India’s pioneering public publishing house celebrates centenary amid COVID

The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society Limited (TSISSWPS), founded in 1920 at Tirunelveli is celebrating its centenary this year

Even in this lockdown, the publishing house is catering to the reader’s needs.

Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the bibliophiles are faced with some very basic troubles where they aren’t able to visit bookshops, get a hold on new books, and smell the ink of any newly printed books stacked in the racks of libraries and shops. While the other industries and neighbourhood shops are allowed to operate, in many places the government has not yet allowed opening of bookshops and libraries.

Most of the publishers in Tamil Nadu are finding it difficult to run their book business in this lockdown. They have not paid salaries to their employees, haven’t cleared dues for their printers, etc. At a time like this when the Tamil publishing industry looks grim due to the uncertainty over organising book fairs which are the major points of sale, a century-old publishing house provides a glimpse of hope.

The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society Limited (TSISSWPS), founded in 1920 at Tirunelveli is celebrating its centenary this year. Even in the time of lockdown, it has ensured that its readers and their thirst for books is satiated. The Federal tried to look at its history and how it has become a household name in the state.

The Beginning

In order to promote Saiva Siddhanta and to publish the ancient Tamil literature with explanations as textbooks, TSISSWPS, referred in Tamil as ‘Thennindhiya Saiva Siddhanta Noorpathippu Kazhagam’, was established by V. Thiruvarangam Pillai, V. Subbiah Pillai and other Saivites in Tirunelveli. They used to publish books with the help of selling shares of the society. Thus, it became India’s first public limited publishing company, says well-known historian A.R.Venkatachalapathy in his policy paper published by the Madras Institute of Development Studies in June 2020.

Following the death of Thiruvarangam Pillai in 1944, his brother Subbaiah Pillai took charge as the managing director till 1983 and was responsible for opening the company’s branches across Tamil Nadu.

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Currently, the society has branches in Chennai, Tirunelveli, Coimbatore, and Trichy. Earlier they also had branches in Madurai and Kumbakonam, but were closed over the period due to slowdown in the publishing industry.

It is the first publishing house in the state which has published all the works related to Saivism such as Thirumandiram, Thiruppugazh, Thiruvasagam with explanations. Over the period, those books became the authoritative works and the researchers keep consulting those works even today.

“Subbiah has always said that it is not a great thing to publish ancient works. But that they should be published without any errors. He was strong in proofreading. If any of the workers in the publishing house finds any errors in a sample copy, he would award them five paise. If he found any errors before anyone, then he would collect five paise from the person responsible,” said M. Subbiah, the managing director of the society.

The society, besides publishing Saiva Shastras, also started publishing other works in the latter days. It was the first publishing house that brought Tamil – Tamil – English dictionary titled as ‘Kazhaga Tamil Agarathi’.

In 1948, the Dravidar Kazhagam founder Periyar had organised a conference on Tamil text Thirukkural (two-line moral couplets) in the state. At that time, the explanation for that text was written only by Parimelazhagar, a Tamil scholar. The explanatory work was accessible only to the highly qualified readers. During the conference, Periyar had said that Thirukkural needs simpler explanatory work.

Following the conference, Subbiah asked Tamil scholar Dr. M. Varadarajan, who was referred to as ‘Mu.Va.’, to write a simpler version of the explanation for Thirukkural. It was sold then for ₹1. The book was gifted to the students during the convocation ceremonies held in the state and was also considered as the most valuable gift to be presented in wedding ceremonies.

It is still one of the best sellers in book fairs conducted in the state and has seen more than 200 editions till now.

Even before writer Sujatha took by storm the Tamil literary arena through his science writings, there was a writer called P.N. Appusamy who introduced science writing in Tamil and his books were published by this society.

The society had also run a magazine called ‘Senthamizh Selvi’ for 75 years.

For his service in the publishing industry, Subbiah Pillai was awarded ‘Padma Shri’ in 1967. He was the first and only person from this industry, at least in Tamil, who has been conferred with a Padma award.

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Since the award name is in Sanskrit, Subbiah changed it into Tamil as ‘Thamarai Selvar’ and used it as a prefix to his name.

Era of Muthukumaraswamy

After Subbaiah’s demise in 1983, his son-in-law R. Muthukumaraswamy became the chief of the publishing house. It was Muthukumaraswamy’s era during which the publishing house broke new grounds in the publishing industry.

The library called ‘Maraimalai Adigal Noolagam’ was founded by this society in 1958 after the Tamil scholar Maraimalai Adigal. It is one of the libraries in the country which serves Tamil scholars in their research and Muthukumaraswamy served as a librarian in it.

“Along with the ‘Father of Indian Library Movement’ S.R. Ranganathan, Muthukumaraswamy had brought a commemorative cataloug of the society. They had catalogued 1,008 books published by the society in its first 39 years based on the Colon Classification System, a kind of library classification. Before that, such kind of catalogue publication was done only by Columbia University and the British Library” said librarian Rengaiah Murugan.

“Muthukumaraswamy also created a bibliography based on the articles published in ‘Senthamizh Selvi’ magazine, from the day one of its publication,” added Murugan.

“He manually typed and created that bibliography. He had also archived all the newspaper and magazine articles related to the anti-Hindi struggles” he added.

Muthukumaraswamy was also one of the founders of Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI), which conducts the Chennai Book Fair every year. He had also played an important role during the second and fifth International Tamil Conferences organised under the aegis of former chief ministers C.N. Annadurai and M.G. Ramachandran, respectively. He died in 2017.

Before the Tamil Nadu Text Book Corporation came into existence in 1970, it was this society that published textbooks.

Serving even in COVID-19 times

“When the talks about COVID had begun and people went into lockdown, many of our customers asked for a copy of ‘Thiruppugazh’ as they thought by having a copy of that book in their house and reading them may protect them from the disease,” said Subbiah.

The collection of poems sung on Lord Murugan by Arunagirinathar, Thiruppugazh is considered by the Tamil saints as a panacea to all ills.

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“To mark the centenary, we will bring out all the six volumes of Kantha Puranam. For a century or so, people have been getting just one or two volumes,” he said.

Even in this lockdown, the publishing house is catering to the reader’s needs.

“We have only a handful of employees in our company. They are pretty old and opted to stay in their house because of corona. But that didn’t stop me. I personally deliver books to our readers and also send them through posts. At least five books are being sold in a day. What’s more for a publisher than to respect the reader’s interest? That keeps me going,” said Subbiah.

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