesh, we will be able to arrange our own travel expenses and display our books in these countries. The Bangalis living abroad are always craving for books from Bangladesh and this would be a wonderful way to promote our books to them."

Chittaranjan Saha (top left); For 38 years, Muktodhara has been encouraging readership and adding to the Bangali culture.

Even after 38 years, Muktodhara continues to play a significant role in the Boi Mela, selling books to readers of all ages. Every day of the month, people throng the stall looking for chapters on history, literature, art, novels, poetry and also short stories for children. "In spite of everything, I am amazed at the fact that more and more children love to simply finger through pages of books when they come to our stall!" remarks Jahar Lal, sitting at stall number 121-122 at the Boi Mela. "The other day I could not help taking a picture of a large group of children who were going through books in a nearby bookstall. It was wonderful to watch them practically devouring the books!" After all, says Jahar Lal Saha, "one can anticipate a bright and a corruption-free future for this country, if these children are given the right books to read at the right age."

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