Having finished his master’s in Bengali Literature in 1997 from Dhaka University, Karunangshu Barua knew he’d pursue a career path quite unlike others.
A section of his peers chose to tread the most predictable path of the civil service or teaching jobs. Those of the adventurous lot, who were too creative to be tamed by promises of a secure career, either joined the media or went into the publishing business. Barua, on the other hand, decided to explore an untrodden path, whose gravels were only poorly paved and boundaries yet to be demarcated.
After experimenting with the idea of a small-scale business for a year, he put together a team and opened a creative agency called Nymphea. Although not sure about its success, he was excited about it as the agency combined his zeal for entrepreneurship with creativity.
But a worry was constantly gnawing away at him: Was Nymphea taking him away from the world of books? Books were what he was really passionate about. He might as well have become a publisher. But for him the problem lay in the business model prevalent in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It was not like the publishing industry was a lacklustre affair back then. In fact, for the first time in the history of Bangladesh’s publishing, there was an unprecedented enthusiasm among readers about books. What Chittaranjan Saha of Muktodhara had singlehandedly started in the 1980s as a little annual book fair outside Bangla Academy had evolved as a considerably big fair in the premises of the Academy, with sales hitting new heights every year. Despite the consistent growth of the fair, now known as Ekushey Book Fair, there were quite a few problems that the industry was plagued with.
In those days, most publishers, except for a few, aimed at producing books at the cheapest price, with zero attention to artistic design and sound editorial practices. Worse still, they did not pay authors any royalties and even if they did, there was no transparency regarding how the royalties were calculated. Despite the rise of a new breed of publishers who try to do things differently, many of these trends still persist.
“That’s not how I wanted to publish books. Poor production quality with no creative inputs and editorial supervision was something I wanted to break away from. I was willing to pay all the writers or artists involved with the pre-production stage of a book,” said Barua.
Establishing professionalism as well as strict editorial supervision and broadening creative horizons meant he was thinking about books that would be intellectually stimulating and visually pleasing at the same time. But there also was a strong ideological impetus.
“The main story of Nymphea’s publishing wing always had to do with promoting Bangladesh and its rich heritage and culture and literature,” he said.
The idea of Nymphea Publication’s first book was conceived in 2001 when the country witnessed post-election violence against religious and ethnic minorities and an unprecedented rise of intolerance towards people of different faiths. Zooming in on a non-communal ethos, Barua brought a plethora of creative minds together to work towards a book about Bangladesh’s festivals, which would also be rich with history of religious harmony, cultural interpretation and excellent photography. Bringing out such a comprehensive book, that too in English, also meant a lot of hard work and money.
“By then Nymphea had started gaining a regular revenue flow through its creative endeavours like designing and publishing annual reports and other non-literary materials. That gave me the courage to channel some of that money into the publishing wing,” he said.
The editorial board comprised Anisuzzaman, Shamsuzzaman Khan and Syed Manzoorul Islam—writers who assumed this role in many subsequent publications. The other artists and designers who helped Barua included Anisuzzaman Sohel (cover designer), AKM Shehab Uddin (photo editor), Kanak Aditya (graphics) and Rezaul Karim Reza (graphics).
Finally, after four years of extensive research, his first book, Festivals of Bangladesh—an aesthetically fine specimen of a coffee table book—was published. The cost was ten times as much as a normal book of that size and length.
In a country where book sales were and to some extent still are as unpredictable as the sky in the month of Srabon, this was something that no publisher had perhaps ever thought. Or even if they thought along these lines, they soon turned their attention away from such initiatives due to the heavy losses they incurred. So why did a publisher so committed to the art of publishing go for a risky model that might and did, in many cases, incur losses?
“Answering that question takes me back to when and how it all started. Before I dive into that story, I just want to say that I tried to be innovative when I thought about the market. So I pushed the boundaries and created a market for my books. But yes, not all of them worked in terms of returns.”
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The story within the story
When Nymphea emerged on the cusp of the 2000s, the market for creative agencies was not huge but the prospects were all too visible. The economy was growing and so were government and corporate organisations. There also was a growing presence of foreign institutions including the embassies and international NGOs.
“At the very outset, we got opportunities to work with some embassies and foreign institutions. Therefore, I had to frequent the embassy offices for meetings,” said Barua. “No matter which embassy I visited, I invariably came across and, in many cases, was presented with beautiful-looking, fat books.”
Each embassy, he went on to say, had its own set of books, which collectively promoted the history and culture of the country it represented.
“I had not only wanted to put new ideas into my books but I also wanted to feature Bangladesh’s rich history and heritage in them. So my encounter with all those books at the embassies got me thinking and I started pondering over the possibilities of books on a variety of themes focusing solely on Bangladesh,” he said.
Before he approached Anisuzzaman and Syed Manzoorul Islam—two of his mentors, he did a thorough research into the book market and found out that no publisher was working exclusively on this theme, nor was anyone attaching any importance to the creative side of design and presentation.
After the first book, Barua was fortunate to have Standard Chartered Bank Bangladesh by his side as a sponsor for a splendid series of books: Ekush: A photographic History of Language Movement (1947-1956), Ekattor: Moment of Victory, Coins from Bangladesh: A guide to the Coins of Bengal Especially Circulated in Bangladesh, and Badhon Hara (Unfettered).
Sometime in 2013, he got hold of a copy of Lonely Planet, the universally accepted travel guide to whatever country one wants to visit. That’s when he started germinating ideas about a book that would serve as the comprehensive travel guide for Bangladesh. The work began in the middle of 2014 and the book came out in July 2016. Entitled Bangladesh, it’s a pictorially and graphically rich book—a complete travel guide to all the tourist spots in Bangladesh. What makes this book stand out is how uniquely it introduces readers to all the historically, socially, economically and culturally important areas and sectors of our country, from history to geography to sea beaches to forest lands to literature to cinema to festivals to sports to export-oriented businesses to rivers to landscapes to flora and fauna. The articles for each of these chapters are succinct but thoroughly researched. This is one of those books that should be collected by foreign and local tourists alike.
The other remarkable coffee books around this time were Buddhist Heritage of Bangladesh (edited by Bulbul Ahmed) and Mosques of Bangladesh: An Expedition of Islamic Architectural heritage. The editorial acumen and creative design elevate these books to works of art.
In line with the mission to promote Bangladesh, Barua ventured into literary translation and the first writer he published is one of the most important Bengali writers: Kazi Nazrul Islam. He brought out three English translations of Nazrul’s books, including Love and Death in Krishnanagar (translation of Mrityukhudha) and Unfettered (translation of Badhon Hara). The former is translated by Niaz Zaman and the latter by the Reading Circle.
Celebrating 50 Years of Bangladesh
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, Barua came up with fresh ideas to join in the year-long celebration.
“This has indeed been an important year for Nymphea Publication as the central idea surrounding all our books has been to promote Bangladesh. In this year, we also celebrate Bangladesh’s economic and literary achievements,” he said.
The first book of this year was a bigger take on our mangrove forest, entitled Sundarbans: The World Heritage (text and photographs by M Monirul H Khan). Creatively edited by Sabyasachi Hazra, this is a fabulously designed coffee table book with rare photographs of Sundarbans’ unique and diverse flora and fauna, also filled with important research articles on the forest’s historical, archaeological and geographical evolution. The text prepared by the author pays special attention to aspects of deforestation and poaching, and the threats of climate change facing the forest.
The other book is undoubtedly Nymphea’s most important venture into the literary arena; it is also perhaps one of the most remarkable books coming out this year because it celebrates and puts together Bangladesh’s literary achievements between its two covers. Edited by Niaz Zaman, this fat yet aesthetically pleasing book contains both translations of Bengali fiction and original fiction in English by Bangladeshi or Bangladeshi-origin authors.
“Two more books are about to be released soon. One of them will feature the economic achievements of Bangladesh while the other will consist of nonfiction accounts of 50 women and their memories of the Liberation War in 1971,” he added.
The passion project goes on
After two decades, with more than half of the books lagging far behind break-even targets, Barua remains undeterred. The target, he repeated, was never to reach a break-even point but to do something special about our country’s heritage and culture.
Asked about his future plans, he expressed his firm belief that if one was innovative enough, a platform like Nymphea Publication could be financially viable as well.
“My two decades of experience tells me that a market for the kind of books that I did and will do in the future can be created and expanded as well. All I need to do is give it more time,” he expressed.
Not only would he continue to publish books, he’d reshape it in a way that it would send out the positive messages about Bangladesh more effectively across the globe as well as generate revenue.
In addition to presenting Bangladesh on the world stage, Barua has successfully created a platform for distinguished writers, researchers, historians, journalists and translators of Bangladesh.