Why It Took The Caravan Five Years to put a Woman on Its Cover

By Supriya Nair | 30 September 2015

In November 2012, I sat down across from the editor who is now my boss at The Caravan for an interview. He said: “So I hear you have criticisms of how the magazine only puts dudes on its cover? That’s good.” Three years ago, The Caravan was just about three years old, already much admired for its journalism and storytelling. Its profiles, in particular had become something of a byword, and stories about people ranging from Lalit Modi to Manmohan Singh had cemented its reputation for impactful cover stories. However, the magazine had not yet put a woman on the cover.

There is a kind of liberal enterprise that finds questions of representation embarrassing, if not irrelevant to its goals, but The Caravan has never been one of these places. A few months after that interview, I breezed in to work, sure that it was only a matter of time before my like-minded colleagues and I achieved our common goal. I was certain we would inaugurate a series of smashing cover stories featuring some of India’s most important and intriguing women. It took us until October 2015 to actually do it.

I write this not in celebration, but in a bid to untangle what we did and to offer some thoughts to The Caravan’s readers—who I know are also of like mind—about how we engaged with a simple question whose answer turned out to be unnecessarily complicated and painful. Why did it take us so long? Now light-headed with relief, I can’t help but think that all the man-hours of anxiety my colleagues and I devoted to it were futile. I also believe that having accomplished it once—all thanks to the writer of this month’s cover story, the musician TM Krishna—it will now be much easier to do it as a matter of course. Still, if the problem was that simple, we would have addressed it much earlier.

At The Caravan, we’ve often said, only slightly in jest, that an editor must say no to almost everything. Sure enough, our meetings are full of the debris of discarded or delayed ideas, and the “no” problem is multiplied threefold in the case of the cover story. A list of reasons for why a particular story might not work for The Caravan exists in every editor’s head, based on complex and shifting calculations. It is here that we encountered our first obstacle in publishing cover stories about people other than men. “Contingency played a big part,” Alex Blasdel, our former senior associate editor, wrote when I asked him to recall some of our roadblocks here. “Contingency has some structural causes,” he continued,  “This has to do with everything from what pitches came through the door to the electoral cycles in various states.”

Most story ideas that were pitched or generated, both among editors and among reporters, tended to be about men rather than women or transgender people. Every rejected pitch was turned down for the same set of reasons, but the difference in volume affected the output. “In every close case,” Alex remembered, “there were good reasons not to commission or pursue a potential cover story on a woman, or not to put a story on the cover—reasons that evidently didn’t have anything to do with gender.” An example many of us thought of in this regard is this story about Mamata Banerjee, commissioned for our election special issue in April 2014, which had no cover story.

The second problem is that profile stories, which dominate our covers, necessarily privilege the individual’s narrative. (In publishing stories about groups or communities however, we found women characters, and the concerns of women, crop up often: a good example is this story about the Delhi police’s efforts to deal with gender crime.) The Indian subcontinent does not lack for towering female presences in its public life. Yet, these women are also often uniquely hard to report on, and intimidatingly protective of their narratives—perhaps thanks to personality, perhaps out of historical necessity. In cases where no sufficiently incisive or timely reporting seemed possible, we put off profile ideas for later. “Given the disproportionately low representation of women in power (and possibly even discounting that), I think our standards for who would make a good cover were unrealistically high when it came to women,” The Caravan’s former associate editor, Sonal Shah, said. So it was “almost as if every potential candidate had to fulfil all the usual criteria we look for, as well as carry the additional weight of representing all women.”

The problem of media representation is by no means restricted to gender, and its dimensions are fairly well-known, if widely ignored. As an industry, the Indian English press does a poor job of news about marginalised people and communities. We may complain about our audience, but we know the problem is a structural one, and the most satisfactory solution is training, hiring and paying a much more diverse workforce.

The reason the woman on the cover assumed such totemic significance in our offices is because we know that in these times, the remedy is not quite so fundamental. Up to a fairly high level, if not the highest, journalism is significantly less discriminatory to women, and is improving all the time in its coverage of news about gender and sexual minorities. The Caravan has worked with many women editors and reporters, some of whom have written our most successful stories. This year alone, four out of eight cover stories between January and September were written by women journalists. (The June issue, our culture special, had no cover story.)

I don’t think it will take five years for us to put another woman on the cover. If our prolonged era of masculine exclusivity serves as something of a warning, then the appearance of the single most acclaimed musician in modern India on the cover of the October issue should act as a beacon. Three years ago, at my interview, I would no more have dreamed of suggesting MS Subbulakshmi as the subject of a potential cover story than I could have stood on my head. Things happened in a much more organic way. At the beginning of this year, we got in touch with Krishna—who is, among his other achievements, the author of the book A Southern Music—to ask if he’d like to write for The Caravan. After several emails worth of back-and-forth, he pitched us his idea. And without much fanfare, it began to assume the shape in which you will now see it.

While working on this issue, I realised that my own neurotic obsession with a woman on the cover really prevented me from seeing that there was, perhaps, an easier strategy than trying to find the perfect story, with the perfect person, for the perfect time. You plan for a picnic by packing a bag, not by controlling the weather. I think the thing to do is to pursue such stories with enthusiasm and without fear—that is, without being led by any primary concern over whether these will become the biggest or splashiest story of the month. There will be more women on The Caravan’s covers when there are more women in the stories. And so, for the future—since we have arrived, at last, in the present.

Supriya Nair is an associate editor at The Caravan.



One thought on “Why It Took The Caravan Five Years to put a Woman on Its Cover”

With the deepest respect for The Caravan, for I have always valued your exceptionally good essays and reportage:

“If our prolonged era of masculine exclusivity serves as something of a warning, then the appearance of the single most acclaimed musician in modern India on the cover of the October issue should act as a beacon.” – This, in essence, encapsulates the issue of gender representation. The likes of Mr Jaitley, Mr Gupta, Mr Banerjee, Mr Dhoni… who are – all due respect to them – certainly not the “most acclaimed” in their fields, make it to the cover without any fanfare. On the other hand, the first woman on cover so happens to be the most acclaimed Carnatic singer of her era. Such exacting standards need certainly not be reserved for women. I am afraid trying to balance the gender differential by honoring your cover with an exceptional woman, instead of a more quotidian one (as has been the case with the men), has not succeeded in breaking down gender barriers — it has only served to further reinforced them.

“There will be more women on The Caravan’s covers when there are more women in the stories” – On the contrary, there has not been a story in India today that has not had women front and center. If you have only been able to come across Mr George Elliots, for whatever reason, the fault lies solely in your reportage, does it not?

I am afraid your explanation – with all due respect for your magazine’s stellar work – does not suffice.

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