In the early years of 1970s, during their regular adda at the iconic Coffee House on College Street, a group of literature enthusiasts, mostly publishers, often discussed the Frankfurt Book Fair. The commercial trade fair of books was something they wanted to replicate in Kolkata, partly to give book lovers a place to exchange thoughts and ideas and get all their favourite writers’ works at one place, and partly to further the publishing business. Boi Mela or Calcutta Book Fair, which later became Kolkata Book fair, was thus conceptualised.
The idea was discussed, debated and finally given a shape in 1975, and the Publishers & Booksellers Guild came into being, with Sushil Mukherjea as its first president and Jayant Manaktala as general secretary.
The next year, in 1976, as many as 34 publishers got together and put up 56 stalls on the ground opposite Academy of Fine Arts, next to Kolkata’s landmark Victoria Memorial. Inaugurated by the then Education Minister Mrityunjay Bandyopadhyay on 5 March 1976, the ‘boi mela’ came to be known as the first Calcutta Book Fair. The 10-day affair culminated on 14 February. The book loving people of Kolkata welcomed the idea of Boi Mela and paid a 50 paisa per head entry fee to be part of the event.
The World Book Fair organised in New Delhi in 1972 and the 1974 National Book Fair organised by the National Book Trust in Kolkata were also the inspiration behind the big 1976 literary milestone for Kolkata.
The Publishers & Booksellers Guild went on to participate in the World Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair also that year. Started on an experimental basis, the Kolkata Book Fair became an annual affair and the Publishers & Booksellers Guild has remained its organiser to this date.
With the 1977 edition too witnessing an equally enthusiastic participation and response, the Kolkata Book Fair required a bigger stage now. The 1978 event opposite the Rabindra Sadan ground reportedly saw participation of 112 publishers. In 1982, Peter Withers, the then director of Frankfurt Book Fair, visited the Kolkata do.
By now, the number of participating publishers had increased manifolds, and the Guild had started publishing names and details of all titles in print at the fair, besides a fair directory. Seminars and symposia also became permanent features. In 1983, then secretary general of International Publishers Association (IPA), Geneva, attended the inauguration ceremony. And it was the year the Kolkata Book Fair got its international accreditation. The IPA started mentioning the dates of the fair in its calendar every year.
In 1988, the book fair venue shifted to an even bigger ground, the Maidan nearer Esplanade, to accommodate the ever growing number of publishers and visitors. The vacant green area adjoining Park Street and Outram Road was developed by the Guild, which hosted the book fair there until 2007.
In 1991, a focal theme was introduced, on the lines of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The fair started to have one Indian state as its theme every year, aiming to highlight the literature and culture of the particular state. Assam emerged as the first focal theme.
From 1997, the focal theme has been a foreign country, starting with France.
Starting as a 10-day event, the Kolkata Book Fair gradually became a 12-day affair, usually starting in last week of January. The dates are fixed factoring in the pay day.
The Kolkata Book Fair has not been without its share of mishaps and controversies.
In 1997, six days into the fair, a massive fire broke out at the venue, reducing 1,00,000 books to ashes. A huge loss was reported. Reports said one person lost his life after suffering a heart attack at the venue following the fire. At the initiative of the then culture and home minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, stalls and other structures were re-constructed within three days, the Guild says in the official website of the Kolkata International Book Fair.
If fire destroyed the 1997 Boi Mela, it was heavy rain that played havoc the next year. A lot of books were damaged. However, publishers were covered by insurance this time around.
The year 1999 was special. The fair had Bangladesh as the focal theme, and Sheikh Hasina, the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh, visited the fair. She was visiting this part of Bengal after 27 long years.
For seven more years, Maidan remained the fair venue. By then environment activists had started raising voice against holding the mega event at the green space. In 2007, the organisers had gone ahead with Maidan as the venue for the 32nd Kolkata Book Fair. Some environmentalists had filed a public interest litigation against Maidan as the venue. A day before the inauguration, the Calcutta High Court gave its ruling in favour of the petitioners.
Forced to dismantle the structures raised at the venue, the Guild shifted the Boi Mela venue to the Salt Lake stadium. From 23 acres available to them at Maidan, the Kolkata Book Fair was shrunk to a 10-acre space, and could be started only int he second week of February.
According to a study done after the event, the footfall dropped to 8 lakh from 25 lakh the previous year.
In 2008, Park Circus was decided as the venue but that too invited a PIL on similar grounds, forcing the organisers to postpone the 33rd International Kolkata Book Fair.
A different group organised the fair, calling it Boimela 2008, at Salt Lake Stadium but failed to evoke similar response.
The Guilt filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court against the HC judgment. The then chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, intervened too, writing to the then Union home minister to get the fair back to Maidan.
The 33rd International Kolkata Book Fair was finally held at Milan Mela ground opposite Science City on an 18-acre land in 2009. Milan Mela is now the official venue for Kolkata Boi Mela. However, since 2018, the event has been taking place at the Central Park in Salt Lake due to ongoing restoration work at the Milan Mela ground.
Several efforts were made to increase the footfall. In 2010, it was first decided that the entry fee would be refunded if a visitor bought books worth Rs 200. Later, the entry fee was completely done away with. In 2011, the Publishers & Booksellers Guild got the NGO status. It can now use the Milan Mela ground at the rate that the state government pays for organising its fairs.
The year 2014 saw new event getting added to the Kolkata International Book Fair — Kolkata Literature Festival, on the lines of the famous Jaipur Literature Festival and Edinburgh Literature festival.
On 31 January 2019, the 43rd Kolkata International Book Fair is beginning. The Boi Mela this year pays tribute to the literary figures who passed away recently. The three halls mainly displaying English publications have been named after Nirendranath Chakraborty, Dibyendu Palit and Atin Bndyopadhyay, while the Little Magazine Pavilion will be named after Pinaki Thakur.
Guatemala is the theme country this year, and Ambassador of Guatemala Prof Euda Morales will be present when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee inaugurates the fair on Thursday.
For the residents of Kolkata, the Boi Mela is however not just about books. Like its Durga Puja, the Kolkata Book Fair is a festival that the City of Joy waits for the entire year and celebrates as a way of life. It’s an amalgamation of words, emotions, feelings, memories and nostalgia, with the stories passed down from generation to generation.
Apart from English, the Kolkata Book Fair has stalls selling Hindi, Urdu and other books too. It’s considered a good business time for publishers as each stall manages to sell around 500-10,000 books every day.
Food stalls also prove to be a big draw, besides the different activity corners.
Kolkata is all ready for a lot of adda, food, discussion on books and some public display of love for books and reading habit.