Somewhere in San Jose suburbia, an eight-page black-and-white magazine enters its first press run. And the cultural happenings in the Indian-American community get new visibility and voice.
Founding editor of India Currents Arvind Kumar recalls, “Ashok (Jethanandani) and I enjoyed attended various programs of the Festival of India (1985-1986) together. We thought that even though the official festival was ending, another kind of “festival” could continue forever based on the enthusiasm and strength of the local community.”
After two months of planning and preparation; a Windows PC running Ventura software; an HP Laserjet printer; innumerable late nights; and total damages of $300, India Currents hit the stands in April 1987.
Arvind Kumar was responsible for the editorial content and Vandana Kumar compiled and edited the events calendars. Later Jethanandani joined the team, initially handling the business end, and is now the editor.
“We all wore many hats in the beginning,” says Vandana Kumar who serves as the publisher today. “I was managing the subscriptions, classifieds, and the calendar. At that time everything had to be built from scratch. We had to build a subscription base as well as a community resource list. One of my ongoing tasks was making phone calls to folks as I got to know about them or their organizations. The internet was not a resource then. The ‘phone friends’ that I made then have stood the test of time. As time went by, we made deeper connections into the community and realized that the subscription base as well as the calendar was growing rapidly.”
In 1990 a Southern California edition was launched. Although this edition didn’t garner as much advertising support as its Northern California sibling, it has a circulation of over 11,000 in the Southland area.
The magazine grew with the increasing population of South Asians in California; it currently draws a circulation of over 32,000 across the state.
In 1998 the magazine decided that it needed a presence on the web, andwww.ticg.wpengine.com was launched.
Ramesh Bhambhra of Care-Mor Home Loans is one of the magazine’s earliest and continuing supporters. He recollects the beginning of his association with India Currents. “I think I saw what looked like a one page flyer and got interested by the fact that it was going to provide information on the arts and cultural events in the Bay Area. You have to go back to that time to understand the significance. Clearly, it was not going to be a moneymaking venture at the time, but simply a product of pure love of giving to the community. I wanted to support it in any way that I could and I immediately started advertising in it.”
* Art Spotlight
India Currents was conceived as a magazine whose primary purpose was to highlight the Indian arts and cultural experiences available in the Bay Area. In early issues (until about 1993) the articles were mostly about Indian dance, music, and art. The magazine actively featured content that encouraged Indian cultural aficionados to celebrate and share the artistic traditions.
“I think it has greatly increased public interest in all kinds of Indian arts. I remember that Indian arts promoters would often say that they were getting twice as many people at their shows after India Currents started coming out,” reminisces musician Teed Rockwell who also writes the Music column in India Currents.
Other articles touched upon issues of interest to the Indian immigrant community, including news from South Asia.
Many readers appreciated this connection to India and Indians. “Through your paper, I feel part of the community, and in Texas, that’s important, we’re so cut off here,” wrote a reader. However, some viewed it as a tirade against the American lifestyle and its values, to the extent that it seemed the Indians in America were living here against their will. “It seems that many of the articles and letters in your magazine are either by Indians outraged at one thing or another in America or by Americans obsequiously praising everything Indian and apologizing for everything American or Western,” wrote another.
However, towards the mid-1990s, the tone of the articles shifted—from India-centric to Indian-American, with stories that reflected the lives of Indians in the United States from the perspective of the desi diaspora.
“Feedback from readers instigated much of the change,” says Arvind Kumar. “We slowly morphed from being an events publication to a magazine with regular columns like Recipes, Book Reviews, Film Reviews, Word From Home, Fiction, and so on. We wanted to be a forum for open debate and discussion in the community, and columns like Opinion and Forum made room for diverse opinions and viewpoints to be aired.”
On my way into an Indian restaurant one weekend, I remember picking up a copy of India Currents in the hope of finding addresses and locations of Indian businesses. I was fairly new to the country. (Also, journalism school training had made me a compulsive “magazine flipper,” constantly scouting for article submission opportunities.) That was the first time I saw the magazine.
Five years later, drained by dull jobs at internet companies, I responded to anIndia Currents opening for a calendar editor. I signed on and made my first connection with the local Indian community. Until that time, I had mostly seen only newspapers catering to the Indian readership. India Currents offered Indian recipes with American vegetables; profiles of Indian-American politicians; desi experiences of non-desi Indophiles; and an insight into the arts that went beyond traditional and purely classical.
Yet, when I mentioned that I worked at India Currents, the response would often be: “Oh, you guys have a lot of ads, don’t you?”
Vandana Kumar responds. “Early on we tried to convert India Currents into a subscription magazine. We brought out two versions of the magazine—calling one the Calendar (distributed free) and the other the Magazine (available by subscription). It was an experiment that failed badly. We then decided thatIndia Currents would remain a free publication and the revenue would come from ads. There is significant cost in designing, printing, distributing, and mailing these many magazines.”
In fact, many have conceded that they look forward to the ads … as a sort of monthly desi yellow pages. How else would one know where to find mandaps and henna artists for weddings; Hindi-speaking doctors and dentists; cooks to prepare dishes specific to a region of India … That said, advertising support is the backbone of a quality magazine.
* Writers Extraordinaire
By this time India Currents had assembled a talented pool of contributors and regular columnists including Rajeev Srinivasan who edits the Forum column; movie buff and reviewer Aniruddh Chawda; op-editors Sanjoy Banerjee and Dilip D’Souza; Laxmi Hiremath, Hema Kundargi, and Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff who contributed recipes. Sandip Roy-Chowdhury began writing forIndia Currents in 1992 and now also serves on its editorial board.
Several India Currents writers have earned accolades for their writing. Business Editor Sukumar Ramanathan and Contributing Editor Sarita Sarvate have won several awards for their articles from New California Media. In 2000, Features Editor Sandip Roy-Chowdhury won the South Asian Journalists Association award for his story on South Asians in North America.
“The magazine’s strength is that it has been able to carve a niche for itself in the market. Its good mix of politics and culture, especially classical arts, really distinguished itself at first,” says Roy-Chowdhury, attributing some of the magazine’s popularity to its free model. “Its other strength is it hasn’t stayed stuck—evolving over the years. There is so much more second-generation content now.” However, he concedes that today, one can find an increasing number of magazines that not only look like India Currents, but are glossier and attractive. “I don’t know if they (the new magazines) can sustain themselves but that will be something India Currents will have to figure out if it is worth doing,” he says.
Sarita Sarvate adds, “Indian media in the U.S. is still not a force to be reckoned with. More and more second generation Indian Americans are writing for mainstream media like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. New American Media, a reincarnation of the New California Media, has gained a larger presence, so maybe the way to make an impact on the mainstream media is to form coalitions.”
As the Indian immigrant population grew since the inception of India Currents, so did the community’s participation in the mainstream politics and society as well as cultural activities. The cultural calendars became fuller with bharatanatyam arangetrams and Bollywood dance competitions; spiritual discourses and yoga workshops; business conferences and film festivals.
Overall, the magazine took more time and effort to put together. Many new writers, young and old, were drawn to the magazine. One such writer, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan became a staple of the Youth column. From issues like dating and peer pressure to the duality of growing up Indian in America, Srinivasan’s column brought a second-generation perspective to the magazine. Her essays “Rethinking the Veil,” “Towered Out,” and “Sound Familiar?” won a New America Media award in 2006.
* Growing Pains
By 1989, the skimpy eight-page magazine had graduated to 56 pages including content and advertising. The next natural progression was pizzazz—the introduction of glossy covers in 1993.
Towards 2000 the page count was creeping to 160. With increasing editorial work and deadlines creeping up more quickly, it was no longer feasible to manually paste up the magazine artwork.
Jethanandani recalls one particular press deadline vividly: “It was the best evening and worst night. We absolutely did not want to miss a rare performance by tabla legend Kishan Maharaj in Berkeley although the press deadline was that same night. After a memorable concert we drove back to San Jose at 2 a.m. to labor over the light table all night till all the artwork for the issue was pasted up.”
The pre-press has become more streamlined since then. India Currents took the digital route to the printing press in 2001. Today the team is also much stronger, and at press time the office is humming with activity. Derek Nunes corrals the ad files; Nirupama Vaidhyanathan puts finishing touches to the calendars; Malini Patel generates the mailing and distribution lists; Long Nguyen produces PDF files before they are uploaded to the printer’s server. No more messy paste-ups. Better still, no more late nights.
By 2005 the teenage magazine’s operations had outgrown its home. It was time to step out into the world. In December 2005, India Currents moved into a spacious new office in North San Jose. Besides the much-contested slanting-window cubicles, the office offered much-needed space for the magazine’s staff of six.
The India Currents “festival” that began in 1987 is now 20 years strong, and offers nearly as many reasons to dive into a copy … calendars of desi events; pithy editorials; short stories; Bollywood film reviews; immigration Q&As; rutabaga recipes …
The publisher Vandana Kumar looks to the future with optimism. “India Currents is fortunate to have a fantastic team that works together—editorially as well as in production. We are a passionate voice of the community and will continue to remain so,” she envisions.
Nitya Ramanan is a freelance writer who lives in San Jose.