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Literary Arts in Nepal 2

Nepal has a rich multi-lingual literary history dating back to the Malla Dynasty in the 12th century. The Malla kings supported literature in Nepal Bhasa (the language of the Newar community) and the Maithili language. Literature was orally produced, written and enacted through dance-dramas and songs. Nepali language literature came into prominence with the establishment of the Shah Dynasty in the 18th century.

The printing press and Nepal’s modern literary history has an autocratic precedence. Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana, the establisher of the Rana regime, introduced the first printing press in Nepal in 1851. It was housed in his palace and only documents approved by him were printed and distributed. In the 1940s, with the Rana government’s restrictions on language and writing becoming more draconian, dissenting writers had their works confiscated and got thrown into jail. Nepal Bhasa writers like Chittadhar Hridaya, Siddhicharan Shreshtha, Phatte Bahadur Singh and Dharma Ratna Yami produced short stories, poems, essays and novels while in jail. Gopal Prasad Rimal started a movement to voice dissent against the autocratic Rana rulers and was repeatedly jailed. Laxmi Prasad Devkota went into self-exile and started writing from Benares, India.

In 1951, the autocratic Rana regime came to an end. For a decade, with no censorship from the state, literature in Nepal flourished. Ratna Pustak Bhandar, a bookshop, started its publishing division and writings in both Nepali and Nepal Bhasa were published locally. In 1957, the Nepal Academy of Literature and Arts, now Nepal Academy, was established to develop and promote Nepali literature. However, this stagnated with the establishment of the Panchayat system, which saw the King assume dictatorial control of the state.

Between 1960 and 1990, the Panchayat system’s one-language policy deterred the development of literature in any of Nepal’s over 100 languages, other than Nepali. The Nepal Bhasa Movement that started in the 40s was run aground as its leaders were put in prison for protesting against this policy. In 1964, Sajha Prakashan, a government-owned publishing house began operations. Books produced by Sajha were heavily subsidized and were sold at a nominal fee. This increased access but adversely affected private publishers, and the production value of books stagnated despite the development of printing technology. Regardless, seminal works of fiction and non-fiction in the Nepali language were published during this time.

In 1990, after the re-establishment of democracy, the constitution was amended to allow for a free press. This resulted in the establishment of Kantipur Publications, one of Nepal’s first private news media houses (and now the biggest), in 1993. Writers took advantage of these avenues and actively contributed to newspapers, magazines and journals. Bookshops like Mandala Book Point and Educational Book House ventured into publishing. Mandala focused on academia partnering with Martin Chautari to publish the journal Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS) while Educational Book House partnered with Indian publishing house, Rupa & Co., on Samrat Upadhyay's first book. Educational Book House determined a suitable price for the Nepali market, took a studied gamble and promoted it widely as the first Nepali book to be internationally published. The success of this venture sealed Nepal as a developing market for English language books.

While the retail market of English language books opened up, the Nepali language publishing industry struggled to keep pace with the changes. Even when local printing technology caught up with the times, the business models of the old publishing houses could not change overnight. The dilemma of increasing the general price of books weighed heavily on the publishers. Meanwhile, writers benefited from lucrative options as media houses competed to attract the best writers.

The lacunae in Nepali language publishing was felt when booksellers realized that the pool of readers of English language books was smaller than anticipated. Insiders in the industry started discussing the feasibility of producing a high quality Nepali language book priced reasonably. Nepa-laya conceptualized a revival of the Nepali language publishing industry, in every sense. They wanted not just a new look but also a new style of writing and a marketing strategy, unlike any other for a book. Their first publication, Palpasa Café by Narayan Wagle, broke records, set new trends and understandably also earned some criticism from an industry that was sitting on the fence. But everyone paid attention to the sale figures – 25,000 copies sold in the first year.

New publishers emerged soon after and are shaping the future of publishing in Nepal. A number of publishing houses have been set up as independent companies with specific objectives. Nepa-laya hunts for best-sellers, Akshar Creations focus on women’s writings while Fine Print offers popular and pulp fiction. Editorial processes and marketing strategies for books are gradually developing. Manuscripts are being reviewed and edited, the production values of books are of good quality and promotional campaigns often accompany the launch of a book.

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Literary events have become a regular feature in Kathmandu and the need to engage readers outside of the capital is also being addressed. The Nepal Literature Festival held its third edition in 2013 and is planning one for Pokhara. Jhapa, in Eastern Nepal, organized its first literature festival, Kala Sahitya Utsav, bringing in writers from Kathmandu and Sikkim for a three-day event in early 2013. Writers are not just enjoying the adulation but are also exploring writing in different genres as well as writing in their own mother tongues.

It is now possible to imagine that there will be a body of literature in languages other than Nepali in the near future – the Nepal Academy has started a separate department to focus on supporting writers writing in the languages of Nepal. Further, the recently updated trade treaty with India has opened up excellent business propositions for Nepali publishers. There are nearly three million Nepali language speakers as well as approximately four million Nepali migrant workers in India. This new development could also mean a resurgence for Maithili literature from Nepal as the markets in Northern India, with approximately 43 million Maithili speakers, becomes accessible. English language writers have the option of getting locally published making their writing more accessible to local readers. Moreover, a whole new market for translations of Nepali language literature into English or any other language in the region has opened up. This is an incredibly exciting time for the Nepali publishing industry.

This essay was written in preparation for the Silk Routes Symposium, held in the Maldives, March 2014.