The Contribution of Writers Workshop

Ananda Lal and Rubana Huq


In 1987, the Institute of Book Publishing in New Delhi established the Indian Publishing Hall of Fame, “to acknowledge, acclaim and honour those who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion of publishing and the cause of book culture in India.”[i] The inaugural list of inductees comprised, posthumously, Jawaharlal Nehru, K. M. Munshi (founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan), D. R. Mankekar (who authored many books of political journalism), and M. N. Rao (promoter of the Home Library Plan, among other initiatives, in Andhra Pradesh); and Dev Raj Chawla (of UBS Publishers’ Distributors), the Sahitya Pravarthaka Cooperative Society (in Kerala), and P. Lal (of Writers Workshop). The citation for Professor Lal read: “Writers Workshop has grown into a movement with an ethos of its own. It has succeeded in furthering the cause of Indian poetry in English despite its limited resources: a tribute to Lal’s devotion and energy. No one has been able to create and sustain a similar effort.” Yet in 2008, when the planning started for an anthology marking fifty years of Writers Workshop, Lal shared with a researcher, “Fifty isn’t enough for anyone to evaluate the Workshop. One needs to stand sufficiently distanced from history to assess.”[ii] Notwithstanding both the earlier encomium and his later warning, we attempt here to quantify Writers Workshop’s contribution to Indian poetry in English, beyond the self-evident fact that in those fifty years it launched over 1000 titles, most of them poetry in English by Indians, surpassing all other publishers in that genre put together.


The beginnings till the 1960s

P. Lal (born in 1929) made his first significant appearance in print as a college student in the third issue of the ninth volume of St Xavier’s Magazine in July 1947, containing his essay “In Defence of Modern English Poetry” along with a six-page poetry section edited by him. Soon after, he started reviewing books and publishing poems in The Illustrated Weekly of India (the nationally-circulated magazine from Bombay edited by C. R. Mandy, one of the few patrons of Indo-Anglian literature, as it was then called, who also printed Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes), and writing a regular column for Thought (between 1954 and 1957) while co-editing the Orient Review and Literary Digest.[iii] By 1952, Lal had reviewed Ezekiel’s A Time to Change, brought out by Fortune Press in England, for Thought. Two points here need explanation: why would Lal have had to “defend” English poetry, and why Ezekiel’s first book was published abroad. In the decade after Independence, many Indians were pitching for the Angrezi hatao (“remove English”) movement in a knee-jerk reaction to newfound national pride. Even educated Indians considered the English language colonial baggage and Indian poetry in English as a passé and unworthy hybrid of British cultural tyranny. They regarded those using the language as an unpatriotic lot.[iv] Years later, Lal would title a book of his essays on Indian writing in English Alien Insiders.

Thus, local publishing platforms were almost non-existent, and foreign exposure and endorsement mattered. Lal, at that time a young and popular teacher of English literature in St Xavier’s College, dreamed beyond conservatism and believed that English was an Indian language. A chance encounter with K. Raghavendra Rao, a professor of English in Madras Christian College and later of Political Science at Gauhati University, led to their joint editing of the historic Modern Indo-Anglian Poetry (1957),[v] which, in Rao’s words, “became a virtual manifesto for a new kind of poetry in which the English language would be twisted and tortured to become a fit medium for poetry that could represent faithfully an Indian sensibility. It angered old-timers …”.[vi] They had become the pioneering anthologizers of modern Indian English poetry.

The next year, Writers Workshop began its journey, when Lal decided to set up a publishing house for Indo-Anglian writing. “When no one would publish our work, we had to do it ourselves.”[vii] He mobilized a group of seven young, like-minded, cosmopolitan Calcutta writers, tired of not being printed or noticed, to change the status quo. He referred to this group later as the “magical circle”[viii]: Anita Desai, Jai Ratan, Pradip Sen, Deb Kumar Das, Kewlian Sio, Sasthibrata Chakravarti (who soon emigrated to Britain, where he became better known as Sasthi Brata) and William Hull (an American professor in India on a Fulbright fellowship). They nominated him as Secretary, charged a subscription fee for membership, and published themselves, trailblazing the path followed in the future by similar presses like Clearing House. The first issue of their journal, the Writers Workshop Miscellany (which opened with Desai’s short story “Grandmother”), and the first batch of six books appeared in 1960, two of them short-story collections, by Jai Ratan and Kewlian Sio.

In order to provide maximum encouragement to themselves, Writers Workshop turned into a tight literary club where one composed verse, another wrote the introduction, and a third reviewed the book. The insular nature of the undertaking was understandable considering the conditions they found themselves in, even though their numbers rapidly increased. So, Lal introduced volumes by Das, Sen, Ezekiel, Lawrence Bantleman and R. de L. Furtado; Raghavendra Rao wrote a preface for Lal, Ezekiel wrote one for Monika Varma, and Sen wrote one for Ira De; David McCutchion, a professor of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, prefaced Lila Ray’s Entrance. To get William Carlos Williams to contribute the preface to N. K. Sethi’s The Word is Split in 1961 came as a major achievement. The Workshop (a word chosen at a time when it had not become as commonplace as it is now, to designate collaborative and cooperative processes) pointed out their writers’ excellence, mercilessly criticized one another’s work in the weekly Sunday-morning meetings,[ix] and swore by a detailed thousand-word constitution, better known as the “credo”, which evolved over the decades and in its most recent incarnation from 2010, the year Lal passed away, appears as the last page of every Workshop book.

In 1962, the Workshop published the 22-year-old Adil Jussawalla’s debut, Land’s End, and in 1965, A. K. Ramanujan’s Fifteen Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology, long before Ramanujan became a name to reckon with. Additionally, this volume marked the Workshop’s move into English translations of Indian literature, which eventually turned into one of its key domains. 1965 also brought Ezekiel’s second collection for the Workshop (after The Unfinished Man in 1960), The Exact Name. The list of the chosen expanded to include Kamala Das’s second book, The Descendants, and the sixteen-year-old Pritish Nandy’s first, Of Gods and Olives, both in 1967. Both lived in Calcutta at that time. Nandy produced two more volumes of verse with the Workshop before establishing his own imprint. Lal discovered others from across India: Suniti Namjoshi (Poems, 1967), Shankar Mokashi-Punekar (The Pretender, 1967), G. S. Sharat Chandra (Bharata Natyam Dancer, 1968), and the 26-year-old Gauri Deshpande (Between Births, 1968). Namjoshi later became famous as a feminist author, and Deshpande for her bold and untraditional themes in Marathi fiction. All four stayed with the Workshop for their subsequent volumes of poetry.

Meanwhile, the Writers Workshop Miscellany, later simply The Miscellany, continued under Lal’s editorship to compile and disseminate the creative work of poets who did not yet have enough material for individual volumes, thereby encouraging them to carry on writing. Early contributors to the journal in this decade included Arun Kolatkar and Gieve Patel, both from Bombay – a fact requiring emphasis because of the myth, which we shall dispel through greater detail later, that the Bombay poets had nothing to do with the Workshop. The Miscellany appeared regularly six times a year against subscriptions of Rs. 6, three dollars or one pound, postage free. It also served as a chronicle of literary happenings, recording authors’ visits to and events hosted by Writers Workshop, while printing appreciations and criticism of other Indo-Anglian writings of that period.


Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo (1969)

The challenge facing Writers Workshop grew with the Bengali intellectuals who formed the majority in Calcutta’s literary scene deciding that the days of English literature had gone with the British Empire. A strong wave of criticism buffeted the young poets. Buddhadeva Bose, one of the foremost Bengali poets and scholars of the time, a senior personality and founder-Head of the Comparative Literature department at Jadavpur University, tore into the nascent movement with passion. Rao recalls, “Bose was unleashing a vicious and vigorous onslaught on Indian writers in English. I remember having a violent quarrel with him when he visited Gauhati in the fifties to carry on his anti-English campaign.”[x] In The Concise Encyclopedia of English and American Poets and Poetry, Bose wrote that only Indians in the nineteenth century came nearest to “speaking, thinking and dreaming in English” and quoted from Yeats: “no man can think or write with music and vigour except in his mother tongue.”[xi] He famously concluded, “’Indo-Anglian’ poetry is a blind alley, lined with curio shops, leading nowhere.” These lines prompted Lal, who viewed Bose’s statement as both negative and damaging, to confront Bose through a questionnaire sent out to over a hundred writers along with a cyclostyled copy of Bose’s article, requesting them to respond to his charges on the Indo-Anglian literary context, on the lack of a real public in India, and on the extent of flexibility among the writers to change and recreate English. Seventy-six replies arrived, for inclusion in what Meenakshi Mukherjee called “probably the first major compilation of Indian poems in English,” containing selections from 132 poets and titled Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo, a 600-page riposte to Bose.[xii]

Lal’s fundamental query rested on a core issue: “Can an Indian poetry in English discharge the function of changing and re-creating [the language]?”[xiii] Many of the respondents upheld the poet’s “right” to do so while only a few stated that a poet had no such right. Some thought that Indo-Anglian writing would be more relevant in India than in the UK, as producing a modern, post-Orientalist Indian poetry in English would mean looking at the world through Indian eyes and not anyone else’s. While some believed that they just happened to write in English, some also thought that the poets who wrote in English did not have a choice in the matter. Gieve Patel felt that any discussion of even minimal complexity at home called for the use of English.[xiv] Jussawalla had a simpler response: “The main circumstance was that I didn’t know poetry in any other language.”[xv] Gopal Honnalgere just found writing in English easy and thought that in order to evolve, Kannada still needed English, and Indo-English poetry was “a happy catalyst.”[xvi] Kewlian Sio, born to Chinese-Sikkimese parents, wrote that even those who spoke regional Indian languages often fell back on English words; for instance, they said “typewriter” rather than taptapayantar.[xvii] Most of the poets had a bilingual mental world, their habits and thoughts rooted in things Indian, but with a greater facility of expression in English. Their knowledge of English did not imply the loss of a mother tongue, but the gain of an other tongue, which by being an effective part of Indian life for more than a century, had become a useful vehicle of creative expression. There were also poets responding to the questionnaire who did not subscribe to the “mother-tongue myth” at all.

None of these poets wrote for either the effect or the audience. Of course it was essential to be read but it was equally difficult to get poems published in India, as the poetry-reading public itself was small and even smaller when it came to English. But according to Ezekiel there still existed a cross-section of Indian readership that formed their audience. Nevertheless, he rued the “lack of a real public” for his writing not only in India but everywhere else as well,[xviii] though he was also quick to share that good writing had often been done in the worst possible cultural conditions. Saleem Peeradina thought that “Until one can give a satisfactory performance one cannot expect an ‘audience’, leave alone curtain-calls.”[xix] Thus, beset by a siege mentality that we must understand because, fifty years on, it no longer obtains, the contributors placed their convictions in print and rallied round a literary tradition that, defiant or otherwise, represented the natural flow of their creativity. Bose’s accusation of un-Indianness about a language that had stayed in India for nearly two hundred years and looked set to stay for many more was proved irrelevant. The anthology, extensively reviewed in the national press and journals, led the Workshop to formulate its influential manifesto on the role of Indian writing in English.


In 2000, Jai Ratan, the oldest founding member and an award-winning translator from Hindi to English, observed that Writers Workshop had become a “springboard to literary fame,”[xx] as it had promoted many new writers who were dominating the literary roadmap. The Workshop’s journey had a sole goal, as Lal said, to make names known rather than print well-known names. Unpublished, unknown poets turned to Writers Workshop; this was its core value to the literary scene. For such purposes, funding clearly posed a problem. By 1970 Lal had become the de-facto sole proprietor, as most of the original circle gradually left Calcutta for career reasons. Confronted by the realistic possibility of having to close down the Workshop since he could not bear the expenses on his meager professor’s salary, he devised alternative means. In 1962, William Hull had facilitated a one-year “Special Professor” position for Lal at Hofstra University, New York. From 1968, invitations came from other American universities too, and Lal realized that he could capitalize on the favorable foreign-exchange rate to bring home his dollar earnings to subvent the Workshop. He paid an emotional price, by having to leave his wife and two schoolgoing children in Calcutta over regular periods of about one semester almost every year during the 1970s. But this enabled the Workshop to function for two decades. Whenever he was in the US (and later, Australia), he delegated its day-to-day activities to Prabir Aditya, his neighbor and owner of the manually-operated letterpress named Lake Gardens Press in the converted garage next door, which Lal chose as his dedicated press to print all books from the late 1960s. Lal’s wife and son attended to urgent correspondence and proofreading in his absence.

An aesthetic decision taken at roughly the same time had a permanent impact on the look of Workshop publications. In the first few years, their binding had been done in the conventional way by Tulamiah Mohiuddin, a professional binder working from the old Sealdah publishing district of Calcutta, whom Lal had patronized. As was his creative wont, Lal had another of his brainwaves, which he passed by Tulamiah, who readily complied: “Instead of glossily hiding mediocre mass-manufactured binding – the common 20th-century practice – the Workshop reveals the beauty of the hand-binder’s art by using only a slim jacket-slip” on handloom “sari-bound gold-embossed” volumes.[xxi] A more contemporary Indian approach to book binding would be hard to imagine. The fabric that normally went into the hardback bookends covered up by paper jackets, now proudly appeared on the surface; but instead of ordinary cloth Lal replaced it with colorful sari material, originally sourced from Puri, Odisha, his favorite vacation spot. A “slim jacket-slip” of paper, printed with the title and author’s name, folded over it laterally and in turn was protected and kept in place by a clear vinyl dustjacket. When the dangers of plastic became established at the turn of the century, it was summarily dropped, the paper slips removed, and the title and author’s name gold-embossed in Lal’s calligraphy on the cloth cover itself. The sari’s contrasting border ran down the right edge of the front cover. This innovative design won first prize in the National Printing and Binding Awards in 1970, which Tulamiah received in New Delhi. Ever since, it has remained Writers Workshop’s visually distinctive USP, and though P. K. Aditya sold his house and left Lake Gardens in the 1980s, and Tulamiah died, his family in a village near Diamond Harbour, 50 km from Kolkata, continues to bind the books in the same fashion.

Many people believed, and still do, that the Workshop had an office buzzing with activity where all aspects of publication were attended to by several competent hands during usual working hours. The prodigious output of titles would have justified such conjectures. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Lal did everything single-handed, except the printing and binding. Because he was a college professor during the day, he could only spend early mornings and evenings on Workshop matters. It had no office other than his own study at home, lined along every wall from floor to ceiling with bookshelves that held his huge library. He read manuscripts, designed layout, corrected proofs and wrote letters – and of course his own books, increasingly of translations – at either one of two desks in this room. All papers and correspondence were filed away systematically in a four-drawer cabinet that still contains those holdings inscribed by so many now-household names. And Sunday mornings, everybody knew, was reserved for Workshop members who dropped in, and doubled up as open house.

Developing this model of alternative, independent and noncommercial publishing as the years rolled by, Lal decided that submissions had to meet one of three criteria to be accepted. First, the poems had to be so good as to be way ahead of their time, which by definition mainstream presses would never risk investing in. Second, the material should reveal promise and talent, and be in need of the encouragement of immediate publication, without which the despairing author might possibly abandon writing. Third, it had to appeal to Lal’s personal taste, so that he would enjoy printing it and introducing it to friends, whatever their private doubts on the matter. Lal referred to the virgin poets who became successful, after being published by the Workshop, as his “10% syndrome.”[xxii] He often said that discovering those ten would not have been possible had he not published the other 90%.

Let us simply list without comment some of the most notable discoveries and first books of poetry in the Workshop’s second phase: Shiv Kumar’s Articulate Silences (1970); Keki Daruwalla’s Under Orion (1970) and Apparition in April (1971); Mamta Kalia’s  Tribute to Papa (1970) and Poems ’78 (1978); Jayanta Mahapatra’s  Svayamvara (1971); Gopal Honnalgere’s A Wad of Poems (1971) and A Gesture of Fleshless Sound (1972); Agha Shahid Ali’s Bone-Sculpture (1972) and In Memory of Begum Akhtar (1979); Ruskin Bond’s It Isn’t Time That’s Passing (1972) and Lone Fox Dancing (1975); Lakshmi Kannan’s Impressions (1974) and The Glow and the Grey (1976); Meena Alexander’s The Bird’s Bright Ring (1976) and Without Place (1978); Santan Rodrigues’s I Exist (1976); Malathi Rao’s Khajuraho (1976); Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s Sap-Wood (1978); Vikram Seth’s Mappings (1981); Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Dark Like the River (1987); Temsula Ao’s Songs That Tell (1988); Robin Ngangom’s Words and the Silence (1988). The experience of Vikram Seth seems to have been fairly typical. In 1981 Seth was a 29-year-old collector of rejection slips, and had made an appointment to meet Lal, who is quoted in a newspaper interview to have said, “A very weary and disillusioned Vikram came to me that summer. He had been rejected by almost a dozen publishers. I went through it [his manuscript of Mappings] and told him that he was at least a decade ahead of his times.”[xxiii]


In 1989, Lal suffered a near-death experience during a lecture tour of North America. His recovery – possible only because the sudden trauma happened in the US where, despite being uninsured, he received the finest medical treatment over three months at a Catholic hospital that subsequently wrote off a large part of the bill to charity – took several more months, and he never traveled abroad after his return to Kolkata because his health did not allow it. Writers Workshop again faced a crisis in financial management. Lal overcame this by formulating an agreement (he refused to call it a contract) between every author and himself as publisher, whereby the former agreed to make an advance purchase of 100 copies of the book. This system enabled it to break even. Unkind critics have derided this as self-publishing, without remembering the time-honored precedents of this method all over the world, or that even academic presses routinely ask for and accept subsidies from various agencies for publications.

The Workshop continued to act as a welcoming point of entry for many young writers; although the maturing English-language publishing industry now offered other options as well, it still tended to decline experimental or unfashionable poetry. Lal accepted Hoshang Merchant’s book, Stone to Fruit (1989), the first of more than twenty, and Merchant, billing himself as “India’s first openly gay poet,” stays with the Workshop today, choosing it for his ongoing Collected Works, in three volumes presently. The novelist Indrajit Hazra and the dramatist Poile Sengupta had their first books of poetry published in 1990 (Twenty-four Poems) and 1991 (A Woman Speaks) respectively. Others include Vihang Naik (City Times, 1993), Mukta Sambrani (The Woman in This Poem Isn’t Lonely, 1997), and Bashabi Fraser (With Best Wishes from Edinburgh, 2001). But if one sought the most significant Workshop trend during this period, it would have to be the debuts of several poets from many of India’s neglected far eastern – somewhat erroneously called northeastern – states. The movement had begun with Ao and Ngangom in 1988, but gathered momentum with Ao’s Songs That Try to Say (1992), K. S. Nongkynrih’s The Sieve and Moments (both 1992), Mamang Dai’s River Poems (2004), and Esther Syiem’s Oral Scriptings (2005). More have followed.[xxiv]

One must not overlook the Workshop’s achievement in promoting English translations from Indian languages since its earliest days, much before the field became acceptable to regular publishers. Satyajit Ray’s translation of Sukumar Ray’s nonsense rhymes from Bengali, A. K. Ramanujan’s of Adiga from Kannada, Sitakant Mahapatra’s from Odiya as well as Munda, Oraon, Kondh and Paraja folksongs, Namjoshi’s of Govindagraj from Marathi, Prema Nandakumar’s of Nammalvar from Tamil, and Ghalib from Urdu, Mahadevi Varma from Hindi, Subramania Bharati from Tamil, Vinda Karandikar from Marathi, D. Balagangadhara Tilak from Telugu, Rammohun Roy, Tagore, Jibanananda Das, Bishnu Dey and Samar Sen from Bengali, number among the best known of them. The Workshop’s classical list contains not only Lal’s own “transcreations” of the Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, various Upanishads, the Dhammapada and the Jap-ji, but also others’ of Kalidasa, Jayadeva, Tulsidas, Kabir and Mirabai. Only the Sahitya Akademi has published more English translations of poetry from Indian languages.

Comparison with contemporary publishers and periodicals

The first major critical account of post-Independence English poetry was written by Bruce King, who made some highly injudicious statements that many accepted unquestioningly and echoed in their own pronouncements. One of them was his reference to a growing tension between the Workshop sensibility, under Lal, and those poets associated with Ezekiel. King went so far as to identify a schism between what he called the Calcutta and Bombay schools, and he quite partisanly sided with the latter because he considered it more “modern,” read, following Western ideas of modernism prioritizing irony and cynicism. As we observed in a review of his book, “publication by the Workshop often seems to be, in King’s eyes, a disqualification. … Yet, curiously enough, of the nearly 200 titles of poetry volumes in the ‘Chronology of Significant Publications’ appended to the book, the Workshop accounts for 90.”[xxv] Disregarding all the facts, however, the stigma stuck; the recent Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English dismissed the Workshop in just one sentence that rather inscrutably ended with “the significance of the enterprise [is] greatly in excess of its worth.”[xxvi]

A careful study reveals that King’s theory holds no ground whatsoever. While it is true that some poets had differences of opinion with Lal, and that several never submitted anything to the Workshop for publication – this would be only natural in any artistic movement anywhere, and the Workshop certainly did not own a monopoly – we have already seen that many in King’s so-called Bombay circle did indeed have quite a few Workshop publications to their name. In fact, a mutuality ran through all the publishing entities of the time. A substantial amount of correspondence from the Bombay poets addressed to Lal between 1958 and 1980 reflects their intent in being published, reviewed and patronized by Writers Workshop.[xxvii]

We may look at the other publishing enterprises, mostly located in Bombay and a couple in Allahabad, by way of comparison. Of course, Ezekiel had started off first. He published himself in the early years and distributed his second and third collections, Sixty Poems (1953) and The Third (1959), through Strand Bookshop in Bombay. His fourth and fifth books appeared from Writers Workshop. He had also assisted in editing the newsletter of the Indian chapter of PEN, edited Quest between 1955 and 1957, managed Design magazine in 1961, become literary and reviews editor of Imprint, which ceased by 1967, and briefly edited Poetry India. During the 1960s, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, formerly of Bombay and then moving to Allahabad, began Ezra-Fakir Editions from which appeared, among other things, his long poem bharatmata: a prayer (1966) and his magazines titled damn you and ezra. Mehrotra responded to Lal’s questionnaire and contributed poems to Lal’s Modern Indian Poetry in English.

Pritish Nandy, already a Workshop poet, ran Dialogue-Calcutta between 1968 and 1970, bringing out nineteen issues, each hosting one poet. After its bankruptcy in 1971, he started Dialogue Publications, and between 1972 and 1975, Dialogue-India. In 1974, Kersi Katrak and Gauri Deshpande (also Workshop poets, based in Bombay) started the short-lived Opinion Literary Quarterly, which had connections with Lal and Nandy, but only published four issues. It sold out in 1982 and the new owners started Kaiser-e-Hind from 1984 in Bombay, which also published some poetry.

In the early 1970s, Mehrotra, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel and Arun Kolatkar (all of whom had featured in Lal’s Modern Indian Poetry in English) had their own manuscripts but no publishers, so they started Clearing House in Bombay in 1976. As a cooperative venture, Clearing House was successful, in part because their books were cheap and attractively designed. They made a pre-publication offer of Rs 25 for the first four titles: Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Mehrotra’s Nine Enclosures, Jussawalla’s Missing Person, and Patel’s How Do You Withstand, Body. Eight years later, H. O. Nazareth’s Lobo (1984) was the imprint’s last title. In the late 1980s, Jussawalla ran Praxis single-handedly, publishing three books of poetry. Meanwhile, Oxford University Press under R. Parthasarathy, who had contributed poems to Lal’s Modern Indian Poetry in English, began the “New Poetry in India” series.

The other Bombay-based poetry-publishing collective that appeared almost simultaneously had an even shorter life: Newground, under the Bombay poets Santan Rodrigues (again, an already published Workshop poet), Melanie Silgardo and Raul D’Gama Rose, commenced in 1978 and released four books – launching with 3 Poets, named after the three founders – before fading out. Other brief ventures included the Hack Writers’ Cooperative started by Rajiv Rao and Rafique Baghdadi, who published their joint collection 45RPM in 1983. Baghdadi ran the Jaico bookshop in Bombay, which had a special corner for poetry, and had links with the magazine Kavi India. Several other Bombay magazines that no one remembers today (besides those of general interest like the Illustrated Weekly) flitted past: Bombay Duck, Dionysius, Blunt, Indian Writing Today, Tornado, Volume, Keynote, The Bombay Literary Review.

None of all these literary periodicals boasted the longevity of the Workshop’s Miscellany, and none of these endeavours developed into institutions. Indeed, for the most part, the poets seemed to have come together only to publish themselves and their friends, there was little professionalism, if any, and no one seemed to know much about how publishing actually worked. Like Writers Workshop, everyone pitched in, personal funds were usually involved, and there was no clear differentiation between editorial and administrative responsibilities. The difference lies in the Workshop’s staying power and sustainability, ultimately under Lal’s solo initiative, and in its spread as it reached out all over the country to create a national movement. In comparison, even the big commercial publishers shied away from poetry, the combined output of Rupa, Viking and Disha (Orient Longman) sparse and fluctuating. In 2010, Lal passed away. But Writers Workshop continues, and in the four years since, has published about 80 new titles. Virtually the cottage industry of Indian English literature, especially poetry, it has outlived all other publishing attempts of its time.


~ From A History of Indian Poetry in English, edited by Rosinka Chaudhuri


[i]                  Booklet, in the Writers Workshop archives, Kolkata.

[ii]    P. Lal, interviewed by Rubana Huq, 25 February 2008.

[iii]  The general-interest weekly Thought, published from Delhi, included “regular features on literature and the arts”. The monthly journal Orient Review and Literary Digest, published from Calcutta, “concentrates … on the background and cultural and philosophical contributions of the ‘East.’” Quoted from the respective periodicals.

[iv]   For substantiation of these claims, see K. Raghavendra Rao, “Friend P. Lal: A prose portrait in lieu of a poem,” in Be Vocal in Times of Beauty: Tributes to P. Lal at Seventy, ed. C. Venugopal (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 2000), 182-83.

[v]    P. Lal and K. Raghavendra Rao, ed.,  Modern Indo-Anglian Poetry (Delhi: Kavita, 1957).

[vi]   Rao, “Friend P. Lal,” 184.

[vii] Interviewed by Meenakshi Mukherjee, “Writers Workshop@fifty,” The Hindu, 1 March 2009, Literary Review.

[viii] P. Lal, interviewed by Rubana Huq, 28 January 2008.

[ix]   For an entertaining description of these free-wheeling meetings, see P. Lal, “Writers Workshop: How It Functions,” [1961] quoted in the Writers Workshop Checklist 2004, p. 98.

[x]    Rao, “Friend P. Lal,” 183.

[xi]            B. Bo., “Indian Poetry in English,” in The Concise Encyclopedia of English and American Poets and Poetry, ed. Stephen Spender and Donald Hall (London: Hutchinson, 1963), 178. The quotation from Yeats comes from “A General Introduction for My Work” (published 1961), in The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Volume V: Later Essays, edited by William H. O’Donnell (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 211.

[xii]            Mukherjee, “Writers Workshop@fifty,” The Hindu, 1 March 2009, Literary Review. The quotations that follow come from the second edition, 1971, of P. Lal, ed., Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo (Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1969), which had 734 pages, adding a supplement of 39 more poets. It may be relevant here to point out that this anthology has not received the scholarly attention it deserved, since Bruce King’s adverse reaction to it in his identically titled Modern Indian Poetry in English (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), the first and to date only major critical survey of the field. But King’s book is deeply flawed, containing innumerable errors of fact and perception on just about everything. For a full discussion, see Ananda Lal’s review of it in The Journal of Indian Writing in English 18 (January 1990): 44-49.

[xiii] Lal, Modern Indian Poetry in English, 7.

[xiv] Lal, Modern Indian Poetry in English, 391.

[xv]  Lal, Modern Indian Poetry in English, 228.

[xvi] Lal, Modern Indian Poetry in English, 210.

[xvii]        Lal, Modern Indian Poetry in English, 546.

[xviii]       Lal, Modern Indian Poetry in English, 169.

[xix] Lal, Modern Indian Poetry in English, 398.

[xx]  In Venugopal, ed., Be Vocal in Times of Beauty, 190.

[xxi] Writers Workshop Checklist 2004, p. 1.

[xxii]        P. Lal, interviewed by Rubana Huq, 28 January 2008.

[xxiii]       Premankur Biswas, “Book Wise,” The Indian Express, 3 August 2008.

[xxiv]       For an account of the Workshop in this phase, see Jed Bickman, A Literal Journey in India: Encountering Writers Workshop (Kolkata: Writers Workshop, 2009), 22-40.

[xxv]        Ananda Lal, review of Modern Indian Poetry in English by Bruce King, 48.

[xxvi]       Rajeev Patke, “Poetry Since Independence,” in An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, ed. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), 246.

[xxvii]      Writers Workshop archives, Kolkata.