Amidst the many big publishing houses featured at the Chennai Book Festival, it’s easy to miss the small stall of Kavya Publications. But for 67-year-old retired Tamil professor Shanmuga Sundaram, the books in his stall are so many pieces of an ambitious lifetime mission – to preserve and transmit Tamil language and culture to future generations.
Sundaram, who hails from Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu, has been working on this massive project for the last 36 years. In that time, he has published 1100 books in Tamil. He first began Kavya Publications in 1981. “My daughter was born in the same year. So, I named it after her, Kavya Publications,” he says.
At the time, Sundaram was working as a professor of Tamil at St Joseph’s College in Bengaluru. Kavya Publications began as a self-publishing effort, he explains. “I started publishing books for myself in the beginning, but later my friends joined in and asked me to publish their books also. We were the first ones to publish books about post-modernism and feminism in India,” he claims.
Since then, his small publishing house has become an interesting repository of all things related to Tamil culture, publishing novels, Tamil literary works, folklore, and books of sociology and history. He has published over 200 collections of folklore from Tamil Nadu alone, he says. “When I was doing my post-graduation in Tamil in 1971, I collected many tales of folklore and folk songs from Tirunelveli, Madurai and Kanyakumari districts,” he says.
While he maintained the publishing house for many years alongside working a full-time job, in 2006 he decided to retire and take up publishing full time. “I had shifted Kavya publications from Bengaluru to Chennai in 2001. After five years, I finally decided to work on publication more,” he says.
Not only has Sundaram published an impressive collection, he has himself written 200 books about Tamil films, folklore and drama. Besides this, he has also published the collected works of Tamil legends like Meenakshi Sundaram.
But for all of Sundaram’s dedication to his cause, the fortunes of Kavya Publications have dwindled in recent years, publishing only 25 to 50 copies of its latest books. “We do not have the money to publish more than that. Earlier, we were publishing 1000 copies of each book because the government used to purchase it from us for public libraries. Now the whole system has become corrupt,” he explains.
Most of his books are distributed by a handful of private book sellers now. “The books we publish are sold in 10 book shops in the city and the cost depends on the book. It has become very expensive now, each page costs Re 1 to publish,” he says.
With mounting costs, Sundaram has had to turn to donations from the writers he publishes. “Now, most of the books we publish are written by scholars, people who do research. We ask them to pay for publishing 100 copies, which are published over two to four years.”
Events like the Chennai Book Festival, he says, are a blessing for the publishing house, as he manages to sell about 50 books a day there.
But the dwindling commercial prospects of his project don’t stop him. “My publication house is commercially unsuccessful, but I’m from Tirunelveli and want to save my culture and language for the future generations,” he declares.