Kolkata Book Fair: history, themes, and events

What is the Kolkata Book Fair?

The International Book Fair and officially আন্তর্জাতিক  কলকাতা বইমেলা বা  আন্তর্জাতিক  কলকাতা  পুস্তকমেলা  in romanized Bengali is a winter fair in Kolkata. It is a unique book fair because it is not a trade fair. This book fair is primarily for the general public rather than whole-sale distributors. It is the world’s largest non-trade book fair, Asia’s largest book fair, and also the most attended book fair. This fair is the world’s third-largest annual conglomeration of books after the London Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Most Bengalis consider this book fair as an inherent part of Kolkata. Therefore, the fact that 100s of them visit the book fair when it takes place is not uncommon. The fair offers a typical fairground experience with the book flavor intact. There are picnickers, candy floss sellers, singers, songwriters.

It is the world’s largest bookfair by attendance with a total of more than 2 million people visiting the fairgrounds. As the Kolkata Book Fair gained success, it inspired other smaller cities in West Bengal like Siliguri to host book fairs. The first World Book Fair in New Delhi in 1972 also inspired them.

How much is the popularity of the Kolkata Book Fair?

The popularity of the Kolkata Book Fair was seminal in India being nominated the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006. This was according to Frankfurt book fair organizers. People celebrated the book fair in songs, literature, theatre, and limericks in Kolkata.

The 44th International Kolkata Book Fair took place on 29th January and ended on 9th February 2020. It happened at the Central Park Mela Complex, Karunamoyee. The government postponed the 45th edition due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did the Kolkata Book Fair start?

The book fair started on a small scale in 1976. The Kolkata Publishers and Booksellers Guild started it. The government started it to meet the growing public demand for books, and a relative lack of bookshops. Even though the state now has several large bookshops like Starmark, Crossword Bookstores, Starmark, and The Oxford Bookstore in addition to the book shop district of College Street, Kolkata Book Fair is growing every year and the tradition goes on.

What is the duration of this fair?

The last book fair was the 44th book fair. It started on 29th January 2020 and ended on 9th February 2020. The people thought that it would be a week-long event but the popular demand forced the authorities to extend it. There is usually an extended holiday in Kolkata during the period of 23rd January to 26th January.

History of Kolkata Book Fair: What is the venue of this fair over the years?

Earlier, the Maidan which was Kolkata’s large urban park was the spot of the book fair. The government organized it at the Park Street end of the Maidan, due to a better road and rail network. This was after it moved there from the other end of Maidan in 1991.

Since the year 2009, the fair is held in its new location at Milan Mela near Science City on E.M. Bypass. The initial apprehension about reduced attendance at the new site has been proven wrong. Millions visited the book fair in 2009.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Kolkata played host to two annual book fairs, one by the Kolkata Publishers and Booksellers Guild, and one by the Government of West Bengal − the Grontho Mela (‘Grontho’ is the archaic Bengali word for ‘book’).

‘Grontho Mela’ was held from late December until early January and was the showcase for books published by Government-run publishing houses. This was initially a rival commercial venture. However, the unprecedented growth of the ‘Kolkata Book Fair’ caused the Government of West Bengal to merge the two book fairs in 1992.

Conservation problems for the Victoria Memorial include high dust pollution, which is often accentuated by public fairs on the Maidan. The Kolkata High Court decided in 2004 to move all public fairs to the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. This decision was not greeted with enthusiasm by fair organizers.

It was because the present location was in the heart of Kolkata, and was very well serviced by public transport. The book fair and a few other fairs, however, were granted special permission by the Kolkata High Court to continue holding the fair on the Maidan in 2005 and 2006. However, the choice of Maidan as the annual venue for the book fair is no longer certain.

The Government of West Bengal gave in to the demand of the fair authorities for a permanent round-the-year indoor space for the fair, comprising only some of the stalls. The former Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, in a statement in 2005, had agreed to this request.

However, no progress has been made on this front. Many inhabitants of Kolkata feel it in their hearts that the fair will lose its ambiance if it is held indoors or away from the Maidan, which is a vast stretch of green in the heart of the city. After a year-long uncertainty, the world’s largest non-trade book fair, settled for Park Circus Maidan to host the literary carnival. This happened in 2008.

However, organizers of Asia’s biggest book fair remained apprehensive. They kept in mind the disgrace in January 2007 when the Kolkata High Court did not allow them to host the fair at the Maidan on environmental grounds. The Publishers and Booksellers Guild had to shift the most-awaited cultural event to Salt Lake in 2007 after the city’s green brigade won a legal battle to block the fair at the Maidan.

History of Kolkata Book Fair: Book Fair over the years:

1974 Book Fair of kolkata

Some young publishers of Kolkata, sat chatting at the College Street Coffee House about how to start a rendezvous of book lovers to give a boost to their publishing trade. The example of the Frankfurt Book Fair which was a commercial trade fair of books came up.

When the young publishers finally decided that a book fair could be organized, albeit, on an experimental basis, seniors in the trade rubbished it. They felt that books were not commodities that could be sold in fairs. The youths persisted.

1975 Kolkata Book Fair

The Publishers & Booksellers Guild was formed. Sushil Mukherjea became its founder President while Jayant Manaktala became its first General Secretary.

First Kolkata Book Fair 1976

With 56 stalls of 34 publishers, the first Kolkata Book Fair was organized on March 5, 1976, at the ground opposite the Academy of Fine Arts, beside Victoria Memorial. The fair was inaugurated by the then state education minister, Mrityunjay Bandyopadhyay.

The entry fee to the fair was 50 paisa. This was the year when the Guild not only organized the book fair for the first time but also participated in World Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The year 1979 was the bicentenary year of Bengali publishing. This was commemorated by the Anandabazar Patrika. They organized a book exhibition-cum-fair on the ground opposite Rabindrasadan from February 10. Gradually the fair imbibed all the qualities of an international event.

The gates of the fair began to be modeled on landmark structures from foreign countries. The Guild office also started looking like a replica of an Indian architectural marvel. The Guild started publishing names and details of all titles in print at the fair and a fair directory. A number of seminars and colloquy became permanent features of the fair.

The Book Fair of 1983

The seven-year-old Kolkata Book Fair got a retinue of visitors from the field of literature. They had come from all over the world. The then Secretary-General of International Publishers Association (IPA), Geneva, Mr. Koutcowmow attended the inauguration ceremony of the fair that year.

The previous year, Peter Withers, the then Director of Frankfurt Book Fair visited the fair. A prominent member of the Guild, Asoke Ghosh, got the Kolkata Book Fair its international accreditation. It was from this time onwards that the dates of the Kolkata Book Fair started being mentioned in the calendar of the IPA each year.

1988 Book Fair

The book fair needed more space every year to accommodate the ever-growing number of publishers. After some time it became merely impossible to accommodate the fair in the ground opposite Rabindrasadan and Birla Planetarium. Hence, the Guild had to bring the fair nearer to Esplanade. The neglected greens adjoining Park Street and Outram Road became the new venue of this international event.

1991 Book Fair of Kolkata

Following the Frankfurt Book Fair, now the Calcutta Book Fair started having a focal theme every year. First, it was the Indian states that became themes. Assam was the first focal theme, followed by Orissa, Tripura, Bihar, and West Bengal. The literature and culture of the respective state were highlighted.

Kolkata’s Book Fair of 1997

The fair became international in its real sense. For the first time, the focal theme was a foreign country – France. Along with this change, another new concept was “Montemarte”. It was a place in the fairground where eminent and promising artists came every day to paint.

That year, the fair was totally demolished by a violent outburst of fire on the 6th day. Everyone in the fair suffered a huge loss. After that, the then State Culture and Home Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee took the initiative. It was because of this that the fair was re-constructed within 3-days.

The Book Fair of 1998

The fair was again organized according to its schedule with Britain as the Focal Theme and the fair was inaugurated by eminent scientist Richard Dawkins.

1999 Book fair of kolkata

Bangladesh was the focal theme. Sheikh Hasina, the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh came to this city of literature, to the inaugural ceremony of the Book Fair.

2006 Book Fair of Kolkata

This was the last time that the book fair happened at the Maidan. Spain was the theme and Australia participated as Guest of Honour.

Book Fair of Kolkata 2007

Preparation of the 32nd Kolkata Book Fair 2007 was at its peak which had Australia as the Focal Theme and the USA as the Guest of Honour. Dark clouds had started hovering around the fair by then. A Public Interest Litigation was filed by some environmentalists against the fair at the Maidan.

Calcutta High Court ruled a day before the inauguration that the book fair would have to move from the Maidan. Meanwhile, a big delegation of participants had arrived from Australia, the USA, and other countries. The Guild was forced to dismantle the constructions at the Maidan and re-organize the fair at the Saltlake stadium. Only 10 acres of space was available against the 23 acres of land at the Maidan.

 Children’s pavilion, Montemarte, and many other regular features had to be left out. The schedule of the fair had to be revised and the fair re-started from February 10. To worsen problems, the sky opened up delaying construction. Visitors complained of lack of transport to the make-shift venue.

The ground plan was also confusing. Booklovers however tried their best to brave the odds. A comparative study which was done later showed that only 8 lakh people visited the fair at the Salt Lake Stadium. This was against the 25 lakhs who visited the previous year.

2008 Book Fair of Kolkata

The Book Fair had the USA as the Focal Theme and the fair was scheduled from 30 January to 9 February. It was inaugurated on 29 January. A Public Interest Litigation was filed on the ground of disrupting the environment against organizing the Fair at Park Circus.

On the 28th of January, just a day before the inauguration, Hon’ble Calcutta High Court ordered that the Book Fair could not be organized at Park Circus Maidan. The Guild had to suffer a great loss of face as 67 delegates had already reached Kolkata from the USA and from different Latin American countries.

Legal advisors of the Guild now felt that it was time to move the Supreme Court, otherwise, all fair venues would come under PIL attack. Under this circumstance, the Guild, with its opinion of the majority of members decided to postpone the 33rd International Kolkata Book Fair. At this time, another group was formed that organized a fair named Boimela 2008 (Book Fair 2008) at Saltlake Stadium in the first week of March. The total footfall of that fair was 5 lakhs.

A debate between the efficacy of the two book fairs started. A special leave petition was filed at the Supreme Court against the judgment of Hon’ble Calcutta High Court, which they termed as an impugned one. In other words, if someone wanted to file another PIL against the book fair, he had to first move to the Supreme Court. To get the fair back to the Maidan, the then Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, wrote to the Union Home Minister.

Book Fair of Kolkata- 2009

It was observed that the construction work at Milan Mela was almost over. New land had been annexed to the existing campus, to make it 18 acres. The 33rd International Kolkata Book Fair was held there. It was decided that the four permanent halls of Milan Mela would have publishers of English and foreign language books while the outdoors will have regional publishers.

The open ground was to have a Focal Theme pavilion, International Complex, AC hall, Press Corner, Children’s pavilion, etc. Scotland was the Focal Theme that year. The gates were the replica of different architectural landmarks of that country. The Guild Office was constructed as a replica of the Asiatic Society. 

A Theme Song for the book fair – Oi Daakche Boi (Books beckon), was created by Bickram Ghosh. The lyrics were by Sugato Guha, while Srikanto Acharjee, Lopamudra, Shubhamita, Rupankar, Rupam Islam, and Ruprekha lent their voices.

After what seemed a never-ending struggle, the 33rd International Kolkata Book Fair was inaugurated at the Milan Mela Ground. Among the noted foreign dignitaries was Dominique Lapierre, the writer of ‘The City of Joy’. The overall turnover that year was Rs 17 crores.

Book Fair 2010

The USA was the theme country. The executive committee decided that if a person bought books worth Rs 200, the entry fee would be refunded. This naturally boosted the sale of books.

Book Fair of kolkata 2011

Mexico was the Focal Theme. This was the time when an aeon-making decision was taken by the Guild. It was alleged that Guild is making a profit through the fair. The main source of Guild’s income was the sale of tickets. The Guild ruled that entry would be made free. This was not all.

The Little Magazines were also given free space. The rent controversy continued, but the state government intervened to give the Guild an NGO status. This meant that the Guild would be able to use the Milan Mela ground if the state government paid for organizing its fairs.

Book Fair of kolkata 2014

This year a new event was organized during the Book Fair. Kolkata Literature Festival— A festival of literature modeled on the Jaipur Literature Festival and Edinburgh Literature festival. The three-day festival was attended by eminent writers who converged to discuss and disseminate the latest trends in writing.

Book Fair of Kolkata 2018

This year again Book Fair had a new address. The Milan Mela Complex going under renovation thoroughly and a new international fair complex, as conceptualized by the Hon’ble Chief Minister, West Bengal was created there. The Central Park Mela Grounds was the new venue for the 42nd International Kolkata Book Fair 2018.

Although this ground was slightly smaller than Milan Mela, the infrastructure, accessibility and other logistics were all at par with Milan Mela. Therefore, the Central Park Mela Ground was the best alternative to Milan Mela. With the all-out cooperation and support from the Government of West Bengal, the entire area had a total facelift within a short period.

2018 was France’s 3rd appearance as a Focal theme country at the International Kolkata book Fair. 2018 was the occasion of the 70th year of the Indo-France diplomatic relationship. Therefore, the cultural wing of the French Embassy organized the Bonjour India Festival in selected cities of India.

The Bonjour India festival’s closing ceremony was held at the 42nd International Kolkata Book Fair. The largest Theme Pavilion in the history of the Book Fair was presented by France as a part of Bonjour India Festival.

2019 Kolkata’s Book Fair

“The Heart of the Mayan World- Guatemala” was the theme country for the first time at the Book Fair. Starting this year, apart from the Focal Theme Country, it was decided to focus and showcase the literature and culture of one Indian scheduled tribe in the Book Fair.

Mayel Lyang Lepcha Development Board of West Bengal came forward and for the first time they participated at the International Kolkata Book Fair. “Buy books and win a Book Library” – the grand finale of the daily lottery for winning Book Gift Coupon was organised.

Four lucky winners were presented with a Book Library. Each Book Library consisted of a designer bookshelf filled with books worth one lakh. The winners would have the privilege of selecting the books they want. This presentation was one more effort of the Guild towards increasing the reading habits of book lovers.

2020 Book Fair


The 44th International Kolkata Book Fair was held from 29 January to 9 February. Russia was the theme country for IKBF 2020. The Russia Pavilion also hosted sessions by various Russian authors and speakers. The owl ‘Tito’ was adopted as the mascot for the Kolkata Book Fair 2020.

2021 Book Fair

The book fair this year was canceled due to the pandemic of COVID-19. However, it has been decided that the 45th edition of the International Kolkata Book Fair will start on 31st January 2022. This was announced by chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Bangladesh is going to be the theme country of the fair. But due to the pandemic, it couldn’t be held in January. So it was held in the last week of February starting from the 28th of the given month.

Participants in the Kolkata Book Fair

Most bookstalls in the book fair keep English and Bengali books. Popular bookstalls include Ananda Publishers, Dey’s Publishing, Deb Sahitya Kutir, Mitra Ghosh Publishers, Pratibhas, Punashcha, Sishu Sahitya Samsad, Deep Prakashan, Tuli Kalam, Bhasha o Sahitya, Maondol Book House, Saraswato Library.

These are among the Bengali language book shops. The others are Timely Books, Seagull Books, Rupa and Co., Penguin India, Tata Mcgraw-Hill. These are among English language book shops.

Virtually all major European scientific publishers or corresponding franchisees set up shops, including Oxford University Press, Cambridge Universitry Press, Kluwer and Springer Verlag. The fair’s diplomatic mission stalls display and sell books from their countries.

The British Council, United States Information Service and Alliance francaise typically host stalls. The European Union, Bangladesh and several Latin American embassies have hosted stalls in recent years. Most major news media in Calcutta have stalls, including The Statesman and The Telegraph.

Calcutta institutions, which have their own press or publishing house typically host stalls. This includes the Indian Museum, Asiatic Society. There are also survey institutes like the Zoological Survey of India, Botanical Survey of India, Geological Survey of India. It also includes universities like the University of Calcutta, Jadavpur University, and Rabindra Bharati University. Other notable annual stalls include:

  • The famous Santiniketan-based used bookseller Subarnarekha
  • A stall hosted by Kolkata artist Rathin Mitra, featuring his famous panoramas of Kolkata
  • The BenFish (Bengal Fisheries) food stall, which typically attracts more customers than most bookshops

The initial rule was that only publishers, and not institutions that just sold or distributed books but did not publish any books, can participate in the fair. This rule had been waved in the 2000s. This rule often forced small distributors to bring out a token publication just to be able to participate in the fair.

In 2014, Wikipedia made its first appearance at the Kolkata Book Fair, launching its campaign to enthuse people to become regular contributors to its site. It booked a stall and lined up an awareness program to sign up volunteers. Incidentally, Kolkata fares poorly when it comes to contributing to the world’s biggest online encyclopedia. As of 2013, the city had only seven senior contributors and some volunteers. 

Wikipedia needs people from Kolkata to contribute voluntarily not only to the mother website but also to its Bengali language version of Wikipedia. The Book Fair authorities have already sealed the deal and are looking forward to this heavyweight participant. 

Events that take place in the book fair

A number of events take place along with the book fair. They are:

  • A number of book signings and book releases with first edition distributions are held in conjunction with the fair, due to the high visibility of the fair.
  • A series of seminars and talks by literati.
  • Competitive events for school children like essay writing and trivia sessions.
  • The Walk for Books to raise money for child literacy programs.
  • Theme country events, including a talk by the Chief Guest.
  • The Asoke Kumar Sarkar Memorial Lecture, the annual lecture delivered since 1984 by noted publishers and educators like W. Bradford Wiley.
  • The Book Bazaar, the auction held on the last day of the fair to auction off the remainder of the stock, has been discontinued.

Propaganda

The Kolkata Book Fair attracts a lot of people looking for free propaganda and idea promotion. The fair does have its share of fair and useful propaganda, and relief fundraisers, along the lines of the Frankfurt Book Fair protest movement against the official German spelling reforms.

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