In 1914, the children of Bengal had their first glimpse of a World War air raid. They watched it with fascination, not fear. It was on the cover of Sandesh, the popular children’s magazine.Litterateur and humorist Sukumar Ray (better known as filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s father), who was in England when,In 1914, the children of Bengal had their first glimpse of a World War air raid. They watched it with fascination, not fear. It was on the cover of Sandesh, the popular children’s magazine.Litterateur and humorist Sukumar Ray (better known as filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s father), who was in England when World War I broke out, had made the eye-catching sketch of the Zeppelins and fighters in combat for the magazine he edited in Kolkata. Eighty-nine years later, the remarkable illustration has saved Sandesh. The grainy, over-pigmented sketch was pulled out of the archives last year and put on the cover of a proposal for a Ford Foundation grant. It has helped get the funding to pull the magazine out of the red.The Sukumar sketch not only tells the story of the magazine’s heritage but also epitomises the things it stands for – power of fiction, adventure and popular science that spurred the imagination of young ones for a large part of the last century.COVERED WITH GLORY: The first issue edited by Satyajit RayWith the recently cleared grant of Rs 38 lakh (spread over three years), Sandesh is planning its revival strategy. For long, it has been the definitive children’s magazine in Bengali, associated with the blue blood of children’s fiction: the Rays.Started by Satyajit Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Roychoudhury in 1913, Sandesh was run by Sukumar, and then by his brother Subinoy. Satyajit took it over in 1961. Now filmmaker Sandip, Satyajit’s son, is at the helm with his cousins Amitananda Das and Prasad Ray. The illustrious links, however, were of little help as circulation plummeted from 20,000 a few years ago to 3,000 copies. It became difficult to bring out the monthly even three or four times a year. Once a printing wonder with half-tone pictures and pen and ink illustrations and bylines of Rabindranath Tagore and J.C. Bose,advertisementSandesh was losing out to comic books and cartoon shows on TV. With the Ford grant, the new-look Sandesh is readying to hit the stands soon. The catchwords – contemporary, snippety and eye-catching.COVERED WITH GLORY: The 1991 Puja issueThe city’s literary circles have hailed the new avatar but the nostalgic puritans are far from happy. “If it is a heritage magazine, why should one change its looks or make it contemporary?” asks writer Anita Agnihotri, who began her career as a child-contributor to Sandesh.The concern of Agnihotri and Co is that the new, chipper version may lose sight of its USP: the short fiction and serials (like Satyajit’s detective stories and the series on absent-minded Professor Shonku) that moulded the very character of Sandesh. Newer content like cinema, music and sport along with history, archaeology and environment may, they fear, crowd out fiction that helped popularise the magazine. “The editors have to make sure they get good writing. They should commission articles rather than wait for contributions and goodwill gestures,” says sci-fi writer Sirshendu Mukherjee. Moreover, adds another writer, the editorial team should ferret out new talent rather than repeat old favourites.COVERED WITH GLORY: A 2002 Kolkata Book Fair specialWhether Sandesh will be able to do all this remains to be seen. But its publishers are optimistic about a large market for a good children’s magazine in Bengali – the number of potential readers in the state could be upwards of 20 lakh. With another youngsters’ magazine turning into an exclusive read for teenagers, Das, who is Sandesh’s publisher, thinks there will be many takers for the Ray magazine among the 8-16 year olds. “There is no magazine in Bengali for this age group,” says Das. “If a 12-year-old wants some information, he has to turn to an English newspaper.” That is where the competition comes from. As writer-publisher Samik Bandopadhyay points out, there are far too many newspapers and magazines carrying children’s sections and pullouts. The good thing is, he adds, “there is a large readership in the districts. If Sandesh can tap that, it will pull through.”Meanwhile, the Ray family, realising the compulsions of competition, plans to take the backseat and let a professional team of editors and marketing personnel take over.The children of West Bengal may soon witness another combat, not of Zeppelins and airplanes but imagination and marketing strategy as the new Sandesh and its competitors fight it out – for the literary backyard that is Kolkata.