(Katha’s Story – Part 3) – Katha Vilasam – Translating Stories, Transforming Lives

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Geeta Dharmarajan had a dream. She wanted to start an organisation whose ethos was ‘story’ – that revolved around ‘story’. She wanted to narrate tales from across the nation, already spun in the native language, breaking the barrier of language. She wanted that a reader who could read in English should be able to appreciate the vast and rich literature of regional languages. Thus, she started Katha, whose motto went – translating stories, transforming lives.  She felt a burning need for good translations in India, like the ones she had noticed in US bookshops.

Geeta brought together some friends and started a society – they were the first signatories of the society. Their motto was – 1. Enhancing the joy of reading and introducing the world of books to both adults & children. 2. Breaking stereotypes of gender, caste, religion leading to culture linking through translations. 3. Sustainable learning.

Katha’s roots lie in Sarvodaya Enclave, specifically, where the storyshop is now located – this is its birthplace. The registration itself is a ‘story’.  It happened after many trips to the registrar’s office. They rejected many names, ultimately accepted the name ‘Katha’ for the organisation Geeta was starting.  Geeta feels the name ‘Katha’ chose itself. Finally, Katha was registered on 8 September, 1989, on World Literacy Day, which was completely coincidental.

Katha  began work on translations. They recruited nominating editors in various languages, who selected few stories and sent them. Finally, the jury would select 7-8 stories. The selection process was unique. They published young authors, unknown authors – it was the quality of the story that was important. They decided to distribute awards in 3 categories – author, translator, journal. Katha Awards became fairly prestigious.

The First book – Katha Prize Stories came out in 1991. It had a Black cover. Despite the popular notion of black being considered inauspicious for any beginning, still they stuck to their guns. The first print run was sold out in 45 days. Economic Times did an article on it, calling it a unique moment in the publishing history of India. The second Katha Award was given by the then President of India.

The entire publishing process was done in-house – from typing to designing, only printing was outsourced. Katha started with just one PC, which the Dharmarajans had got from the US.  The Dharmarajans’ Maruti is symbolic in Katha’s journey. They had gotten the Maruti in 1987 – they still have it. Jokingly, they call it the Katha car. It was used in going to meetings, press.

Since 1991, Katha Vilasam, the Story Research and Resource Centre has come a long way. It has promoted, cherished and celebrated excellent and valuable fiction from 21 Indian languages, contributed by 600 writers and translators, sharing this diverse literature with an extensive readership.  At the moment, Katha has over 300 published titles, including illustrated books for children, novels, poetry, biographies, critical essays and commentaries, anthologies of award-winning stories from eminent writers.

In 2019, it will be the 30th year for Katha. From 2017 – 2019, the 30th year celebrations would continue, because the seed of Katha was sown in 1987, but it was officially registered in 1989. Geeta plans to bring out 30 books of Rs. 30 each, to mark the 30th year of Katha, in 2019.

Written by Lakshmi Nijhawan