Independent Publishing in India – The Story of Tulika Books

25 years of publishing excellence

Tulika (meaning a painter’s brush or writer’s quill in Sanskrit) was a venture started in the late 1980s by Radhika Menon and Indira (Indu) Chandrasekhar. In the early years, besides running a DTP unit providing publishing services, Tulika functioned as the editorial and subscription office of the journals Social Scientist and Journal of Arts & Ideas. It published its first book, China: Issues in Development, a volume of essays edited by (the late) Ashok Mitra, in 1989. The move into regular publishing came a few years later, with Indu setting up the imprint Tulika Books in 1995, while Radhika moved to Chennai and founded Tulika Publishers in 1996, publishing children’s books.

Tulika Books published Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception, a collection of seminal essays by the renowned historian Professor Irfan Habib of Aligarh Muslim University in the summer of 1995 – and we celebrate our 25th anniversary in 2020 as a marker of as many years since the publication of that volume (which remains in print even today, running into its fourteenth edition). Essays was followed by six more ‘author-led’ volumes of essays, where, going against existing publishing conventions, the name of the author rather than the title of the book was creatively highlighted by designer-artist Ram Rahman’s cover designs. These books served to make visible the fledgling publishing house as well as establish Tulika’s impressive author base: Whatever Happened to Imperialism and other essays by Prabhat Patnaik, Culture, Ideology, Hegemony: Intellectuals and Social Consciousness in Colonial India by K.N. Panikkar, Lineages of the Present: Political Essays by Aijaz Ahmad, The Long Transition: Essays on Political Economy by Utsa Patnaik, Politics of the Possible: Essays on Gender, History, Narratives, Colonial English by Kumkum Sangari, When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Politics in India by Geeta Kapur.

Tulika Books is committed to publishing from a broad left and democratic perspective. Our authors include some of India’s best-known academics and intellectuals as well as young researchers and scholars, all committed to advancing a progressive agenda. We have been fortunate in building long-standing relationships with our authors, with many of them choosing to come back to us with new and appropriate book projects. To cite but one instance, Professor Irfan Habib is the General Editor of the prestigious multi-volume People’s History of India series and the author of several monographs in the ongoing series, besides authoring/editing at least eight other volumes for Tulika. Over the last 25 years, we have published more than 200 new titles, a majority of which continue to be in circulation through reprints and updated/revised editions. Tulika’s vibrant list includes cutting-edge scholarship in archaeology, architecture, art, critical theory, cultural studies, development studies, economics, film studies, history, literary theory, political theory, philosophy and sociology. We have received acclaim and awards for the design and production standards of our books, especially our arts-related list. Tulika collaborates with institutions and organizations such as the Aligarh Historians Society, Social Scientist Trust, Association of Indian Labour Historians, Foundation for Agrarian Studies and the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation to develop book series in select subject areas and disciplinary fields.

Over the last decade and more, the publishing scene in India has grown manifold with several conglomerates and multinationals making their entry. Simultaneously, there has been a mushrooming of small and independent publishers, most of whom do remarkable work from defined socio-political positions, pushing the boundaries of conventional publishing and venturing into radically new areas. An early member of this community, Tulika Books is actively involved in collectives and networks of independent publishers, such as the Delhi-based Independent Publishers’ Group and Independent Publishers’ Distribution Alternatives, and the International Alliance of Independent Publishers.

Like most independents in India, Tulika Books has remained small by design. As Indu says, “Most of us cannot compete with the bigger players in terms of volume of output, or the number and spread of titles. Yet we continue to grow, sometimes flourish even, despite and amidst the struggles this involves. Many of us are small not because we are forced to remain so but because we choose to. Staying small helps us to maintain the quality of our content and production, and also to nourish and retain our authors by being able to work closely with them . . . authors, we believe, are the spine of our work.”

Syeda Hameed (second from left) and Amitabh Bachchan (extreme right) at the Mumbai book launch of Bread Beauty Revolution: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas 1914–1987 (edited by Iffat Fatima and Syeda Hameeda), November 2015
Javed Akhtar speaking at the Delhi book launch of Bread Beauty Revolution: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas 1914–1987 (edited by Iffat Fatima and Syeda Hameeda), December 2015; D.P. Tripathi and Shabana Azmi are seated on the dais

Also like most independent publishers, Tulika is committed to innovation and believes in taking risks. “We don’t baulk at publishing ideas and authors who are often viewed as ‘controversial’ by conservative publishing houses. We play a significant role in ensuring that debate and dissent and difference, and heterodox ideas and thinking, are kept alive through the kind of books we choose to publish . . . with rigorous editorial processes in place and out-of-the-box thinking where formats and production values are concerned,” reiterates Indu.

25 years and counting . . . as we grow from strength to strength.

To mark the occasion of completing its 25-year journey in publishing, Tulika Books pays tribute to the author of its first book, and many books since, Professor Irfan Habib. All the books in the People’s History of India series will be available to readers at a special discount of 20 percent until August 31, 2020. Use coupon code Tulika20 at checkout.

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