The problem

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THE modern magazine in India has a rich and multi-lingual history that no single issue of Seminar, with just a few articles, can hope to do proper justice to. It took a long time, many months, to decide how to approach the theme of the ‘modern magazine’, given that it would not be possible to look at the vast spectrum of such publications in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, and many other Indian languages, apart from English, nor to really begin at the beginning, sometime in the late 19th century.

If language could provide one vector, subject area could be just as valid a basis for proceeding – there are after all literary magazines, news magazines, sports magazines, fashion magazines, men’s magazines, women’s magazines, film magazines, environment magazines… the list is very long. Eventually what determined the contents of this issue was the response that the very theme of ‘the modern magazine’ elicited from a wide variety of writers, editors, publishers, critics, scholars and enthusiasts we invited, all of who share an interest in and experience of this form.

The hope was to explore the genre of the small magazine in India and elsewhere; the literary magazine but also other sorts of magazines, of arts and ideas, of politics and culture, of news and opinion, and still others with even more specific niches, like the environment, poetry, new media, cinema, particular political ideologies, human rights, architecture and so on. The magazine in post-colonial India has its ancestors in such influential nationalist-era publications as Kesari, Young India, The Modern Review, Harijan, Bahishkrut Bharat, JugantarPatrika, Mooknayak, Harijan and many others of this ilk, all started and/or patronized by figures like Tilak, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Tagore, M.N. Roy, Ambedkar and their peers. It’s undeniable that an overall public opinion against colonial rule, against untouchability, for and against non-violence, for and against revolutionary action, for and against Partition and so forth was seeded, explored, built and disseminated via the magazine (among other vehicles and forums, of course) throughout the first half of the 20th century.

There is much to critically reflect on, including the media and information/communication technologies at different moments which made these ventures artifacts of their times – social and political movements, sometimes, with which they might have been associated, and the audiences and publics that they addressed, or perhaps at some point ceased to address. (Arguably in some cases certain publics were themselves the creations or effects of certain magazines, a subtle point worth exploring at length for historians of the form).

In the time that it took for this issue to come together, what slowly became obvious was something not considered earlier. And this had nothing to do with any particular magazine or set of magazines, but rather with the nature of the public sphere that enables magazines to exist and proliferate. The discursive ethos necessary for magazine culture to flourish is essentially a liberal one. It is only in a liberal space that different opinions, ideas and arguments can be expressed and pursued, where communities of readers will seek out publications that work for them and like-minded audiences who share their interests.

It is only in a liberal space where individuals will look for and find something to read in that pile of magazines in a friendly café, at a neighborhood reading room, in a school or college library, at the doctor’s waiting room, on the platform of a railway station, in a hotel lobby, at the hairdresser’s salon, in the guest room of a friend’s house, in a trunk in the attic at the parental home, at an airport lounge, on a bedside table – in all those in-between places where we suddenly find ourselves with a little bit of time in hand and nothing special to do.

Magazines represent both leisure and curiosity. We expect to be entertained, educated, informed, amused and provoked by them, but not really as much as we would by the books we read. We are willing to spend money on them, but not a lot. We can give them attention, but only in small doses. An issue of The New Yorker might get one through a train ride between Boston and New York, while a Bollywood magazine will not even last the length of time it take to get a haircut. But we are okay with this, because magazines only make sense in an atmosphere of tolerance and laissez-faire, where we do not have rigid expectations of being compensated in any strict sense for the minutes or hours we while away flipping pages, looking at pictures, laughing at cartoons, reading casually and without too much direction, focus or pressure. Magazines are about being relaxed.

Every contributor to this issue came of age at some point before the Internet became our principal medium of reading; we all share memories of magazines being a big part of our life as literate and often opinionated citizens of democratic India. My own childhood was filled with magazines, Indian and foreign, in Hindi, English and other languages, and I was never disallowed from reading any of them, no matter whether they were meant for adults or children. Magazine culture in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s didn’t just help us to grow up as individuals; it also played a role in the maturation of a postcolonial Indian public sphere.

Unfortunately, the era of social media seems to have sent us into a regression of some kind, where public culture is marked by anxiety, abuse, intolerance, misogyny, stress and offence, the very antithesis of the kind of discursive space that prevailed in the heyday of the modern magazine. In India, magazines were often purveyors of breaking news, sensational exposés, in-depth reportage, political opinion, avant-garde poetry and fiction, scathing comics and cartoons, interviews with controversial figures, and other kinds of material with the potential to stir things up in society.

But before the era of the Internet and social media, magazine writers were not subject to relentless trolling, no matter how many readers might have disagreed with or disapproved of what got published. Today, writing an article in a magazine has become a hazardous business, with a blowback so fierce as to intimidate even seasoned journalists and veteran contributors. If a magazine owner will not fire you, or if a magazine editor will not kill your story, you might in fact resort to a degree of self-censorship, simply in order to avoid wading into the swamp of what now passes for public opinion. It is not just an authoritarian tendency in the ruling dispensation, but also the hostile and malign nature of public discourse in the age of Twitter and Facebook that curbs the freedom of the press and negatively impacts magazine culture in our time.

An exhibition at the SALT Galleries in Istanbul in the fall of 2015 titled, ‘How did we get here’ showed how in the 1980s, when Turkey struggled with the legacy of Kemalism, swinging between authoritarian secular democracy and outright military dictatorship, state censorship was rampant and intellectuals were at the forefront of dissent and protest. Since universities and publishing houses were directly hit by the curbs on free speech, an underground culture of the little magazine, the pamphlet, the manifesto, and the tabloid flourished. Democratic possibilities that were under attack in mainstream politics remained alive in the space of the magazine and related forms of do-it-yourself print media.

India has experienced a rather different political trajectory from the 1980s to the present, relative to Turkey. The coming of globalization, together with the rise of the Hindu Right, has seen a simultaneous explosion of media culture and a shrinking of the liberal space where diverse ideas may be freely expressed and debated. There are more magazines than ever before and with slicker production values, but are they as good as magazines used to be in the first few decades after Independence? And how much longer can those magazines that do try to deliver high quality content survive the onslaught of the Internet, with its websites and blogs, its warriors and trolls, its systematic destruction of the very temporality of slow reading and its suffocation of any breathing room for the diversity of opinion?

It’s not entirely unreasonable to imagine that what was intended to have been an assessment of and a tribute to the modern magazine in India may well turn out to be an obituary of sorts.