The Mighty Salon of Janpath

Intelligence tends to age well, even when packed into wilfully dowdy pages. Seminar magazine has been Delhi’s respectable dowager for a long time. Completing 50 years next month, it has much to celebrate — a vaunted contributor list being just one. And much to lament — an impervious culture being just one.

Malvika (“Mala”) Singh, 60, has strong opinions, but she claims you won’t find them in her journal, originally founded by her parents Raj and Romesh Thapar in 1959. “The ease with which you’re able to absorb things is critical. You mellow and become more accepting. And that’s how my angularities have smoothened,” says Mala. “Seminar has taught me that.”

Raj and Romesh started Seminar directly out of their growing disillusionment with the Communist Party of India in Bombay. Their earlier tabloid, Crossroads had gradually morphed into an unstated party mouthpiece. When it was banned in the early 1950s, they fought the case in court and won, resulting in India’s first amendment to its Constitution around the right to freedom of speech.

But they’d had enough. “Opposing viewpoints within the covers of a single magazine,” was Romesh’s outline, and Raj coaxed and goaded it into reality. The test of a firstrate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function, said the ever felicitous F Scott Fitzgerald. By taking one problem every month and inviting essays on it from differing points of views, the pair wanted to give space to the fresh thinking of a newly independent country. The dialectical tradition of the Left had reasserted itself.

In its 50 years, every issue of Seminar has come out promptly on the first day of every month. Each clutch of essays is prefaced with an unsigned Problem Statement of that month’s topic. These have ranged from cinema’s historical imagination to urban infrastructures to SEZs. The one gap in publication was during the Emergency when Seminar was served with a censorship notice. Raj and Romesh decided to cease publication till the Emergency was lifted and they could publish freely again.

“I remember as a child sticking stamps on copies,” says Mala. When Raj and Romesh both died in 1987, Mala and her husband Tejbir took on the mantle. “My father passed away on August 21, and even then, we put out the issue by coming to office the next day, because that was the best tribute to them – he was a stickler for deadlines,” remembers Mala. The journal has also kept up with its briny typographical covers, a selection of which will be exhibited in October.

In a curious way, Seminar’s success lies in the elite pedigree of both its founders and its keepers. Raj and Romesh were part of new India’s social elite. After leaving Bombay’s film and art scene for Dilli, they became close friends with Indira Gandhi, with Romesh serving in her inner coterie. Their son-inlaw Tejbir is the nephew of Khushwant Singh and grandson of Sir Sobha Singh, the single-largest real estate owner and builder of Lutyens’ Delhi. Raj’s, and now Mala’s, dinner soirees are legendary for assembling an international who’s who, mixing gossip with serious discussion. On any given evening, you’ll find ministers, ambassadors, thinkers, artists and dignitaries of all hues at their house. The four of them — Raj, Romesh, Mala and Tejbir — have been at the epicentre of India’s social and intellectual super elite, with access to virtually anyone in the country.

The team at the Janpath office is well balanced. Brassy and cheerful, Mala is the magazine’s public persona who turns social wheels to get advertising and chase elusive contributors. Tejbir remains genteel and phlegmatic, while consulting editor Harsh Sethi brings a sinewy intelligence couched in academic training.

The country’s top industrialists like the Tatas and Mahindras have regularly contributed advertising to keep the rag from the pale. Like the founders, Mala has been careful to ensure she doesn’t pressure the journal for her own survival. They refuse to take grants in order to remain independent.

Over the years, there have been some grumblings about its Leftist lineage. Says Mala, “When my father was around, there was an incorrect perception the magazine reflected only a Left of Centre thought.” Historian Ramachandra Guha explains this as symptomatic rather than ideological: “Right wing thought became mainstream only in the 1980s, and so Seminar reflected that. Before that, there was only Centre, Left and extreme Left.” Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan, who has contributed to the journal for 20 years, points out how Raj and Romesh were still elitist in remaining, to some extent, linked to their associates in Bombay and Delhi. “Mala has been much more open to inviting contributors. She is equally affably aggressive with everyone.”

The editors admit their readership remains academics, libraries and students. In the early days, anyone sitting for a public services exam read Seminar to pass their exam, says Mala. Its monthly print run of 4,000 resonates with a global readership of over 1 lakh, according to her.
‘Too much of Amartya Sen and Ashis Nandy and Martha Nussbaum can drive you a bit mad,’ says Harsh

The one other publication that has taken up Seminar’s format of exploring one theme in each issue is The Little Magazine, but Harsh finds it too erratic to be real competition. “The Little Magazine is more substantive in that it deals with a wider variety of styles – photos, short stories, plays. But almost no one reads it cover to cover. Too much of Amartya Sen and Ashis Nandy and Martha Nussbaum can drive you a bit mad. They’re all friends, but it can become overkill.” He continues, “The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) is formidable and it’s better brand recognition for a writer seeking a social science audience. But Seminar has an edge for a banker, civil servant, journalist. The EPW can be esoteric even for an academic like me.” Visvanathan concurs, “Seminar is like walking around a park. The EPW is like walking around a monument. I haven’t missed the latter much.” Guha calls Seminar “an indispensable national institution.”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, emphasises how Seminar is a cross between mainstream magazines and academic journals. Harsh says: “We want even specialised writers to write in a way that is accessible to common readers.”

More importantly, its free spirit of dissent against the ruling ideology and its internationalist, cosmopolitan sensibility actually helped create our thankfully acidulous media today. But with the seeping media glut, what chance does Seminar have? Harsh is candid: “If we were larger, we’d debate this every day to know the market curve. Our small size gives us freedom not to worry about it too much.”

Once, journals like Seminar and EPW were considered lordly arbiters of the intellectual landscape. Today, though, its importance seems more about setting an example, and providing a niche space for a quirky selection of essays, though still often by prominent contributors. Visvanathan asks, “Where else will you find Indian essays on gossip and the idiocy of language and modern reproductive systems – all in one year?” Some detractors question Seminar’s impact and say it merely invites contributions to analyse a theme rather than create pointed debates. Swapan Dasgupta says: “Seminar’s influence is not as much as it should be.”
‘Seminar is like a walk around a park, the EPW like a walk around a monument,’ says Visvanathan

The editorial team has twice deviated from its nonpartisan approach. It put out an overtly anti-nuclear issue after Pokhran II, and the Problem Statement was signed. The other was on its bestseller issue on the Gujarat 2002 riots. Harsh explains, “Some asked us to publish the [right-wing] Hindu view, and we said any kind of sneaking defence of what happened is unacceptable.” While all the editors have favoured positions, “we don’t feel we have to present a politburo united front.” He continues, “The fun is when people are surprised. Politics is the easiest thing to do! But Seminar’s also done multiple issues on the environment, schooling, cities, the arts.”

GIVEN THE English language media’s comfort zones, Seminar often wonders how to deal with the seamier sides of society that others ignore. While it’s open to extreme views, Harsh is a bit uncomfortable with the “closure mode” of Arundhati Roy-type of writing. Mala calls her “a good craftsperson”; Harsh says, “I ask myself if I’m only being taken up completely by the graphic quality of her writing. Because if I step back from the writing quality, I have to say – ‘I don’t quite agree!’ Yet it forces me to acknowledge the dark side.” As it releases its golden anniversary issue, “The Republic of Ideas”, Mala says, “We have to look at another generation and its new ideas. This generation does want, unfortunately, cash and a bit more zap in the layout.” Harsh is ambivalent: “One of the things I learnt from my older colleagues is not to obsess with institutional continuity. The greater continuity in this country is that of ideas and to learn to respectfully engage with positions different from yours.”

Visvanathan says, “Seminar is exciting as a memory. It has the biggest collection of policy makers and eccentrics. It is this eccentricity that is special. It has retained a sense of humour. As long as they edit carefully and keep making good coffee, they’ll be fine!”

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