Nepali: An Important Archive

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

Pratyoush Onta

Dec 30, 2017-The first issue of the quarterly magazine Nepali was published in late 1959 by the Madan Puruskar Guthi. It has been published continuously since then. The first 225 issues of this magazine, published in the same size and format, were edited by the late Kamal Mani Dixit (1929-2016). Given its relatively large published corpus, I think the following few stories about Nepali are worth re-telling to mark the first death anniversary of its erstwhile editor.

The first important story is obviously about the founding of its mother organisation: The Madan Puruskar Guthi. In December 1955, the Guthi was officially brought into existence by registering its danpatra at the Pota Registration Adda in Lalitpur. Its regulations were passed the following year. These steps provided a sound legal and institutional foundation for Nepali.

The Guthi had been endowed with a gift of Indian rupees three lakhs from Rani Jagadamba, a daughter-in-law of the Rana premier Chandra Shamsher (1901-1929). Its initial mission was to honour books written in the Nepali language annually in four different disciplines and genres: prose, poetry, philosophy/social science and science. Later its mission was revised to honour just one book deemed to be the best overall.

Four years after its founding, the Guthi started to publish Nepali. Intended to be a quarterly, Nepali was described in its first editorial as both a literary magazine and the Guthi’s mouthpiece publication, carrying its news and notices along with other contributions. The editorial claimed that since these double functions had to be fulfilled, the readers will see an “unusual gathering” in the magazine: “Araniko will be seen talking with Newton and Bhanubhakta will be rubbing shoulders with Bhaskaracharya. Jangabahadur will be seen with his friend Madam Curie and Kulchandra with Karl Marx.”

The Preparatory BackgroundThe second important story is related to the answer to the following question: If Nepali was also a literary magazine, one that published all wings of Nepali letters including non-fiction writings, what was the preparatory background that made such writing possible? As has been documented by many others, once Rana rule was ended in 1951, many newspapers and magazines were started by all kinds of people and entities. As historian of Nepali periodicals Shiva Regmi has documented in his book Atitka Pana (2007), many of these publications had short lives. Furthermore, as researcher Deepak Aryal has pointed out in a 2011 article, many of these periodicals were filled with the output of literary writers. These included all kinds of writings ranging from fiction to literary non-fiction, essays, travel writings, and research articles. Some of the early outputs of historians and other social scientists working in post-Rana Nepal were also published in these periodicals, making them the antecedents of academic journals which came to be published from within Nepal in later years.

While deeper research might suggest reasons to revise the following list of publications, my current knowledge says that periodicals published from Kathmandu during the 1950s such as the Nepal Sanskritik Parisad Patrika, Pragati and Dharati, prepared the proximate ground for the relatively long-form non-fictional essays and research articles that came to be published in the issues of Nepali.

ContentsThe third important story is related to the actual contents of Nepali. Some 480 items published in the first 106 issues of Nepali were indexed by Purna Prasad Amatya in the late 1980s. That index covered the first 27 years of this periodical. I can only assume that in the approximately 30 years that followed, a similar number of items have been published in Nepali and the total has surpassed over a 1000 items.

Although its first editorial had claimed that Nepali will accommodate “all wings of Nepali letters” in its pages, it has had a bias against creative fiction from the beginning. No short stories were published and although some poems were published in its early issues, they too were banished from its later issues. This magazine has, without apology, promoted the essay form in many guises: literary criticism focused on specific books or genres of Nepali literature; essays documenting personal travel, memoirs and family history; research essays on literary, local, political and social history; essays contributing to discussions in diverse fields of discourse such as agriculture, arts, folklore, language, law, philosophy, religion, and science; and various types of profiles of different people. Editor Kamal Dixit’s likeness for the essay form must have had an influence in the kinds of items he chose to publish in Nepali.

These essays were written by all kinds of folks. For instance several research essays related to Rana-era Nepal were published by the well-known historian Chittaranjan Nepali who was also one of the first awardees of Madan Purasakar (some of these essays were later included in the his 2013 book Jangabahadurko Katha). But the magazine also published great pieces by writers whose names are not usually featured in the standard histories of the essay form in Nepali. For instance, an essay, “Rain Basera” written by Janak Bahadur Rana was published in Nepali No 162. This essay--describing the author’s observations in the Kal Mochan Ghat--was so well written in a story-like manner that editor Dixit thought it was necessary to indicate in a note that it was not a story but an extraordinary essay. In issue no 176, Rana’s recall of a visit to the home of the polyglot Balkrishna Sama was published as “Tujuk, Samajimarka” and it makes for an excellent read. Not surprisingly, few of the essays came from women writers.

Editor Dixit also published letters from many individuals, some advancing discussions opened by specific contributions and others pointing out factual errors and the like. But not everything that was published in Nepali was top quality. In its later years, editor Dixit also showed the proclivity to print some letters/articles that had been written in his praise.

Apart from the contents published in its main pages, Nepali also carried three other genres of texts. News about Madan Puraskar Guthi including its financial health and news and photos related to the annual Madan Puraskar award distribution ceremonies were published. Some of the speeches given during those ceremonies by the awardees, also reprinted in the magazine, are good sources for intellectual historians of contemporary Nepal. Also a short editorial, usually two pages long, was published commenting on some issue of importance to the world of Nepali language and letters. Such commentary was rarely about changes in politics although the editor did comment on the sasti suffered by the Nepali people during the recent blockade imposed by India.

Also published were commentaries based on unpublished documents or published items held at the Madan Puraskar Library. Just to give one example, the resignation speech that was given by Rana premier Juddha Shamsher in 1945 is published in issue no 209 with an editorial note in which it is reported that this speech was not published even in the Gorkhapatra since its then editor most likely had to “balance” the transitory movement that saw the end of a powerful premier and the rise of a new premier. Commentary about unpublished documents usually drew the readers’ attention to under-utilised archives while commentary about published books was usually about something unusual about them: size, contents, or something else. For instance the size of “big books” for children is commented upon in “MaPuPu ko Pana” in issue no. 225, the last issue edited by late Dixit.

Hence Nepali’s main contents contributed for the most part by others and its side contents generated by the editor and functionaries of its mother organisation did manage to realise the magazine as an “unusual gathering” as promised in the first editorial.

Its contributionsBy being around for such a long time, Nepali and its erstwhile editor showed that exceptions were possible to the usual short lives of magazines in Nepal if some basic requirements were taken care of. These include the annual number of pages (usually under 200 pages total distributed in four issues), size (same), format (simple and unchanging), coverage of expenses (no advertisement with costs covered by the mother organisation) and the range of items published (limited to mostly five types). It also helped that neither the periodical nor its editor had to make a profit by doing this work.

In its early days, when Nepal lacked other robust forums of magazines and journals, I suspect that Nepali was a relatively more important platform of publication for both literature-minded writers/essayists and research-oriented critics/academics. In its later days, it had to share the print public space with many other literary periodicals and academic journals. Its potential contributors, not only had more options to choose from, but were also required for professional reasons to publish their work in specific disciplinary journals. In his later years, editor Dixit’s energy, while not diminished, had to been distributed among his many interests and responsibilities. Had he had better help in the editorial department, Nepali would have probably responded to the challenges of content generation in a more meaningful way.

The 225 issues of Nepali edited by late Kamal Dixit are best read as an important historical archive, one among many, of literary and intellectual output in post-Rana Nepal. It is useful to all kinds of researchers but I think those interested in the history of 19th and 20th century Nepal would especially benefit from engagement with it. For historians of Nepali print media and the associated public sphere, this publication is indispensable but it will also appeal to historically minded geographers and cultural historians who want to track down the relationship between Nepalis and the Nepal they learned to love during the 20th century. In other words, this particular archive has a lot to teach us about how we have tried to reinvent ourselves as modern Nepalis over the past several decades.


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