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          Volume 11 |Issue 07| February 17, 2012 |


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Boi Mela

The Book Fair Business

Tamanna Khan

To Bengalis the Amar Ekushey Granthamela is more than just a gathering of book sellers and buyers. It represents the Bengali culture that embraces simplicity and rejects ostentation. Started in 1972, the aim of the fair was to promote Bengali literature, create readers and encourage writers. Of course, the business motive of the publishing houses was there too.

In recent times, however, what is more noticeable in the fair premises is the proliferation of signs and symbols of corporations brandishing their names and completely dominating the scene. The Ekushey Granthamela too, appears to have fallen prey to the marketing and promotional zeal of large corporate bodies like banks, mobile phone operators, even media houses and NGOs. From the very entrance of the fair to the hanging lanterns, everything inside carries a corporate logo. The logos ostentatiously remind visitors of the corporate organisation's monetary contribution to the event.

Shamsuzzaman Khan, Director General of Bangla Academy, opines that external financing is required to run the month-long fair, as there is no government fund available specifically for the fair. “In the past, the fair was small and thus manageable with the rent money provided by the publishing houses for the stalls. However, as the fair has grown over time, banks as well as other corporate houses are willing to sponsor the fair,” he says. He adds that this trend of external financing has started since the 90s.

Every single decoration piece in the fair bears a corporate logo. Photo: Palash Khan

Jahar Lal Saha, Director of Muktadhara, the publication house that initiated the Ekushey book fair, opines that such sponsorship is not required. He says, “If the rent of the stalls is not enough to run the fair, Bangla Academy can increase the rent.”

Executive director of Bidyaprakash, Muktijo-ddha Mojibur Rahman Khoka, agrees with Saha. He says that the Bangla Academy can discuss the financing with the other organisers, Bangladesh Knowledge and Creative Publisher's Association and Bangladesh Book Publisher and Sellers Association, to increase their monetary participation.

Sumanta Aslam, a contemporary writer, however, does not see any problems with sponsors and corporate labels. He says that books too, are products and need to be marketed well. “It is a different question as to where the sponsorship money goes, whereas the publishers too are financing the fair,” he argues.

Regarding the festoons and banners of the sponsor and the event management company, Saha feels that such decorations hamper the pristine atmosphere of the fair. Mahmuda Rahman Khan Shaon, a student of Dhaka University's music department, visiting the fair with her friends, nonetheless, believes that decorations are necessary. “After the extravaganza of the month-long Dhaka Trade fair, people won't find interest in the book fair if it is not attractive enough,” she opines. Books, according to Shaon, are not fancy products that people go crazy for and buy.

Shaon's friend Biswajit, on the other hand believes that what makes a book valuable is its content. “You cannot equate the book fair with the trade fair,” Biswajit says, “Why do we need such commercialisation? We can hold the fair ourselves if Bangladesh government provides the funding” He dislikes the presence of a corporate label everywhere, inside the fair grounds.

In fact, the promotional activities do not stop at labelling. The well-dressed man at the stall, right next to the ATM booth of the bank sponsoring the event this year, admits that their presence at the fair is to inform visitors of their bank's products and services. A similar reason is given by the young man sitting alone with a laptop at an empty stall rented by an online newspaper.

A long-time book fair frequenter, gender specialist Fawzia Khondker, says that many people visit the fair just to spend time rather than browsing and buying books. This opens the ground for promotional activities and stalls that sells items other than books, she explains. As a result, the fair has taken up a commercial outlook in contrast to its earlier objective of reaching out to the readers.

Although Bangla Academy is a perfect place for the Ekushey Granthamela, with the increase in crowd, it no longer can allow readers to browse through books peacefully, Khondker complains. She says that it is about time the organisers started thinking about a bigger space for the fair.

However, such legitimate demands by readers is put to question due to the presence of promotional stalls and stalls selling stationery such as paper. Farid Ahmed, publisher of Somoy Prakashan, asserts that if the book fair only accommodates true publishers of creative writings, then space would never have been a problem.

There are about 150 to 200 creative writing publishers in the country, informs Khoka. However, at least a minimum of 450 stalls are seen on the fair grounds, he points out. According to both Farid and Khoka many of the stalls on the fair premises belong to seasonal publishers.

Bangla Academy in fact has a guideline about the criterion or qualification for setting stalls in the fair. The guideline is formed by the book fair celebration committee with representatives from the Academy, publishing houses, ministries and civil society. According to the guideline only creative writing publishers with at least 20 publications can apply for a stall, informs Khoka.

“Bangla Academy's Director General can allot 10-20 stalls, but those too need to meet the criterion of being publishers of creative writings. This has been done to give opportunities to new publishing houses with one or two publications; to encourage their participation in the fair,” he adds.

Unfortunately, as Khoka has seen in the past and present, the Director General is always under political pressure to rent out stalls to organisations that do not meet the main criteria. “The pressure sometimes even comes from as high as the ministry levels,” he laments.

A visitor, meanwhile, has to endure continuous pushing and shoving by the crowd to look at a book, while standing in front of a stall. In such a situation, it is shocking to find the spacious stall of the event management company for the fair. With three large tables, a few desktops and visitors' seating arrangement, the stall stands idly right in the middle of the fair ground. The obvious question is why the office of the company could not be located on the verandah of the Burdwan House or at a corner of the fair.

While the event management company enjoys such privileges, the once beloved stall of the fun magazine “Unmad” can no longer be found inside the fair ground. It has been pushed out on the adjacent street. Editor of 'Unmad', renowned writer and cartoonist Ahsan Habib says, “Because of these stalls, I had to shift outside. I do not see the necessity (of stalls) for radio and television, Bashundhara (paper). Only publishers should be here not anything else. If the Bangla Academy guideline is followed then these stalls cannot come.”

“These stalls should be kicked out,” voices Aslam with anger, “This is a book fair, not a NGO's fair or others'.” He says that NGOs should be allowed to set up stalls only if they are exhibiting their publications not promoting their work. Khondker too mentions that many readers look for NGO publications and thus NGOs should have a presence at the fair. Khoka informs, “Originally it was thought that a separate block inside the fair would be allocated to the government organisations and NGOs so that they can exhibit their publications.” Unfortunately, here too the guidelines have been violated.

“The most abhorrent aspect is the presence of political party's or political party affiliated stalls. It (the fair) does not belong to any party — 'Joy Bangla' or 'Nationalist' party,” Aslam criticises. He says that the Bangla Academy director generals are forced to allot stalls to these organisations in order to save their jobs. This should be protested by the publishers, he says.

Khan has nevertheless promised to take steps in this regard. He says, “We shall only allot space to true publishers in future.” At present, because of the overcrowded situation, many publishers set up stalls on the street adjacent to Bangla Academy premises. “It does not make sense that a street should be closed for an entire month because of a fair. Besides, it becomes difficult to monitor the stalls on the streets. We have received complaints that they sell pirated books. They photocopy books and sell a book worth Tk 300 for Tk 160, violating copyrights.”

Both readers and publishers want a nice, safe, reader-friendly, atmosphere for Ekushey Granthamela — a fair free from the clutches of consumerism, a fair bearing the torches of knowledge and the philosophy of the language movement. Only time can tell whether Bangla Academy can strictly follow its guidelines and free Ekushey Granthamela from unwanted presences.

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