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A Call to Break Boundaries: An Interview with the Editors of the Bilingual Indian Journal “Hakara”

By Varun Nayar

Among the many online literary and arts journals published in India, हाकारा । hākārā occupies a rather unique position, embedded in a strong linguistic regionality while also expressing an internationalist outlook. The bilingual journal, organized around a single theme for each of its three yearly issues, publishes fiction, poetry, and criticism in both Marathi and English, along with visual art and video pieces. Situated in between existing academic and nonacademic discourses, हाकारा । hākārā is interested in work that responds to current debates while remaining attentive to the ways in which form, content, and context inform self-expression and reflection. The introduction to its most recent issue––the second to be published during the COVID-19 pandemic––invokes Satyajit Ray and Václav Havel, and tackles the theme of “Home,” insisting that the word implies not just a place but also “a sound one creates, a language one speaks, and a move one makes.”

हाकारा hākārā’s two editors come from notably diverse literary backgrounds––Ashutosh Potdar is a playwright, poet, writer, and translator, and Noopur Desai is an art writer and researcher ––both working in Marathi as well as English. This breadth allows them to envisage a journal in which the constrained arithmetic of what is lost or gained in translation makes way for a more dynamic environment where no conversation is unilingual. I spoke with Potdar and Desai over Zoom about the past and present of Marathi literature and art, publishing हाकारा hākārā as a collaborative practice, and the virtues of works in progress. 


Varun Nayar (VN): Where did the idea for the journal come from, and what is your approach to publishing literary and artistic work?

Ashutosh Potdar (AP): हाकारा hākārā began in 2017 as a personal journey, at a time when we both already had active literary and artistic practices. I had previously been writing in Marathi, including plays, fiction, and poetry, and thought we needed to have a common platform to share our ideas and practices. I checked with Noopur to see if we could start something that could bring together different ideas––a place where writers and artists could find room to talk.

Noopur Desai (ND): We’d already worked on a couple projects before हाकारा hākārā. I come from a visual arts and criticism background, while Ashutosh comes from the literary and performing arts, so we were already used to responding to each other’s work. It was important for us to position the journal in the context of the region. As we were thinking about what identity this publication could have, we chose to name it after the Marathi word “hakara,” meaning “a continued calling,” something that carries and sustains. But we were also thinking about different kinds of publications and approaches to publishing and archiving—seeing the journal within a larger historical trajectory and dialogic space, focusing on process and on हाकारा hākārā as a work in progress.


VN: Where do you see the journal’s literary and cultural roots, and what position do you think it occupies in this larger environment?

AP: If you look at any literary culture in India, there exists an extensive history. Especially in modern times, artistic forms and expressions have emerged through social and cultural changes, and literary journals and magazines have played a key role in shaping the arts, artists, and readers over time. Similarly, Marathi literature has a long publishing tradition, so we needed to locate हाकारा hākārā within that. Since the nineteenth century, we have seen an increasingly broad array of print journals in Marathi, as well as growing responses from other journals publishing in, say, Kannada, Gujarati, and Hindi.

“Traditional Indian literary culture is predominantly multilingual.”

It’s doubly interesting for us to look at Marathi literary culture because it lacks any singular identity and is so diverse in terms of form and location. There are different Marathis spoken by different classes, castes, and genders. These forms have responded to different experiences, so we feel it’s quite dynamic to bring that into our vision for हाकारा hākārā. The journal is, on the one hand, rooted in its linguistic context, which is nonetheless diverse and plural, but it also has a larger appeal in breaking geographical and formal boundaries. We’re trying to connect ourselves to an existing literary history while also reaching out to a wider readership through translation, always interested in showcasing a particular diversity, and sharing and expressing that diversity across languages.


VN: What was your thinking behind founding हाकारा hākārā as a bilingual journal?

AP: As a bilingual journal, our attempt has been to identify, support, and disseminate artistic expressions that are language specific. While we are trying to locate ourselves within a regionality, always acknowledging local expressions, we’re also trying to go beyond that. Because of our personal work, Noopur and I each occupy an interesting insider-outsider role as both practitioners and those looking in from the outside. It allows us to observe ourselves from the distance that comes from being a writer and a researcher.

ND: The aspect of language is quite interesting. When we say we’re publishing something in a regional language, “regional” can be perceived as limiting, and sometimes there is anxiety around the term due to the complex history of linguistic identity politics with Marathi. But publishing bilingually allows us to bring together diverse forms of writing, keeping in mind the rich history of literature in both Marathi and English. Bilingualism has a significant history in writing on literature, art, and aesthetics in this country. As Ashutosh pointed out, there are multiple linguistic spheres within which Marathi sits as well, many of which are represented within our issues. As editors, we engage with these things directly, attuning ourselves to diverse ways in which linguistic spheres are being produced and reproduced.

That’s just one aspect of it. Another is what we try to accomplish through translation itself. Translating Marathi texts into English is important, but you also have to have multiple different expressions and languages in conversation with each other; for instance, we have published translations from Gujarati and Tamil into Marathi as well, sometimes using English as an intermediary language. Importantly, हाकारा hākārā doesn’t reproduce everything in both English and Marathi. We approach contributors and ask them to write in the language they feel most comfortable with. There are other times when we feel strongly that a specific piece needs to be translated and available in both languages––something that we believe would be a significant contribution to the ongoing discourse.


VN: It does seem that the politics of language is an important consideration, both in articulating new visions and critiquing existing approaches. Your May 2019 issue, titled “Boundaries,” features a conversation between the artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Gabriela Salgado––translated into Marathi––on the role of border crossing and cultural collision. How does हाकारा hākārā account for existing linguistic, cultural, and regional borders, and what is the potential for crossings here?

AP: Instead of borders, we feel we’ve been dealing more with fluidity. Traditional Indian literary culture is predominantly multilingual––you can easily move between different languages. Yes, borders exist, but there is also much more to it than that here. Through the orality specific to Marathi, for instance, philosophical discourses can also be presented as creative and imaginative. The point I’m making is that it’s not just about borders but also about locating something in between, an in-betweenness in the forms of expression. As I’ve said before, it’s about locating ourselves between the roles of practitioner and researcher. That’s the amazing thing about working with our contributors: this ability to look through different practices, regions, and languages and find something that is constantly in motion.

“We were faced with an interesting challenge: how to translate the word ‘Black.’”

ND: There’s also the issue of interdisciplinarity––which is an important aspect of our work––and the different boundaries that collide with each other in that regard. I’m glad you mentioned the conversation between Gómez-Peña and Salgado because it was great to work with the translator in that case, and we had a lot of discussions about process and approach. It wasn’t easy to translate something so culturally specific and then bring those ideas into another regional and linguistic context.

Another one of my favorite examples of this is a conversation we translated into Marathi between Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, which addresses the concerns of the intersections of race and the gendered histories of Black women and men. It’s a rather polemical piece, but through the process of translation we were faced with an interesting challenge: how to translate the word “Black.” In Marathi, the direct translation would be “Krushnavarniy,” but the translator wasn’t comfortable with using this highly Sanskritized word, as it connotes dominant forms of language and caste hierarchies. There was also the colloquial term “Kalaa,” but this has a derogatory meaning attached to it as well. So we had a lot of discussions about it and referred to a lot of past Marathi literature, including the work of Sharmila Rege, who’s written extensively on Black and Dalit movements, especially Black feminism, for which she uses the term “Kalaa Streevaad,” or “the feminism of Black women.” The way she articulates this resonates with Audre Lorde’s ideas, so we finally chose the term “Kalaa.” What I’m trying to say here is that these ongoing conversations we have are always trying to create new dialogical spaces, breaking away from a very normative way of writing and publishing.


VN: Where does an issue of हाकारा hākārā begin, and how does this dictate your approach?

ND: Before we start a new issue, we come up with a theme. Many times, we’re responding to our immediacies, because you are greatly affected by your surroundings. For instance, the issue we published during the first COVID-19 lockdown in India is called “Turbulence” because we were experiencing such an unstable period in the country, including the mass exodus of laborers from Indian cities. Our most recent issue, “Home,” similarly explores how ideas around home have changed in the context of the pandemic. That being said, we don’t limit ourselves to specific events or incidents and are also interested in the broader connotations of the themes we choose, in the context not only of literature and the visual arts but also of the sciences, history, and philosophy. I think that in this way, the concept opens up and invites different kinds of practitioners. We have open calls, but we also approach contributors whose work resonates with our theme. So far, we have received fantastic responses for every issue, and because of the breadth with which we work, we’re contacted by all sorts of people. We’ve received submissions from across the country, mostly from young writers and artists looking to find platforms—but also to have conversations with editors about their work, even if we might not select a certain piece for publication.

AP: For us, it’s always about finding that place between “I” and “we.” When I say “I,” I mean what I carry with me as a practitioner, writer, and so on, but I also carry a “we” when thinking of the network and community we’ve been building since 2017. हाकारा hākārā is a freely accessible journal, and there’s no financial transaction involved. Everyone who is a part of building the journal and preparing editions is a volunteer. Unfortunately, we don’t have funding at the moment, but our contributors are still able to help us, and that allows us to build a community with common but diverse interests.


VN: How do you feel COVID-19 has affected this sense of community and your interest in publishing as a collaborative effort?

ND: During our first lockdown last year, there was a lot of anxiety, panic, and fear, something that was also reflected in people’s work and in their thinking around what it means to write and publish during these times. Being an online journal, हाकारा hākārā has continued publishing, and our contributors have been responding to the current circumstances through their work. In that sense, the journal has also become a space where they can share what they’ve been going through.

“The potential lies in the dialogic process that we are very much interested in.”

AP: We’re certainly missing the beauty of meeting people in person. Typically, whenever I’d meet people, they’d ask, “Oh, what will the next issue of हाकारा hākārā be about?” And I could pull up the website on my phone and show them. Now, it isn’t possible to speak to members of our readership in person, but we haven’t had to worry much about distribution, unlike regional print literary journals and magazines. This is important because, over the last few years, we’ve built a specific kind of readership for the journal––typically young people, many of them students from small towns (though some are from big cities) who are active on social media and have been introduced to the journal through classwork. हाकारा hākārā’s work is often read on phones, and Whatsapp messages and Facebook posts remain a significant way in which it is circulated during these times.


VN: What excites you most about हाकारा hākārā’s current trajectory and future, and about your own as practitioners?

ND: In India, when it comes to mainstream art historical discourse and writing, certain forms have gained more visibility than others, such as critical essays on modern art practice, travelogues, short stories, or lalit [a form of creative essay]. However, most such writing in regional Indian languages from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has remained outside mainstream discourse, much of which is still disseminated in English. In this context, Ashutosh and I are actually working on an anthology that will look at and translate non-canonical Marathi art writing from 1940–60 into English. Much like हाकारा hākārā, this project speaks to our interest in making visible different forms of writing through translation. This is something we’ve been engaged with for a while and something we’d like to continue working on.

AP: Something the journal has given me is the ability to not only publish young writers but also have them feel that this is a space for them to grow. We’re looking forward to engaging with new contributors and continuing to create a conducive environment for expression and dialogue across multiple languages. Personally, I have also been editing another anthology of some of the best Marathi short stories and translating them into English. I’ve been doing work involving performance arts archives in the country as well. These are different projects but share a common goal with हाकारा hākārā, which is key for us.

ND: Many things are happening simultaneously, and we’re increasingly moving the journal in a direction that allows writing, publishing, and research to be in conversation. The potential lies in the dialogic process that we are very much interested in and that I think will open up new possibilities. We’ll be continuing this work, and only time will tell where that will take us.


Ashutosh Potdar is a playwright, poet, short-story writer, translator, editor, and researcher who writes in Marathi and English. His plays have been performed at several national and international festivals, such as Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the National School of Drama, Prithvi Theatre, and the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, among others. He is the recipient of several awards for writing and has co-edited a book on performance-making and the archive, to be published by Routledge India. He is currently working on an anthology of the best Marathi short stories in English translation. His collection of poems, Khel Khelat Rahato Umbara, has been published by Copper Coin Publishing. Ashutosh has been teaching English and Indian literature, drama, theater studies, and creative writing at the graduate and postgraduate levels for more than fifteen years. He has published his research on drama and literature in English and Marathi in various journals and presented papers at national and international conferences in India as well as in Sweden, Germany, North Cyprus, Denmark, and the United States. He is currently faculty of Literature and Drama at FLAME University, Pune.

Noopur Desai is an art writer and researcher writing in Marathi and English. Currently, she is a researcher at the Asia Art Archive in India and is based in New Delhi. She is also a PhD scholar at the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. In the past, she has worked as a researcher with Jackfruit Research and Design, Bangalore; Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong; and Devi Art Foundation, Delhi; and in research and programming at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi; and Mohile Parikh Centre and G5A Foundation, Mumbai. Noopur was the recipient of a FICA Ila Dalmia research grant for 2015 and is Honorary Director of the Council for Arts and Social Practice (CASP).


Related Reading:

10 Translated Books from India to Read Now

Namibian Writing Front and Center: Rémy Ngamije on Doek! Literary Magazine

Remembering Poet Bhujang Meshram

Published Jun 7, 2021   Copyright 2021 Varun Nayar

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