Author's Note: A shorter version of this article was published in the April, 2013 issue of Ananda Sangbad, Somerset, NJ. I thank the editor of Ananda Sangbad for permitting me to re-publish parts from that article.
When Bengali immigrants began to arrive in the US in significant numbers after the liberalization of American immigration laws in 1968, they brought with them their love for good food, good companionship, good music and movies, and good books and magazines. Except for the lucky few who settled in large metropolitan areas and had discretionary income to spare, these immigrants had to forgo tasty Bengali fish dishes and sweets because of the lack of availability of key ingredients. They also had no access to recently released Bengali movies, recordings, books or magazines. In the early years of their lives in their adopted homeland, they made up for these missing pleasures by enjoying the one thing they could find and afford: good companionship oradda with friends. Out of this great Bengali tradition, successfully transplanted to North America, grew a number of “cultural associations” or "clubs". These associations or clubs were formed to keep the Bengali culture alive through whatever group activities the community could marshal such as poetry readings, music lessons, summer picnics, and even the staging of one-act plays.
For Bengalis who had arrived from India, Saraswati Puja was almost always the first major community event to be organized by local cultural associations. This was partly because arranging Saraswati Puja is less onerous than organizing other major pujas, and partly because Sawaswati occupies a special corner in the hearts and minds of educated Bengalis from India as the Goddess of Knowledge and the Arts. Following Saraswati Puja traditions of India, many of these newly established cultural associations also decided to commemorate these events with the publication of “children’s magazines”. Thus was born the tradition of "pujamagazines".
Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh began to arrive in large numbers in the mid-1990s when the US established a lottery system to allow more applicants under "non-preferred" categories (in visa speak). In time Bangladeshis also organized cultural associations -- and began similar home-grown publication efforts.
What began as low-key attempts to encourage children to read and write in Bengali grew quickly in some communities into "literary magazines" for adults and children alike. Not surprisingly, larger Bengali communities such as those in the NY-NJ area could take this step sooner than smaller communities in less-populous states and provinces. The eighties and the nineties saw a steady increase in the number of such Bengali magazines in the US and Canada.
I thought that our readers might be interested in an overview of the efforts that have been made over the years by the Bengalis in North America to keep alive their love of reading and writing. I am not a historian and I will not attempt to give a complete or a scholarly account. However, I will mention several past attempts because they are an important part of our collective history. Also, I will not be able to give a comprehensive account of all current Bengali publications because I am not familiar with many initiatives outside New Jersey, my home state. I welcome readers to contact me with details about efforts that I should have included. I would also like to be informed of any factual errors in the article. If I update this article in the future, I would want to make it more complete and accurate.
Two quick notes before I begin: (1) Most “Bengali” publications are bi-lingual (Bengali and English) in content because their main purpose is to encourage creative writing by authors in their communities in whatever may be their “language of comfort”; (2) I have not mentioned any of the many Bengali language periodicals being published by the Bangladeshi immigrants in North America. I sincerely hope that periodicals published by the large and vibrant Bangladeshi diaspora will be the subject of future articles by authors more familiar with such efforts.
Literary Magazines & Puja Magazines
The credit for the first attempt to publish a Bengali magazine in the US probably goes to New Jersey Bengali Association (NJPA, established in 1970), an organization based in central New Jersey, NJPA began publishing a hand-written magazine, Paathshala, in February 1975. It was a labor of love for all concerned. NJPA volunteers also established a Bengali language school for the community children. A magazine publication effort similar to Paathsala was launched in the late-1970s in the Maryland/Washington, DC area. That hand-written magazine was named Naba Patrika.
Paathsala (as well as Naba Patrika) ceased publication after a couple of years but it planted the seed for a larger effort to be undertaken later by Kallol of New Jersey. Under the leadership of the late Lal Mohan Hore, Kallol began the publication of Kallol Sahitya Patrika in 1976. In the beginning, Kallol Sahitya Patrika followed the hand-written format of Paathsala. Editorial team members used to go to a local office supplies store to photocopy master pages -- and then hand-staple photocopied pages to produce individual copies of the magazine! After an unfortunate interruption of a couple of years, this venerable magazine resumed publication in 2013.
Canadian Bengalis hold an equally admirable record of publishing a high-quality literary magazine for a very long time. Aamra was launched back in 1985 from Ottawa and has been in continuous production since then. Like Kallol Sahitya Patrika, Aamra is published once a year. However, Aamra only publishes articles written in Bengali and only those submitted by authors living outside of India and Bangladesh. There is another unique feature of Aamra: articles written by children must be hand-written in Bengali. This is to encourage Bengali immigrant children to learn writing in Bengali, a continuing mission for many families living in North America.(Aamra became an on-line magazine, beginning in 2013. More about that later.)
Readers who have attended North American Bengali Conferences (Banga Sammelans) know that the event organizers usually publish commemorative brochures with elaborate magazine sections. Invited authors from India and Bangladesh are often featured in these publications. They also draw contributions from Bengali authors from many regions of the US and Canada. However, for these publications, the editorial responsibility changes from year to year because the conference moves from location to location. As a result, these magazines do not get the benefit of editorial consistency. Nevertheless these publications generally achieve a high quality. Banga Mela organizers in the mid-western states of the US also publish similar magazines with similar attributes.
Anandalipi, published by Ananda Mandir (Somerset, NJ), began its life in 2005. It is a bi-lingual literary magazine, published once a year, usually in the autumn. The magazine is distributed primarily to the members of the Ananda Mandir community but it welcomes articles from far and wide.
Several “puja magazines” deserve mention here because of their longevity. Prabasi, a Bengali cultural association of the San Francisco Bay Area, began publishing its magazine, Sankha, in 1998. For a long time, four issues were published per year. Recently it became an annual Durga Puja publication. In the Greater Boston area, at least three community puja magazines have been published for many years: Prabasi, Bangla o Biswa, and Bengalees of New England. Even smaller communities can take pride in their continued perseverance with “puja magazines”. Witness the success of Hoi Choi, published annually by the Bengalis in Iowa City – or Tuli Kalom of Milonee, the Bengali Cultural Association of Colorado. Another good example of sustained efforts by a relatively small community is Pratibha, published annually by Sanskriti, the cultural association of Bengalis in the Buffalo area. There are many more that I could mention but space limitations do not permit me to do so.
A few Bengali organizations have been successful in publishing two puja magazines every year, one to celebrate Saraswati Puja and the other to mark Durga Puja. For example, Antorik, the , TX area Bengali organization, publishes Stabak twice a year. Bengali Association of Southern California publishes Kheya and Ankur. Bengali Association of Greater Rochester (BAGR) has been publishing Sharadanjali and Bivas on an annual basis for many years.
Unlike “puja magazines”, Bengali literary magazines have seen many ups and downs. Many literary magazines have not been as lucky as Aamra, Anandalipi or Kallol Sahitya Patrika. Even after successful runs lasting many years, several literary magazines had to cease publication either because key individuals leading the efforts moved away or financial sponsorship dried up. Most notable among such untimely exits were Atolantik, Antorik, Udayan and Utsab.
Atolantik began publication in 1980 The magazine ran successfully for several years. Antorik began a few years later in NJ. LikeAtolantik, Antorik did well for several years and established a loyal following before ceasing publication.
Of all the magazines mentioned above, only Utsab (published in the early 1990s) was a commercial venture and funded solely through subscription and advertisement revenues. Since Utsab folded after just a couple of years, I had assumed that it had been unsuccessful because of financial factors. So I was pleasantly surprised when in November 2012, I received the sharadiya puja sankhya of a new monthly magazine, Du-Kool. Du-Kool is being published from Cinicinnati, OH, on a commercial basis. Clearly the magazine is being driven as a here-to-stay, serious endeavor. The magazine, printed in color on high quality paper, artfully combines news, information, entertainment and literature in a very attractive package. Another reason for its continued success is its commitment to attract (and pay for) high quality works of well known authors from India, Bangladesh and the US.
Newspapers & News Magazines
To be useful, newspapers and news magazines must be published fairly frequently and on a regular basis. As a result, these types of publication usually demand a greater commitment of time and money from sponsoring individuals and organizations. Not surprisingly, only a handful of Bengali news magazines can boast of a long life. Three long-lasting news magazines that I am most familiar with are Sangbad Bichitra, Udayan and Ananda Sangbad.
To the best of my knowledge, Sangbad Bichitra is the longest-running Bengali news magazine in North America. Published by the Cultural Association of Bengal, NY, it began its life back in 1971 as the brainchild of Ranajit Datta.. Bengalis residing in the US at that time had very limited access to news from “back home” (no Internet, even phone calls to India were not easy!). Sangbad Bichitraaddressed this hunger for news from West Bengal by putting together xeroxed clippings from several Calcutta newspapers in the form of a monthly publication. Ranajit Datta used to spend many hours in consulates and libraries to personally gather news reports of potential interest to the Bengali immigrants. -- That format of "digest of newspaper reports" was changed in recent years and several new features have been added, such as original articles written specifically for Sangbad Bichitra.
Udayan is another long-running news magazine of a similar format. Udayan was launched in 1993, and is currently published on a monthly basis. Bengali Association of North America (BANA), Floral Park, NY is the sponsoring organization. Udayan carries news reports and original articles – and has a limited English section. To BANA's credit, Udayan also publishes an annual puja magazine.
Bengali Association of Greater Chicago (BAGC) has been publishing Samaj Sangbad five times a year since 1993, a remarkable achievement indeed. Although BAGC calls Samaj Sangbad a “newsletter,” in reality it is a news magazine. It carries news of interest to BAGC members and original articles authored by adults as well by younger members of the community. Children are encouraged to hand-write their articles in Bengali.
Ananda Sangbad is a quarterly news magazine published by Ananda Mandir of New Jersey. It began its life in 2002 as an electronic newsletter for the members of the organization and progressed to its current print version in 2005. This all-English publication features only original articles and covers a very wide waterfront of subjects. Sanskriti is published twice a year by Bengali Cultural Society of South Jersey as an e-newsletter and carries news from India as well as the local community.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no daily or weekly newspaper in North America published by the Bengalis of Indian origin. (In clear contrast, several all-Bengali newspapers have been published on a weekly basis by Bangladeshis in North America, and these newspapers have attracted wide followings.)
Bengalis in North America can be justifiably proud of the success of many of their magazine and newsletter publication efforts. However, none of these print-based publications can be viewed as national in reach or coverage. Circulation is usually limited to the members of the sponsoring organization, and the publications are generally not known outside of their home states. Web-based publications, on the other hand, suffer no geographic limitations – and are usually available free to all interested readers and writers. It is heartening to see that a number of web-based Bengali publications have become established with loyal followings. No doubt more will emerge in the coming years.
Parabaas.com is probably the oldest of the Bengali web-based literary magazines (“webzine”) published from North America. Its first issue appeared in 1997 and over 50 issues have been published so far. Parabaas.com offers a full basket of literary works in Bengali and English. It also features English translations of famous Bengali authors.. It is a mature publication that attracts authors and readers from not just North America but also from the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.
If Parabaas.com is the oldest Bengali webzine from North America, Abasar.net may be the boldest. Abasar.net was officially launched in 2002 with a most unusual charter: Provide Bengali readers with an encyclopedic range of facts and information, all written in Bengali language. For example, the website contains useful information on Kolkata and Dhaka, breaking news about Bengal and India, and articles on recreation and entertainment, law and administration, science and technology, arts and literature, society and culture, health, environment, and women’s issues. The website has direct links to many useful and unusual websites such as Gitabitan.net, a treasure-trove of little-known facts and helpful notes on all the songs written by Rabindranath Tagore!
Mukto-mona.com is a bi-lingual web-magazine that aims to draw "freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent who are scattered around the globe." Founded in 2001, this webzine has been a magnet for essays, comments and viewpoints on a wide range of political, social and religious subjects -- and is widely regarded as a forum for the sincere expressions of controversial thoughts.
Another web magazine that deserves a special mention is Urhalpool. This bi-lingual publication burst into the scene in 1998 with contributions from well-known Bengali and English authors from many countries and was a serious literary endeavor. Unfortunately it ceased publication after a while. Its revival is imminent, however. The editor has announced that it will be re-launched next month (May 2015).
In addition to these web magazines, there are many personal web-logs ("blogs") by individual Bengali immigrants. They are too numerous to list and are often difficult to locate but they offer a rich source of wide-ranging views, ideas and experiences.
Probably the behind-the-scenes, unsung heroes of literature-minded members of the Bengali immigrant communities are the many “writers’ groups” in the US and Canada. Unmesh in the Chicago area, Lekhoni in Greater Boston, and Sahitya O Alochanasponsored by Ananda Mandir in NJ, are good examples of such active groups. These forums are usually held once a month and provide informal opportunities to aspiring as well as established authors to enjoy intensive peer interaction. In some of these group sessions, each participant is expected to read at least one of his or her latest writing and receive constructive comments. Success of these writers’ groups arises from healthy interchange with peers in a supportive atmosphere. Whether active pursuit of the Bengali love for reading and writing survives and flourishes in North America will depend to a large extent on the endeavors of these dedicated groups of literature lovers.
What Lies Ahead
Although I began this article with warm, nostalgic ruminations about the genesis of Bengali magazines and other periodicals published in North America, I must admit that I am concerned about the future of many of these endeavors. Too many factors now seem to be conspiring against the continued success of Bengali “print publications”. Fewer authors, fewer readers, and fewer sponsors are willing to pay the necessary publication and distribution costs. “Second generation” Bengalis do not seem interested in, or are capable of engaging with their peers or elders, especially in their native language. While all Bengali immigrants take great pride in the literary and commercial success of luminaries like Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee or Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, these authors do not grace the pages of our struggling Bengali periodicals. Lesser known but talented Bengali immigrant writers are often more content with publishing their works in Kolkata-based magazines than in North American “puja magazines” or other Bengali periodicals.
Fortunately, the increasingly popular sphere of web magazines and blogs offers one bright patch in this otherwise bleak landscape. These modern, efficient and user-friendly publications seem to give both the readers and the authors what they like in terms of flexibility, speed, cost and coverage. However, whether web-based periodicals and other websites in Bengali language will establish loyal and lasting following remains to be seen.
(Posted April 1, 2015) (Updated on April 3, 2015)
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Comments from RR received on April 2, 2015: "I read your essay. I liked it because it will be remembered as a summary of historical facts. May be someone some day will use it for research on how we tried to keep the Bengali culture alive here in America. -- Unfortunately I have to agree with your conclusionthat our next generation seems to have no interest in the Bengali language or culture. I know of only one young person (about 30 years old) in the Boston area who accepted the responsibilities of leading the local cultural association as president for four years. A very happy occasion. But even he could not inspire other young ones to take part in Bangla activities, let alone magazine. But, many times it is the fault of the elders -- their infighting."
Comments from NM received on April 2, 2015: "I read your above article with interest and just wanted to add the following comments: (1) Being a long time, as far as I know/remember, Sangbad Bichitra was the brainchild of Dr. Ranajit Datta of Pelham Manor, NY, who was also one of the founders of Cultural Association of Bengal. He used to spend relentless time in visiting consulates and libraries in NY area to collect relevant news from various newspapers and then hand-pasted them together to make xerox copies to be mailed to lot of us. That was the only Bengali news magazine in those days which lot of us enjoyed. It would have been nice to mention his name in the article. (2) In Buffalo, we have a magazine, Pratibha, that has been in publication since mid-eighties. It is published once a year during Durga Puja. (Author's reply: Thank you for your inputs. I have updated the article and addressed your points)
Comments from AG received on April 2, 2015: "BANA, not only publishes Udayan every month but also a Fall Issue (Sharadiya) during Durga Puja, I do not know if any other news publication does that.... If you could add that news about BANA at the end of your article or allow us to do so. we shall be thankful. Thanks for sending us the articles." (Author's reply: Thank you for your inputs. Your suggestion has been incorporated)
Bengali Periodicals Published in North America:
Past, Present & Future