Woman Enterprising: The Yellamma Paradigm

Abstract: The story of Goddess Renuka who is commonly worshipped as Yellamma in most South Indian states is an illustration of the enterprising woman. In Maharashtra, Renuka temple in Mahur is deemed one of the Shakti peethas, and it would make an interesting study if one looked into what makes this goddess a fountainhead of shakti. Yellamma is revered as the ‘mother of the universe’, Jagadamba, in all the places where she is worshipped as the patron goddess.

Keywords: women publisher, Gyaana books, sexual violence, Yatra books, independent trade publisher, cross cultural literacy, self publishing

The legends of Renuka in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana tell us that she was married to the powerful sage Jamadagni, and they lived in the Ramshrung mountains. She would help her husband in all his tasks of performing different rituals. She would wake up early in the morning to bathe in the Malaprabha river with such devotion that she was able to form a fresh pot every day from the sands, true to her name derived from ‘renu’, a grain of sand. Renuka would then use a snake as a rope to make a support for the pot while she carried it on her head to the ashram for Jamadagni’s rituals of oblation. One day, while at the river, Renuka saw some gandharvas playing in the water, and was distracted by their physical abandon. For a moment, she lost her concentration and devotion to Jamadagni, and could no longer draw the spiritual power to collect water in unbaked pots. Seeing her return empty-handed to the ashram, her husband became furious and ordered her to go away. So she went into the forest to meditate, where she met the saints Eknath and Joginath who counselled her on how to get back on her feet – there was a ritual of purification and a penance that included beggary which she had to follow for three days, after which she could visit her husband. The sages warned her that she may not be fully pardoned by him, and that she would have to experience the most difficult time of her life for a few moments. They also assured her that things would follow in such a manner that she would be eternally revered after that period of distress.

Renuka rigorously stuck to their instructions. When she went to see Jamadagni, he was still furious and ordered his sons to punish their mother. The first four sons refused to behead her, and Jamadagni burned them in his fury, turning them into a pile of ashes. The fifth son Rambhadra, well known as Parasurama, saw the gravity of the situation, and obeyed his father. The pleased Jamadagni then offered his son a boon, and Parasurama asked for his mother and brothers to be brought back to life. It was at that point that Renuka revealed herself to be truly shakti – to everybody’s astonishment, Renuka’s spirit multiplied and moved into different directions, thus leading to her worship at various places.

There is also a story in many oral traditions explaining how Renuka came to be known by the name Yellamina. It seems, Renuka had sought asylum in a village of low castes when her son Parasurama was coming to kill her. But he found her and killed her along with a low caste woman who tried to protect her. When he later brought her back to life, he by mistake attached the woman’s head to Renuka’s body, and vice versa. Jamadagni accepted the one with Renuka’s face as his wife, while the other remained to be worshipped by the lower castes as Yellamrna, ‘the mother of all’, a variant of Jagadamba.

There are many lessons of enterprise that we derive from the Renuka-Yellamma story – it tells us of finding and accepting ways of surviving beyond obstacles, even beyond death. There are instances of cause-driven action, distraction, course correction, determination, resilience, what not. That Yellamma/Jagadamba is the ‘mother of all’ is significant, because it is only such enterprise that would help one survive. As TS Eliot rightly says:

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this and this only we have existed…

There is daring beyond prudence in the way Renuka goes through her life’s path. And this is a paradigm that one could very well see demonstrated in the way some of our women publishers find their strength and sustenance in these times, through new formations, collaborations, consultations, courage of conviction.

We find some of these publishers trying to arrive at a viable model of work that would enable them to be financially sustainable and to grow, even as they stay firm in their commitment to the cause of women. Business is becoming the be-word, and is not any longer a bad word. The understanding that technology and market are to be negotiated to the advantage of one’s cause has entered women’s publishing houses in India. This movement also comes from the realisation that if one lets the late capitalist and patriarchal enterprises take complete charge of the market and technology, the feminist aspirations can never be fulfilled in our market-intensive times. Instead of branding them ‘evils’, a bunch of women publishers have come forward to take these devils by their horns.

In the wake of the fierce competition from global competitors, feminist publishers today evolve viable business plans without compromising their cause. As an early business model, we saw how Mandira Sen entered into a contract with Ramdas Bhatkal of Popular Prakashan in 1.986 and as a result set up the company Bhatkal and Sen in 1990, with the establishment of the imprint S tree. Many women publishers have turned entrepreneurial in their outlook towards publishing by attending book fairs, forming associations, making effective community networks across languages and borders and by exploring the possibilities of the worldwide web to make sustainable business models. The question that is brought to the fore here is how can technology be employed in our times to bring back the fair spirit of the original barterers – who saw the true value of an object as integrally linked to the need for or surplus of it in a certain context, and is not thoughtlessly enslaved to a constructed idea of money as profit and loss. There are a variety of experimentations here. Tara works with some of the finest publishers worldwide – including Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Houghton Mifflin in the United States, Actes Sud, Seuil and Gallimard in France, Adelphi and Feltrinelli in Italy, and Hanser in Germany, and also collaborates with The Museum of London and The J. Paul Getty Museum in the US, for whom it produces a specially commissioned line of handmade books. The new engagements in business that Zubaan has initiated, e-publishing endeavours such as Out Of Print, trade publishing models of Yoda Press and Gyaana Books etc. are focussed on in this section. Together these initiatives might usher in a new era of women’s publishing in the country.


Zubaan was set up by Urvashi Butalia in 2003 as an imprint of Kali for Women, and continues to publish books on, for, by and about women in South Asia. Based in New Delhi, it has over the years developed a strong academic and general list. It covers a range of subjects in the humanities and social sciences and produces research monographs to textbook and supplementary material for students. Special areas of interest include conflict studies, health, human rights and gender justice, history, cultural studies, and feminist and queer theory.

Zubaan was originally set up as a non-profit Trust. Alongside the Trust, Zubaan now operates as a private company, Zubaan Publishers Pvt. Ltd. The company is owned by five shareholders -Urvashi Butalia, founder and CEO founder of Zubaan, along with senior editors Anita Roy, Preeti Gill, Shweta Vachani and chief financial officer, Satish Sharma. To cite from the Zubaan website, “although set up as an NGO, Zubaan has effectively functioned like a business, and donor funds have formed a very small part of its work. It is largely self-sustaining, although at a very modest level, and primarily because its employees work at modest wages for a cause.”

In a rapidly changing marketplace, Zubaan has come up with a new entrepreneurial model, which would help its shakti as a feminist organisation as well as a self-sustaining business. It has arrived at a double-edged way of functioning by separating its activities into two interconnected ones: the income generating activities like publishing books, and the more ‘social’ activities that have a wider goal of improving women’s lives. The Trust is retained for projects and other social activities such as organising workshops, while the company will publish books, organise events related to books, work with authors etc.

In 2005, Zubaan entered into a partnership that was looked at with great interest by all – Penguin India and Zubaan agreed to publish a joint list of at least four titles a year. As per the contract, Zubaan originates the books, develops them, and does the editorial work, while the print production, marketing and sales are done by Penguin (now Penguin-Random Books). Five books were brought out under this collaboration. Zubaan’s name today is strongly associated with high quality fiction by women in South Asia, both in translation and written in English. Their trade non-fiction includes memoirs, popular history and books on the women’s movement for a general audience. Under the Young Zubaan imprint, they also publish a range of fiction and non-fiction titles for younger adults and children. Alongside its publishing activities, Zubaan functions as a not-for-profit trust handling a variety of research and outreach projects in the areas of gender, feminism and the women’s movement.

Yoda Press

Yoda Press was founded around the same time as Zubaan with a focus on alternative publishing. Arpita Das, the founder, was keen on bringing to light, subjects and perspectives that were not the favourites of mainstream publishers. It seemed ironical to Das that some of the seminal topics best discussed in the intellectual sphere found hardly any takers when it came to publishing. Books on sexuality, popular culture, cities and urbanism, architecture as a lived experience, and new perspectives in Indian history and sociology, all of which have a critical presence in contemporary discourse often fail to find great readership. In 2005, after the publication of Because I have a Voice: Queer Politics in India edited by Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan, Yoda Press came to be widely known as a major LGBT publisher of South Asia. Other publications on sexuality included Sunil Gupta’s photo-memoir, Wish You Were Here; the illustrated A Little Book on Men; and Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India. Another key area where Yoda Press has contributed is the genre of creative non-fiction in South Asia. The editorial challenge here was to develop a nuanced, imaginative and well-researched non-fiction narrative without either slipping into fiction or falling prey to academic jargon. Again, the house thought it was important to develop a trade list with titles on subjects like food, travel, personal memory etc., so as to create a popular genre that does not let go of its complexity and experimental capacity. The press has now ventured into publications for young adults as e-books. The aspiration is to create a youthful digital product with visual impact, without compromising on the narrative quality. About what prompts her to experiment thus, Arpita Das says: “The comfort zone is comfortable, but I become impatient with it very soon,” she says.

Functioning out of Arpita’s apartment, Yoda Press is a garage enterprise in publishing. They differ from the IT start ups that begin small and grow big in no time, in that Yoda Press has chosen to remain small. Being small helps them remain out of the commercial pressures faced by large publishing houses. Yoda Press believes that books cannot be manufactured like assembly line products whose worth is solely determined by their saleability. Books that have limited appeal allow the house to experiment. But this does not mean being small is easy -we have witnessed many independent publishers folding up their ambitious enterprises unable to cope with a market dominated by large publishers and retailers. Arpita’s early decision to focus on ‘alternative’ scholarship has found a way into the hearts of both academic and lay readers only because of the rigour in research and presentation that Yoda books are known for.

Innovation and adventure come easily to Arpita. Recently, she and a few others started Authors Upfront, a self-publishing venture. Self-publishing is generally derided as ‘vanity publishing’, but Arpita realised that there was a new breed of edgy, experimental authors who, because their books were of a certain kind, did not want to go to conventional publishers.

The fledgling imprint has already brought out some distinctive publications, including the graphic anthology Dogs, Raghu Rai’s photographs of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi titled The Tale of Two: An Outgoing and an Incoming Prime Minister, and the best-selling Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis.

A major share of Yoda Press’ adventure owes to its books in e-format. Unlike those publishers who eulogise the physical book, Arpita sees that e-formats give independent publishers a more level playing field in distribution. Also, one does not get stuck with unsold copies sitting in a garage, making one more and more liable. She says: “It’s a pointless argument we’ve got ourselves tangled into – the book fetishists and the digital loyalists. I see my child and her friends – they are so comfortable reading on devices. It doesn’t matter to them, they want to get to that word.”

Out Of Print

Talking about experimentation with the e-format, Out Of Print, an online platform for writers of short fiction with a connection to the subcontinent, provides an exciting illustration of how someone can live out her special passion without depending on a lot of apparatuses. After spending more than 17 years abroad, Indira Chandrasekhar returned to India, realising that many traditions of story-telling indeed layer our collective contemporary voice. A doctoral degree holder in Biophysics, till then she was studying the dynamics of biological membranes. Her coming to India with a new focus on the short story resulted in the online short story platform, Out Of Print. Indira is another Renuka figure, adventurous and understanding the dynamics of time, and forging a suitable space to communicate, express herself. Her editorial team consists of three members who operate from different parts of the world: Samhita Arni, Leela Levitt, Ram Sadasiv. In our world of communication revolution, where very often one finds the critiquing intellectual at odds with the advancements in technology, Out Of Print is creating a small space of convergence – a site that makes one think of serious enterprises that can be created, disseminated and conserved online in cost-effective and democratic ways. Recently, Out Of Print has been concerned with responding to socially relevant issues through the literary medium. For instance it has done a special issue focussing specifically on writings around the theme of sexual and gender violence. The issue has been guest edited by Meena Kandasamy in partnership with Out Of Print editor Samhita Arm. The editor’s note analyses the challenges of writing about sexual violence, and poses some very relevant questions: “Must any discussion of rape or sexual violence be confined to television news and crime statistics? Or, do we wield our fiction in a way that allows us to wear the wounds of rape and assault? Do we only listen to the lived experience of first-person testimonies? Do our stories have the power to call for justice? Or can we break our silence as we mask ourselves in the voice of a protagonist who has endured sexual violence?”

Out Of Print was overwhelmed by the submissions it received for this project, as claimed by the editors of this project. It is another matter if this online magazine is generating money to run as a financially growing enterprise. What matters is it allows us to understand the term ‘entrepreneurship’ more deeply. What marks an entrepreneur is the way she develops a business plan, and gathers the required resources, and becomes fully responsible for its success or failure. Out Of Print prompts us to ask these questions: Why do we think of success only in monetary terms? Is there a way to understand Entrepreneurship in terms of the success of a social or cultural ecosystem created by an entrepreneur?

It is interesting to note in the context of the discourse on cultural ecosystem that in the special issue on sexual violence, Urvashi Butalia and Naysharan Singh from Zubaan in an essay titled ‘Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia” provide a window into the Zubaan project that aims to create a body of multi-faceted knowledge about sexual violence.

In a curious process that illustrates the building of an ecosystem, the idea of headlining the issue on sexual violence paved the way to another, more enduring initiative. Mapping Sexual Violence, is a website now being developed by the Out Of Print team, where all users can share their accounts of, or responses to, sexual violence. The aim of this extensive publication was to get people talking. We hope that these stories and essays will provoke discussion, engender multiple ways of looking at sexual violence, and help us break the silence. This issue, we hope, will illuminate how pervasive sexual violence is in different situations and contexts, how it influences all our lives, how it interacts with existing inequities, how it is used as a weapon, and how it is often erased out of public debate,” write Kandasamy and Arni.

Out Of Print has thus grown to be a socially responsible online enterprise, from a site created by an individual with a passion for short story. The trajectory of entrepreneurship as illustrated by the success of Out Of Print cannot be measured using economic terms. Perhaps, one of the greatest reminders that many of our women publishers give our times is the need to understand life beyond the considerations of financial success, and to evolve an ecological model of entrepreneurship.


Yatra Books was founded by Namita Gokhale, Neeta Gupta and Shuchita Mital in January 2005. ‘Yatra’ stands for cross-cultural literary journeys, including translation, and the house prides itself as a multilingual publishing company specialising in original creative writing and high quality translations in English, Hindi and Indian regional languages for the emergent internal market.

Namita Gokhale is a well-known writer herself, and has twelve books to her credit. Her first novel, Taro: Dreams of Passion’, which was characterised by its direct sexual humour, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary edition in 2014. Working extensively with Indian myths, she has works such as ‘The Book of Shiva’ and a retelling of the Mahabharata for young readers. She has also co-edited the landmark anthology, ‘In Search of Sita’. But Gokhale is more known today for her work as a literary festival director. A founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival and of ‘Mountain Echoes’, the annual Bhutan Festival, Gokhale is committed to showcasing literature from across the Indian languages. She currently curates `Kitabnama: Books and Beyond’, a multilingual book show on the national channel Doordarshan.

Neeta Gupta is the publisher of Yatra Books. She is also a Jt. Secretary with the Bharatiya Anuvad Parishad and edits their quarterly journal, Anuvad. She has been working towards creating publishing connectivities across different languages and cultures. Shuchita Mital, Hindi Editor-in-chief at Yatra Books, was earlier on the editorial board of the Malayala Manorama’s Vanitha women’s fortnightly. A member of the Indian Translators’ Association, she has assisted in editing their quarterly journal, Anuvad. Shuchita specialises in both literary and academic translations.

Yatra Books has always attempted to create new synergies in multilingual translations and to participate in cross-cultural literary exchanges. Naturally, the interest of the three founders of Yatra Books in Indian languages and translation has shaped the character of their work in publishing. Yatra soon began a partnership with Penguin India in their Indian languages initiative, which saw over a hundred and fifty translations enter the Indian market, with several notable and memorable titles. In 2012, Westland, owned by the Tata group, announced its new initiative with Yatra for a joint publishing venture for Indian language translations and original titles. This new partnership was set to leverage Yatra’s experience in language publishing and Westland’s marketing and distribution strengths to make a major breakthrough in the local language market. It was conceived as a win-win business model.

With extensive experience in trade publishing, Yatra Books believes in empowering the Indian reader and connecting local and international voices. In 2011, Yatra Books launched its foreign language translation programme by publishing India Since 1950, a landmark anthology of essays on India, edited by Christophe Jaffrelot. India Since 1950 has contributions from 33 French academicians and sociologists. It is a significant first translation from the original French to English. Yatra Books has published over 350 titles in English, Hindi, Marathi and Urdu, and has entered into key collaborations with international institutions like Sciences PO in Paris, for the translation of Christophe Jaffrelot’s India Since 1950; Ramon Llull Institute, Barcelona, and TEDA (Turkish Culture Ministry) for a series of Catalan and Turkish translations into Hindi. Apart from Penguin India and Tata-Westland, it has also worked with Dorling Kindersley, and Cambridge University Press India Ltd. Being linked to bigger publishing houses has given Yatra the advantages of working on a larger scale; while retaining an autonomous identity and an independent voice.

Gyaana Books

Founded by Divya Dubey in July 2009, Gyaana Books was formally launched by poet and writer Keki Daruwalla at the India International Centre, New Delhi. On the occasion, Daruwalla also released Gyaana’s first list comprising Of Wooing, Woes and Wanderings, a fiction, by Amitabha Chatterjee, a thriller No Flying from Fate by Saurbh Katyal, and a collection of short stories titled Turtle Dove: Six Simple Tales, written by Dubey.

Gyaana’s stated purpose is to bring to writers, whether established or emerging, a new dais for expression; and to book lovers, a worthwhile reading experience. Gyaana has a young adult fiction series, called Gyaana Crisps and organises a YA fiction contest.

In an era where mainstream publishers do not even consider new writers without a big agent, and when even established authors find it difficult to get some attention in the market, small independent publishers are the need of the hour. But the challenge before Gyaana was known to its founder Divya Dubey who had been a mainstream publishing professional before she started out on her own as an independent trade publisher: one needed to produce a series of unputdownable books. She notes: “In India, book publishing is a relatively small industry, limited to certain important cities and pockets. Trade publishing is ruled by the big players, mainly the MNCs. Authors, whether established or first time, usually want to be published by a big brand name… because of brand visibility, reach and resources. So, it took quite a while to convince our authors to publish with us.”

Gyaana’s associates are Writer’s Side, a manuscript assessment and editorial agency headed by Kanishka Gupta, and Bookmeabook.com, Delhi’s first online lending library led by Nidhi Verma.

Not to Conclude…

Life in the twentieth century is marked by widespread access to technology and domination of people’s daily lives by various market forces. Activism in these times has taken a radical shape, amounting to the near complete polarisation of the world into the arc of the exploiting and that of the exploited. The nuanced middle range demonstrating immense possibilities of genuine exchange, inter-action, conversation, seems to have solidified into a third path of convenient compromise. This general trend has affected the world of publishing, too. It is at this critical juncture that the role and contribution of the women publishers discussed in this section become seminal.

That Urvashi Bhutalia, coming from a background of intense activism, has created a sustainable model for Zubaan’s publishing programme, while still remaining determinedly and passionately feminist is an intimation of what our women publishers are offering the field of publishing in India in our times. This is an entrepreneurial course that is not merely concerned with survival and economics, but necessarily with sustenance and ideology. It takes an inquiring mind to go beyond being dismissive at all times, and explore possibilities of convergence. So, when Zubaan works towards developing cause-driven titles that it wants to bring out into the world, and yet convinces a trade publisher to collaborate in that endeavour, it becomes a transformative act at various levels. The same applies to Yatra’s focus on multilinguality and translation, and yet finding mainstream English publishers to collaborate, or Yoda Press’ decision to remain small and create unprecedented spaces and discourses to enrich popular imagination. These movements enrich the market, inform it of alternatives that can sell, transform its orientation into becoming more humane without foregoing its rewards.

The revelation that the women publishers here have come to about the need to co-opt technology into their everyday functioning, and employ it as a friendly instrument to facilitate their faster reach across the world, is remarkable. It creates forums that are imaginative and unprecedented. Out Of Print could not even have come into being before the advent of the digital age. These times make a paperless, mobile and accessible office possible for anyone who cares.

The medium of publishing is indeed a space of reflection—reflecting on the possibilities, and reflecting the future. This is where dreams and visions are spelt out. What makes publishing a truly happening place is when publishers themselves find a way of walking with the times, and yet dream for the future. In making this equation possible, these women here have become bridge-makers, and engineers of the future. They connect seemingly contradictory worlds — the world of idealism and that of technology, the trajectory of activism and that of the market to create something invigorating for the times to come.

Not to Conclude… 169

The ‘Stories They Tell us’ here will illustrate this spectacular vision of connectivity, a genius for association and interlink, in three different spaces of women’s publishing in India today: cause-driven, digital, and trade. In a magnificently revelatory conversation, Urvashi demythifies the idea of neutrality so often given to the mainstream publishers as against the overt politicality of the activist women publishers. She places on record the enduring significance of feminist publishing in India, and manages to explain how it is important to negotiate the advances of the market and technology rather than either dismissing them as intrusive or blindly accepting them as a package of fate. The conversations with Indira Chandrashekhar of Out Of Print and Divya Dubey of Gyaana reveal the challenges of creating a completely digital medium, and being a small independent trade publishers among big houses, respectively.

These three stories address the questions of ideology, media, and instruments involved in contemporary women’s publishing in India. They together explore the viability of publishing, especially on issues concerning women, in contemporary India. While the question about how this enterprise can be made sustainable and diversified is left to further investigation, these stories must tell the reader how and from where women in publishing had gathered the courage that has sustained them so far in original and exciting ways.

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