Cross-sections of people are rushing in the entire book fair ground (the Bangla Academy premises and Suhrawardy Udyan) as the Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela has begun. Book lovers are thronging the area in large numbers every day to buy new books. During this month-long book fair every Bangalee wants to visit the fair venue, thus the organisers have decided to extend fair’s departure time till 9:00pm. The authorities have allotted a total of 719 units – 136 at the Bangla Academy premises to 92 institutes and 583 at the Suhrawardy Udyan to 363 organisations. Besides, 24 pavilions have been allocated for 24 publishing houses, while last year 15 pavilions were allocated to 14 publishing houses. Record 460 publishing houses are taking part in this year’s book fair. At the south side of Burdwan House there is a Little Magazine Corner where some 100 little magazines have received space for display and selling their publications. This year children’s corner at the Suhrawardy Udyan has been decorated gorgeously with colourful lightings and toys like every other year. Every Friday and Saturday morning will be observed as Shishu Prohor (special children’s hour). Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the world’s longest book fair on February 1. British poet Agnes Meadows, Cameroonian poet Dr. Joyce Ashuntantang, Egyptian writer and journalist Ibrahim El Masry and Swedish poet and critic Orne Johnson attended the inaugural ceremony.
Every year Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela expands both in terms of area and number of new books. And now it has earned an international repute. Every educated and cultured Bangalee of Bangladesh just eagerly anticipates for this grand occasion all year long. With the beginning of the book fiesta it becomes a melting spot of ideas and experiences of a wide range of writers and publishers, who find it an effective vehicle for reaching out to the common readers. Parents take their tender aged children to the fair to develop their reading habit. Thus the fair creates a huge amount of new readers every year. It seems that as each year passes, insatiable thirst for books and incomparable desire for knowledge increases exponentially. But watching today’s expansion and festivity one can wonder but can’t get a proper idea about the initial years of this book fair. Thus ‘morning tea’ this week intends to bring the story of initial years of Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela to its readers.
In the post Liberation War Bangladesh the whole attempt of arranging a book fair was an impossible dream. Those days were full of struggle and determination. Back then very few people visited the book fair and participation of the publishers was limited to a few passionate publishing houses. Actually it all began with an individual. No matter whoever writes the history of Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela and what way he follows one name he can never erase. It was Chittaranjan Saha, an avid book lover and publisher, who took the initiative to initiate a book fair in the month of February. On February 21, 1972, Chittaranjan Saha laid a mat under a mango tree of the Bangla Academy premises and displayed 33 publications of his publishing house named ‘Muktodhara Prokashoni’ to pay homage to the language movement martyrs of 1952. Needless to say, the rest is history.
Initially, Saha established a publishing house named ‘Punthighar Prokashoni’ in his home district Noakhali which became popular for printing notebooks and test papers. Later in the year 1956, he moved to Dhaka and shifted his business. The publication house was first set up in Patuatuli and later in Bangla Bazar. In 1967, Punthighar Private Ltd. was established to sell textbooks, notebooks and reference books as well. When the War of Liberation started in 1971, the publishing house was completely burnt by the Pakistan Army. After March 25 crackdown, Chittaranjan Saha left Dhaka and initially took shelter in Agartala and later went to Calcutta. On May 28, 1971, he arranged a meeting with the top Bangladeshi litterateurs residing in Calcutta. Together they decided to write and publish books on the injustice done with Bangalees and war that was raging in Bangladesh. The very first book published under this publishing house was ‘Roktakto Bangla’, which included writings by various writers such as Zahir Raihan and Ahmed Sofa, and was edited by Anisuzzaman. Through the publication of this book ‘Muktodhara Prokashoni’ came to existence. When Pakistan Army surrendered and Bangladesh achieved its independence, all the publications under Muktodhara Prokashoni were brought to Dhaka and put on display on February 21, 1972. There were 33 books in total. Chittaranjan Saha continued displaying books published from his publication house on Shahid Dibosh next year.
Muktodhara brought a change in the style of displaying books in 1974. The first ever stall of this pathfinder publishing house was established. With 8-by-8 feet area it was a very small one. In 1975, the initiative got a new speed as some other publishing houses including ‘Nauroj Kitabistan’, ‘Khan Brothers’ and ‘Boighar’ from Chittagong joined the fair following the invitation of Chittaranjan Saha. Albeit there was no formal announcement but the seven-day long book exhibition laid the foundation stone of the book fair. The initiative continued up to 1978 in the same way and the number of book lovers visiting these stalls increased gradually. Till then Bangla Academy only allocated the place for the book fair, it was not directly involved in the arrangement of the fair. In 1979, the book publishers, especially Muktodhara’s Chittaranjan Saha, Standard Publishers’ Ruhul Amin Nizami and Khan Brothers’ Feroz Khan, formally requested the then Bangla Academy director general Dr. Ashraf Siddique to organise a book fair on the occasion of Ekushey February. That year, Ekushey Book Fair was held from February 7 to 28, organised by Jatiya Grontho Kendra in collaboration with Bangla Academy and Bangladesh Pustok Porokasok O Bikreta Somiti, an organisation that was formed by Chittaranjan Saha.
In 1980, when Jatiya Grontho Kendra failed to organize the fair, the Bangla Academy took the responsibility with the assistance of the Pustok Porokasok O Bikreta Somiti. Later in 1981 the time duration of the fair was reduced to 14 days from 21 days. But, in the face of continuous demand for re-installing the previous time frame from the publishers, the fair was arranged for 21 days in 1982. In 1983, the fair was named Amar Ekushey Grontho Mela, but it was postponed when police ran over two students and killed them during a procession of students protesting the autocratic regime of HM Ershad. Since then it has been conducted as an annual event. In the subsequent years the number of educated people has increased and gradually the fair has turned into power house of all social and cultural events of Bangladesh.
Though post Liberation War book fair was initiated to observe Ekushey February and commemorate the Language Movement martyrs but the first book fair in Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) was arranged in 1965. A book fair was organised on the ground floor of Dhaka University Library by Jatiya Grontho Kendra’s former director and reputed writer Sarder Jayenuddin when he was working in a UNESCO project. It was actually Shishu Gronthomela or Children’s Book Fair to develop reading habit among children. In 1970, Jayenuddin introduced another book fair in Narayanganj as well. After the Liberation War, on the occasion of UNESCO’s International Book Year 1972, Jayenuddin organized another book fair at the Bangla Academy premises, but it had no connection with the current event of Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela.
During the early years of book fair the publishers had made a team to search for progressive authors. It is mentionable that when our publication arena had shortage of money and it was crawling to stand and walk, our publishers didn’t compromise with their dream of bringing best quality books. For example, Chittaranjan Saha made two different teams of editors as Muktodhara Prokashoni had content editors and language editors to examine the subject matter and language skills of the authors. Being dragged into uncertain financial feedback publishers never hesitated to pay the due royalty to the writers.
While remembering the growing-up years of our Ekushey Book Fair and venerating the great publishers who contributed a lot to shape our culture and taste, we should scrutinize the standard and quality of our present day publishers and their publishing houses. When Chittaranjan Saha and his fellow publishers began the trend of book fair, they hadn’t thought about economic achievement. Rather their prime target was to develop a nation that will contain and represent our culture and know about the history and culture of the globe. In recent years Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela has expanded, the number of books has increased and the overall festivity centering it has enlarged. But, nowadays when our publication sector has become an industry, what kind of quality books the publishing houses are publishing? Why there are allegations that the publishers are printing books of the new writers in exchange of money? Are all our authors getting their deserved royalty? Our publishers should find the answers of these questions if they truly want to materialize the dream of their ancestors regarding book fair.