The place was busy buzzing with flea market, birthday wishes and that familiar smell of books. Yes, there was coffee too. It was the Seventh Birthday of Atta Galatta. We squeezed ourselves through the crowd, stole Lakshmi and Subodh from their guests for a quick conversation.
Congratulations on your sixth anniversary. Is Atta Galatta at a place today, where you wanted it to be while starting your journey six years ago?
Lakshmi: When we started we had certain goals but things happened differently. When we started we didn’t know how the bookstore was going to be.When we started we didn’t know events would work. We were looking at it on a yearly basis. The goals were very short termed because most bookstores were closing at that point in time. We didn’t know how far would we be able to sustain it. So, for us, the happy fact is that we survived and here we are after six years. I think that is a sense of relief. Future goals come later but we are here and that is what matters the most.
Has Atta Galatta evolved to be something else than you had imagined?
Subodh: Yes and no.The whole idea was to start a bookstore and we are still a bookstore. We were always toying with the idea that we can’t just have a bookstore and hope that people will come. So, we thought why not make it a place where literary and artistic activities happen? As Lakshmi says, it has been a very very happy journey from there but I will be honest that it wasn’t a completely pre-planned journey. Neither did it happen according to the way we thought it would happen. We really did not write a set of goals. There were a few things we wanted to do. We wanted this to be a place that will have its door open for people with an artistic or literary bent of mind. That has happened not only because we have had the doors open but also because people have come here, patronised this place and supported us. A lot of things happened on the go. There were smaller wish lists of things we hoped to do, some of which has happened. A lot of what happened was not because we wanted them to happen but because of the way things have evolved. This is our seventh year and if you ask us what are we going to do this year, I don’t really think we know. We are hoping to continue doing all the things we have done so far. But Atta Galatta has become a community. A lot of what happens here is driven by the community.
While we speak about the community, we think there is a face to Bangalore. When somebody mentions Bangalore, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is the greeneries in the city or its nightlife. But now people also remember Bangalore for its cafes. Anywhere you go now, there are cafes where you have books, some coffee and a lot of books related discussions happening. Do you think Atta Galatta has been at the forefront of this change?
Lakshmi: I think that is like attributing too much credit to Atta Galatta. When you sometimes start something alone you can tell yourself a lot of things. But in reality, it is not so. We would like to think we have influenced this somehow. We would like to take pride in the fact that we have a little part to play in this.
Subodh: I also think that we were able to capitalise on it. It is a two-way thing. When we started Atta Galatta six years ago as an Indian-language Bookstore, Indian writing in English was really on its ascendancy. If you had noticed, there were a whole bunch of Bangalore based authors who drove this Indian-writing-in-English movement, about six years ago. So, that was already happening and Bangalore was already such a city that was supporting literature and books in a big way. So, Bangalore already had this literary culture. Bangalore also has a theatre culture. When you speak of theatre, it is either Mumbai or Bangalore. If you look at Amazon’s book sales, it is either Kolkata or Bangalore. If you look at these various statistical indicators, it is very clear that Bangalore has been a huge patron of literature or artistic activities. Like Lakshmi said, we played a small role in it and we continue to do it. I would also like to believe that we were in the right place at the right time in a city which is already a patron of such activities.
You say Bangalore has been a patron of literature and art. But do you think Bangalore has been adequately represented as a symbol of these things in the mainstream? When we think of Delhi there are political discussions, when you think of Kolkata, a lot of art and cultural discussions happen. Does Bangalore come across as that place in the mainstream, despite so many activities happening here as well?
Subodh: Probably not, because Bangalore has been the IT city.
Lakshmi: Bangalore is also known for its laid-back and chilled out attitude. Maybe not as much as Goa, but Bangalore is something of a holiday city. It can never be compared to Delhi which is considered to be more aggressive and ambitious. Every city has its own characteristics. Subodh told me clearly – “This is a place where you can’t push goals and ideas down people’s heads. If they like it, they will probably take it up and follow. It is not something you can wish for. We have to go with what they want and not what you want.”
You are driving the Bengaluru Poetry festival. You are also part of the Bangalore Literature Festival. You are at the core of a lot of literary activities in Bangalore. We hear a lot of Atta Galatta in the literary events across the city. Do you think that has put some kind of responsibility on your shoulders?
Subodh: What we do from Atta Galatta is different from what we do in the Literature and Poetry Festivals. Atta Galatta was intended and continues to be a platform for literary intellectuals. At Atta Galatta, we always try to remain as a non-curated, non-judgemental platform. It is a place where literary activities can happen but as an organization, we do not curate what happens here. You can be a first-time author or an amateur artist or an established celebrity. We are open to everyone. When we decided that Atta Galatta would be a place for events, Lakshmi and I decided that we would follow the rule of only first come first serve. So whoever comes, books the time slot for using Atta Galatta as an event space, will get that space. I am proud to say we have for example asked a really well-known award-winning author to take a different time slot because the time slot they needed for a book reading was taken by someone else. This is one of the things I am personally happy about.
So, Atta Galatta works as a platform for interactions. Now because it is a platform, you have somebody who uses it to show their talents and we are hoping there is an audience for it and that they will come. They find out through the media that Atta Galatta uses to communicate this fact. So whether it is our newsletter or Facebook, our objective is to send information to our community, so that the performers and the audience find each other.
However, The Poetry and Literature Festivals are different. These are curated platforms where the intention is to bring the best talents in their fields to their audience in Bangalore. There, the objective itself is different. So the responsibility as you call it is different in different cases.
How do you see newcomers like Rupi Kaur or Gurmehar Kaur getting a stage on a curated platform such as the Literary Festival or the Poetry Festival?
Subodh: This happens all the time. At Bengaluru Literature Festival, we have a small role. Atta Galatta is the festival bookstore. There, we work according to the requirements of that festival as it is put together by the festival organisers. As the festival organiser of the Poetry festival, I can say that we are trying to provide a platform for published poets, firstly. When you say that you are a published poet you have gone through a certain level of rigour and peer review to reach that stage. I think that is basically the difference between the person who has been published and has not been published. To keep it really simple and apolitical, as a published poet, your creative works have gone through a certain level of examination by peers and experts in the industry. It is very difficult to qualitatively judge whether a poet who is not published is worse or as good as a poet who is published. So, when we take Rupi Kaur and Gulzar, Gulzar has seen this kind of peer review or appreciation over a longer period of time. The other person, much younger than him has not seen that for a long period of time. Nevertheless, they still have a level of peer review and approval and all of that. That is what we look when we invite a group of people to something like a poetry festival.
Lakshmi: As he said, it is a curated platform. So we are looking for different voices. So, it may be a published poet or an unpublished poet but we look for variety when we have to show it off to an audience. Everybody has a different form of expression. So all we can do is find different voices and present them to people. It is up to them to like them or not
And poetry festival is also about generations of ideas. Every generation is different. So, when they write, they represent their generation. Even within a gap of four or five years, you have problems in communicating. The same thing is true for writing. Also, there are different kinds of audience and you know that different audience will come and listen to different performers.
In that case, is populism driving the literary scene in the city?
Subodh: I don’t think it is. If you really look at it and if you look at the lineup of performers and participants at these festivals, it is not always based on populism. It is based on if their work was represented in the past calendar year because we would like to be current. If you look at the list of performers for this years festival, they probably would have had their work published, or written about or reviewed in the past year. And for any festival, you need headliners, because there are certain audience’s favourites. When you have Gulzar or Javed Akhtar, they are all-time classic favourites. So, you will ensure that you have a mix of people who might be a headliner or represent the various styles or generations or languages.
Are we living in a world of false celebrities, where a controversy erupts and somebody becomes a celebrity overnight and gets to use these platforms available including such festivals?
Subodh: I think it has been happening forever.
Lakshmi: Yes, it has been happening forever. Even if you read some stories from yesteryears, there is always some person who need not have the spotlight but would have had it. At the same time, a totally deserving person wouldn’t have got the spotlight and would have died of starvation.
Subodh: And I think it is wrong to confuse notoriety with celebrity. I think one should consider celebrities are the kind of people who have over a long and sustained period of time managed to gather a positive response from the general public. Notoriety is typically short-lived.
Of the many events that happen in Atta Galatta which ones do you attend personally and which ones are your favourite?
Subodh: I will be honest that we don’t sit and attend every event in Atta Galatta. There are so many that happen that it is not possible for us. It is also important for us to attend events in other spaces and have a personal life. We do not personally invite audience either. We do our bit about talking about events here. It is also difficult to pick a favourite event. Sometimes I attend as a fanboy, for instance, an event with Ramchandra Guha.
Lakshmi: Adding to that, I have a child who is leaving for studies, next year. So it has to be a balance of time. Most people have misconceptions. It is not possible for me to grab people. I have only a fixed number of friends and I can’t ask them to come for every event. So, I tell people that if they expect me to place 50 people here, that is not possible. If they are coming with an expectation that I will give them a fair platform to express their ideas, then yes, they have come to the right platform. Book launches are something for which we don’t charge at all. From the beginning, we have been focussed on our books, so we do attend the book launches.
Subodh: Lakshmi has a particular preference and she likes to watch theatre performances.
Lakshmi: Even with that I am careful because people might start complaining if I attend one and not the other. I am just one person and can’t be everywhere. So, I watch if I am inclined to watch. It is a personal choice. I like it when kids are having fun. I like storytelling sessions. I love the open poetry sessions if there are young college kids and they are making a lot of noise. So, it depends on the mood and what you feel. And we are also very human. We can’t pick a single favourite event.
I, personally, need the change. I create chaos. I don’t have a standard structure for every day. I cannot work in a monotonous way, although Subodh can.
When we talk of Atta Galatta, you both get credited together. If we must credit you individually for Atta Galatta, what should we credit each one of you for?
Lakshmi: I will be frank with you. I need him. I have poor social skills. When we say it has been running for six years, I am not sure how it has been running for six years. I have a problem connecting with people as such. Unlike him, I cannot handle difficulties with a cool face. So, I need him to be my front and he has always been my front.
Subodh: So you can say she is the brain behind Atta Galatta and I am the pretty model face. (laughs)
I have known Atta Galatta even before I came to Bangalore and I have been to Atta Galatta even before I relocated to Bangalore. All these times, you both seem to have managed to stay in the background. We don’t really see your faces when we talk about Atta Galatta. How did you manage to do that?
Subodh: It happened because neither of us is artistic. We do not write. We do not sing. We are not artistically inclined. Neither are we qualified enough to criticize anything.
Lakshmi: We are ordinary people.
Then how did Atta Galatta happen, in the first place?
Subodh: Although she doesn’t believe in it, I think when we started Atta Galatta we were sure Atta Galatta will be an institution, someday. Of what magnitude, only time will tell. This means that it cannot be individual-centric. No institution has ever developed on the shoulders of one or two persons. We were also lucky to be at the right place like Bangalore in a field where people are givers. In artistic, literary fields, people tend to be givers, because they are essentially contributing their artistic feelings to the community. They are giving a lot more than they are taking and most artists aren’t living off their art. Not taking away their amazing talents but they are not really living off their talents. So they give us.
Have you ever had a sense of competition with other centres in the city?
Lakshmi: Do you think it is as popular as movies, or restaurant, or gaming platforms? We get the same ten people and they get the same ten people. It is about young people who are trying their crafts and not about celebrities. Also, it becomes a community. The same set of artists are also going to places like Shoonya or Lahe Lahe etc. People come because they are comfortable with our space. So I can’t tell them that you can’t do it here because you did it there. There is some earthiness about this place. That is their decision. We are not offering any unique set of things. So how can we compete?
Subodh: I will tell you what we compete for. I think we compete to make sure you still have a set of things happening here. We compete to make sure we keep the community active and it is more self-driven.
Do you want to open a new branch of Atta Galatta in a different part of the city?
Subodh: I lose money here on a monthly basis. I can’t afford to do that in two places. Jokes apart, I think it will also be difficult because it is very personal. At least for Lakshmi, she spends her entire day, entire week sitting here and trying to work things.
Lakshmi: This is my life and the people who work here are like me. Whether you like it or not, they imbue my personality. I like it if people sit around. I don’t want to charge them or pressurise them to buy. I have certain tendencies and the staff working for me will be mindful of that. So, there is a lot of me in this. Might not be in Atta Galatta, but there is a lot of me in essentially running the team. Another space will be another person. They will have their own rules and regulations. I don’t mind if my staff come late. I open only at 11 in the morning. It might not be regular structured organisation. So, all these things do reflect in my work. I am particular about certain things like delivering on my promises and I have my own insecurities, my tendencies, my work schedules and that reflects in this. So I don’t think that is possible.
How is everything in terms of business being a physical bookstore. If somebody wants to open a physical bookstore, do you see a future in it?
Subodh: All over the world, bookstores went away and now they are making a come back. Now, Amazon is also setting up physical bookstores. It’s like a cyclic phenomenon. And I think if you want a bookstore and you want it to survive, you might have to do two things. Firstly, you have to figure out how are you going to get customers coming to your bookstore. The next is that you need to make sure that they are gonna come back. So, that is completely left to you. It is a question of which city are you in or which location are you in. People are still reading. Irrespective of whether it is physical books or e-books or audiobooks, people are still reading. More importantly, people are also writing.
Lakshmi: Forms will keep changing and you need to continually evolve. You have to be in a position to know the pulse of people so that you can keep changing and tweaking the way you work. Nothing is final. You can’t sit back and say it works this way.
I know publishing comes with a bookstore. But you also bake bread. How does that come into picture?
Lakshmi: That is entirely Subodh’s idea.
Subodh: We started from Bookstore. We started having readers. Then, we wondered why don’t we have something that we can serve the readers. It might ensure that people stay in the bookstore for a longer period of time and it might also give you an additional source of revenue. That is how it started. And we did not want to run a restaurant. So we said we will start a bakery. It has truly been an organic growth story from there. We started making bread and we said why don’t we design packaging and put it in supermarkets.
How is publishing coming for you?
Lakshmi: We are not publishers. I do it for fun. We publish one or two books a year. We focus a lot on them and promote them throughout the year.
Subodh: We published two titles so far. ‘KarnaKavita’ came from Anjuman. Anjuman is a group of talented group of Hindi and Urdu poets who came to Atta Galatta and started using this space for their poetic talents. The idea of publishing their work turned out into ‘KarnaKavita’
Lakshmi: The second book was Padmavati’s ‘Of Love and Longing’. We have two more poetry books coming for this festival. And we have a humour book which will have a lot of writers like Shinie and others featured in that. It will not have a pattern and I don’t plan to churn out a certain number of books in a certain duration. I only take it if it comes along. We focus a lot on them and take time. So, it is more like a passion and a hobby rather than putting us in the publishing field.
Subodh: For two people who can’t read Hindi, it is amazing that we published a Hindi poetry book as our first publication.
How about your interest in Kannada Literature?
Subodh: Unfortunately, neither of us can read Kannada. I speak average Kannada. Over the last few years, listening to Kannada writers, writings, has deepened my appreciation of Kannada literature.
Lakshmi: He speaks bad Kannada and I struggle with Kannada. But I am happy about one thing. First two years, we couldn’t do events in Kannada because I do not speak Kannada. But now we are having a Kavi Sammelan and Kannada folks are trusting us. Author Jogi had come over here last week. We had Kambhar, so that way we have made progress. Bengali writers have been inclined towards us, We have had Hindi writers, Tamil writers. Kannada literature lovers have been the last to come to us but now they are coming. I am extremely proud of that because it has been difficult and I had to prove that I could bring that sort of audience for Kannada events. We also had to start on languages that we were more confident in and then move on to other languages.
Another political question. I see people referring to Mrs Sudha Murthy as Mrs Murthy. There are times when people address you both as Subodh and his wife. How do you see that?
Subodh: I prefer it to be Lakshmi and her husband. But at least in Atta Galatta community, they know that if anything is to be done at Atta Galatta, Lakshmi is the person to go.
Lakshmi: I am very happy to be addressed that way. I never sought to have an identity. He gets the praises and the criticisms too. I escape a lot of criticism. You have to look at the other side too. If people want to say something negative, it all goes to him.
Subodh: As a brave and beautiful model, I have to accept both the kudos and brickbats. But it is unfortunate that people get referred to as Mr and Mrs.
Lakshmi: It is unfortunate but it also helps me a lot in the sense that I am shy and he is very social. So, when more people approach, he is able to connect with them and put them in order. You might think that I am hiding behind him but it has always been easier for me to have him in the front. He has been my front. This is not a perfect place. Someday, somebody will serve bad burgers. Someday, some pages of books are not going to be printed properly. He takes a lot of flak, I must say.
What are you reading now?
Lakshmi: We read a lot. This morning, I was reading Wendell Rodricks’ ‘Poskem’. It talks about a certain Goan culture where they adopt people. They make them part of the family and use them for cooking, works, and things like that.The whole village knows that they have been adopted. They don’t get treated like the rest of the family. Some are used as sex slaves, some are used as cooks but some of them get treated nicely as well. It is a particular phenomenon in Goa. I like Tamil books. I am picky about Indian writings. He reads everything. Maybe because of my literature background or maybe because of my English teacher screaming at me, I prefer older writers and classics. I am a little old-fashioned that way. I take time to warm up to a book. If I like a book, I will keep reading it. He reads all the new books and I pick them up if he recommends. So, I’m particular that the subject has to be convincing and language should not be bad because the English teacher in me comes out. He is much easier with art. If I read a book, I go deep into it, I ponder over it. When we do book launches here, I handle the QA session. So it will be a thorough reading of the book.
Subodh: I read everything I can get my hands on. I am a very different kind of reader from her. I speed read, I read through chapters. I read fiction, non-fiction. This gives me a chance to read tons and tons of books. Not that I don’t have my favourites. Not that I don’t go back and read same things again.
We had to let the duo get back to their guests for the celebrations to continue. Join us in wishing the vibrant team in Atta Galatta a successful seventh year.