An Affair With Clearing House

Only Jerry Pinto can make ploughing through old letters, notes and scraps of paper sound like the greatest fun anybody can have. He's on an India Foundation for the Arts research and documentation grant to go into the whys and wherefores of the old poets' collective, Clearing House (b. 1976, d.1984). On Friday he was at the NGMA auditorium with Gieve Patel and Art India editor Abhay Sardesai, throwing quirky light on his journey so far.

Let me first introduce the three parties to the Clearing House project. IFA. In its own words, "IFA is an independent, nationwide philanthropy, professionally managed, and dedicated to strengthening the arts in India. Established as a public trust in 1993, IFA's mission is to enrich the practice, knowledge, public access to, and experience of the arts in India, by providing strategic support for innovative projects and capacity building across all the arts." To paraphrase, the Bangalore-based organisation has been making grants all over the country for arts-related projects and practices over the last 19 years. Recently, it launched its Mumbai face with a three-day programme of films and other outcomes of its grants at Prithvi theatre. Jerry Pinto's presentation on Friday was part of IFA's Mumbai activities.

Now Pinto. He's not a professional fund-seeker like some others who develop a field of study, mine it for projects and shoot off proposals in everywhich direction to net a funder. Pinto is a poet. Also a teacher, journalist, writer of books for children, author of "Helen" and "Leela", and, most recently, of the superbly crafted, witty and moving novel, "Em And The Big Hoom". 

Finally, Clearing House. Adil Jussawala, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Arun Kolatkar and Gieve Patel were the poets who set up the collective. The idea was to put their time, energy and skills into publishing their own and other poets' work, since big publishers barely gave poetry the time of day. It was, as Pinto pointed out, an artisanal enterprise. Jussawala made trips to the printers and Kolatkar designed the books and their covers. Mehrotra in Allahabad and Patel in Sanjan were prevented by geographical distance from making a hands-on contribution to the effort. But they were part of the ideating process, as evidenced by their letters to one another and the notes they made, often on scraps of paper, all meticulously preserved by Jussawala.

In this DIY venture, the only expertise not available to the poets was in distribution and marketing. Consequently, none of the Clearing House books crossed national or even State borders to any significant extent. The story was different in Mumbai. The pre-publication offer made to prospective readers by Clearing House was unbeatable. We were to have all four titles for a mere 25 rupees. No wonder  we literally snapped up the books as they came out, hot from the printers. But by the time Clearing House published its  next four titles in 1982 and 1984, it was gasping for breath. It died at the age of eight, but not without leaving an indelible mark on the city's culture.

On Friday, Pinto told us how his affair with Clearing House had started. He was sitting with Adil Jussawala in his home in Cuffe Parade, when Jussawala pointed to a sack and said, "That's the Clearing House stuff, all of it" or words to that effect. Clearing House being one of the enduring legends of English language poetry in Mumbai, Pinto eyed the sack lasciviously, wanting only to touch it, certain that it had already been promised to someone else. It had indeed, but only to Mehrotra, who readily gave up his claim in Pinto's favour. And so it came to pass that Pinto carried the seductive Clearing House sack home.

Looking back on those days, Gieve Patel recalled how he hadn't wanted an image on the cover of his book. Just a stark cover he told Kolatkar. The taciturn Kolatkar made a taciturn remark and proceeded to give the other books their magnificent covers. When he saw them, Patel felt terribly left out, changed his mind and got himself a wonderful cover too.

The seventies was a culturally booming decade everywhere in the world. In researching the cultural context of Clearing House, Pinto confessed to having gathered such a volume of material, that carving a book out of it seemed like an impossible proposition. Being thus flummoxed is the inevitable second stage in every researcher's life. The third is the book itself. So aage badho Pintobhai, hum tumhare saath hain.   

Published On : 19-06-2014