By Nishtha Shukla
What began as a bookshop in pre-Independence Lahore, is today a flourishing publishing house. The largest sellers of Indological books across the globe, MLBD celebrates its centenary year
Certain threads run common with thinkers of all ages. One such is the vision of a society where reading is a common hobby. In the beginning of the 20th century, one Motilal from Lahore had a similar vision. He wanted to start a `Sanskrit religion` bookshop because he felt that Sanskrit was the mother of all Indian languages and religion was the `universal faith`.
Motilal and his wife were upholders of the teachings of Jain Tirthankaras and followed the eternal values of the religion, starting with its three tenets: samyak darshana (true insight), samyak jnana (right knowledge) and samyak charitra (pure conduct). Well-versed in Sanskrit as well as English literature, Motilal knew the storehouse of knowledge that Indian literature and philosophy were.
As they went about setting their Sanskrit religious bookshop, they had a threefold vision that included books that disseminate knowledge. Thus evolved a bookstore devoted to works of religious and philosophical eminence. In 1903, their dream turned into reality with a capital of Rs 27.
Today, that small bookshop has expanded into one of the leading publishers of Indology across the globe.
One of India`s oldest publishing and distribution firms, the Motilal Banarsidass or MLBD (as it is known today) house is celebrating its centenary year through 2003. If the Reliance group was born out of Dhirubhai Ambani`s vision, MLBD is a perfect example of a family business developing from local to global, as well as the advantages of hereditary set-ups. Dr Vedagya Arya, in a booklet on MLBD titled Celebrating Hundred-Saga of Harmony from Grandfather to Grandsons recalls the Indian scriptures in connection with the family-that the aspirations of forefathers are inspiring factors to guide the future of their succeeding generations.
The celebrations commenced on January 5, 2003 at MLBD`s Naraina printing press in New Delhi where they honoured some employees in the presence of T.N. Chaturvedi, Governor of Karnataka. In this 100th year of its existence, the publishing house has planned numerous events across the country. It has also announced incentives for young, enterprising authors that will run through the year 2003.
In a press release, N.P. Jain, managing director and spokes- person of MLBD, said that to promote quality research work on Indology, established scholars will be given free books published under MLBD, up to a stipulated value. MLBD also has plans of handsome discount schemes for wholesalers, dealers and retailers, as well as individual buyers. It is considering organizing workshops of Vedic mathematics in various cities. The publishing house is also looking at joint teacher support programmes with the World Academy for Vedic Mathematics, which is part of the International Research and Resource Foundation for Indian Heritage, Nagpur.
Two events that should be worth its weight in gold are the international conference on the `Contribution of Publishing Community Towards Indology` and the seminar on Bhartrihari, the 7th century grammarian-poet. While the latter is to be organised in the second week of December 2003, the dates for the former are yet to be announced.
After the Partition it was Sundarlal Jain, son of Lala Motilal and younger brother of Banarsidass, who revived the business and shifted it from Lahore to Patna, Benaras and Delhi. Accompanying him was Shantilal Jain, who was later decorated with a Padmashri in 1992. Of the days of strife in the country, Leelawati Jain, wife of Shantilal, recalls: “We left Lahore without anything. We even gave our buffaloes to the jamadarni (scavenger) there. When we moved to Benaras, Lalaji started by selling books on a patta (wooden plank).“
Today, the business is managed by Shantilal`s five sons-Narendra Jain, Jainendra Jain, Rajendra Jain, Ravindra Jain and Rajeev Jain. The eldest, N.P. Jain, is at the helm of affairs. Their head-office is in Delhi with seven branches in India.
The families of the five brothers also live together-their home is right above their head office in the capital. Leelawati mentions: “Being part of a business of scholars and culture, a person tends to become sattvik. So there is only love in the family.“ A house-full of 30 people, they also have loyal employees, who have been with them for years. Their driver Radheshyam Chauhan has been at MLBD for over 35 years. He says: “I received enormous love from the family.“ In true modernist Jain disposition, the family has always involved women as part of their process of growth. It started with Lala Motilal who borrowed the capital from his wife from her earnings through her knitting.
Last year, MLBD opened its New Age bookshop in Delhi, which stores fiction, historical and professional books, with an emphasis on New Age. “MLBD is for the hard-core segment in Indology. This one is more for the younger people,“ says Dheeraj Bakshi, who manages the store.
As an industry, publishing in India has progressed in leaps and bounds since Independence, being one of the six foremost book producers of the world with over 13,000 publishers. According to the Federation of Indian Publishers, India produces 60,000 titles every year in 18 languages. As an exporter, it now has large markets in the UK, other West European countries, the USA, Japan and Australia for books on Indian philosophy and religion, yoga, ancient classics and culture. MLBD is one of the leading Indian exporters and have been bestowed with export promotion awards by the Export Promotion Council. While fulfilling the world`s want of books on Indology, it has also grown as a publishing house serious about research-based, authoritative texts on Indology.
Director J.P. Jain says: “We are particular about scrutinising the merit of a work in terms of its language and subject because we have a goodwill…That is why when a book is an MLBD publication, people say this must be good.“ Of all the manuscripts they receive, they reject about 90 per cent. For the rest, they edit the text and send it to experts for pre-publishing scrutiny. Their authors are usually scholars and leading authors, people renowned in their field of expertise. They also reprint foreign writers on Indology, making books written abroad affordable for Indian and Asian readers.
The authors choose subjects from comparative study in Indology, religion, philosophy, anthropology, art, culture, life-style and thinking process of different races and nations. “We focus on publishing works for advanced studies and research,“ says J.P Jain.
The most popular MLBD books are those on Vedic mathematics, Tulsidas`s Shri Ramacharitamanasa as well as books on yoga, astrology and ayurveda. Some series that have been acclaimed by scholars are Sacred Books of the East (50 volumes), Buddhist Tradition Series, Advaita Tradition Series, Word Speaks to the Faustian Man and Sources of Ancient Indian Law.
Vedic mathematics was discovered in the last century by the late Bharati Krishna Tirtha, Shankaracharya of Puri. After going through MLBD`s books on the subject, most people relate that mathematics does not seem as daunting. James Glover, author of MLBD`s books on Vedic mathematics, recently did a series of workshops on the subject as part of an India-wide tour. He explains that Vedic mathematics teaches you different approaches to problems systematically. Otherwise complicated, he says that the 16 basic sutras or aphorisms of Vedic mathematics and an equal number of sub-sutras are a unifying system. The philosophical basis of mathematics really is Advaita or non-dualism.
The publishing house has its origins in a book shop started by Lala Matilal who borrowed the Rs 27 capital from his wives earnings through her knitting .
Lala Shantilal`s strong faith in Chintamani Parshvanath and Lord Rama led to his publishing the Ramacharitamanasa in Hindi and English translations. The epic has earned MLBD worldwide recognition, reputation and honour.
Branching out of the empire are enterprises that are its essential support systems today. MLBD Pvt Ltd is their associate that takes care of the exports and wholesale division of the house.
Realizing the importance of readership abroad, they also have MLBD Books International that looks after the bulk overseas sale of MLBD books and books from other Indian publishers catering to international demand.
Again, referring to the popular demand for New Age literature across the globe, their New Age Books imprint brings out paperback books on art, astrology, ayurveda, tantra, alternative therapies, meditation, metaphysics and parapsychology. Reasonably priced, they already have a large market. Their foray into books for professional and business communities is one deviation from Indology. Called Excel Books, they bring out modestly priced books in core business and management topics and have had the privilege of publishing Deepak Chopra`s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, that raked it in.
MLBD`s Shri Atma Vallabh Jain Warehousing Company stores goods of other parties and the revenue generated from here is donated to their Charitable Trust.
This business, with its culture of professionalism coupled with amicability, seems to be their winning recipe for success.
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‘‘Half of those trying to understand India’s religion and philosophy are foreigners’’
—J.P. Jain Director, MLBD
Tell us about your association with the publishing house.
After my graduation in 1965, I was posted at our Patna branch, which was a 1937 establishment. At that time I had gone without any training or briefing on publishing. Not only me, all my brothers learnt in-house.
For 15 years I was handling the branch alone, including its administration and publication. When I shifted to Delhi to manage the printing press, I made my first foreign trip in 1969 for the Frankfurt Book Fair. At that time, we were the only Indian publishers there.
What role MLBD plays in the publishing industry?
MLBD has been actively part of the publishing industry, as part of the fraternity and the government. In 1977 for instance, I went for a world tour on behalf of the Export Promotion Council for a month. Then in 1982 I went to China as a government-delegated guest for a marketing study. We were chosen by the Ministry of Education to explore Indian religion and philosophy abroad.
How is the market for your books abroad?
Despite all the development abroad, there is a lot of frustration there. They tend to believe that Indian remedial sciences can help them. So they are eager to learn more. Indian culture, especially yoga and meditation, interest them.
There are numerous Indian gurus abroad. So people are aware of the uses of these concepts. In places such as Trinidad, Guyana, Fiji and Mauritius, the Indian community is way more serious about these matters than people here in India. Australia and New Zealand also give us similar reception and encouragement.
There is a 20 per cent increase in our exports per year. We have also explored China as a market, especially for texts on Buddhism. While in Bangkok, Thailand and Nepal, Hinduism is popular, Buddhism is popular in Sri Lanka.
What is the nature of readership in India?
At one point of time, most people used to be fond of reading. Now, only serious people come here—those who are looking for scholarly material. There is good readership in Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai.
Any plans to venture into general publishing?
For us it’s not the money that matters. We have earned a reputation, so we don’t foray into other kinds of publishing.