Jayraj Salgaonkar: Behind the Best-Selling Almanac

Jayraj Salgaonkar, co-founder of Kalnirnay
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Kalnirnay is considered to be India’s highest-selling multilingual publication

ABOUT TEN YEARS ago, Jayraj Salgaonkar introduced a non-vegetarian recipe in the inside pages of the iconic Indian almanac Kalnirnay that he brought out along with his father. The reaction was nothing like he had expected. The office was besieged with angry phone calls and letters for several days. Housewives wrote to them complaining that they had now unknowingly defiled the sanctity of their prayer rooms and altars by hanging the almanac, out of habit, within and next to these sacred places. And most importantly, Jayraj’s father Jayantrao Salgaonkar, whom he hadn’t consulted before making this new addition, was upset.

Jayraj sits by a round table in his visually striking office, filled with artefacts, paintings and books he has gathered in his travels, as he recalls this anecdote. His father, a traditionalist, was aghast at the new introduction. Jayantrao was an astrologer and publisher who became a very well-known figure in Maharashtra for bringing out the almanac. Jayraj reaches inside his waist-cut to reveal a pair of dark suspenders. And giving it a tug, he remarks, “As you can see, I am not [a traditionalist].”

A few years ago, a third-generation of the Salgaonkar family, Jayraj’s daughter Shakti, joined the business. In the latest issue, she introduced a recipe on how best to prepare a plate of chicken pulao. But this time, apart from a few stinkers online, there was none of the earlier furore. “Time is changing so very quickly now,” Jayraj says. “We really need to keep innovating.”

The recipe addition is one among several seemingly small but high-on-impact changes the proprietors of the almanac are bringing out to stay relevant in this smartphone age. “The market we cater to is very traditional,” Shakti says, “and we have to introduce these changes very carefully.”

Kalnirnay is considered to be India’s highest-selling multilingual publication. Every year, Sumangal Press, the firm that publishes the almanac, brings out about 20 million issues of it in nine languages and in various formats. These calendar almanacs, or ‘calmanacs’, is an astrological calendar that lists out religious festivals, the position of the planets and the phases of the moon. Incredibly popular among Maharashtrians, over the years the brand has captured several other Indian language markets.

The publication was first brought out in 1973 after Jayantrao felt the need for a product like this in the market. But, as Jayraj recalls, most shopkeepers could not understand the need for it. “They were only willing to stock it; payments would be made only after the sale.” The almanac did away with the need to seek the services of an astrologer or a pandit for finding out important dates. “It was a cultural revolution. It changed the way things were done before it,” Jayraj says. Over time, the Salgaonkars introduced other popular concepts. They used the blank pages on the reverse of the almanac to fill it with articles. They carried advice and tips, useful information like train timetables and food recipes. Several prominent Maharashtrian writers and even figures like Sachin Tendulkar wrote pieces for it.

Over time, the almanac has become something of a habit for several Indian households. People consult it to divine what future the stars hold for them. They confer with it to start new businesses and jobs, buy property, plan weddings and schedule the births of the newest member of their families. Now, it appears, even the family that runs the almanac is looking into the cosmos to see what future it portends for the business of the almanac. And the reading, it seems, is change and a digital future.

Shakti is spearheading the digital arm of this traditional publication. They have an app which already has 5 million users. “People should not have to look at Kalnirnay on the walls to decide things,” she says. “They should be able to look it up, on the go, on their smartphones.” They have been modernising their websites, which provides health and beauty tips, horoscopes and even personalised reports on love, marriages, education and career. They have a blog on the latest trends, an ebooks division, and social media accounts that can remind, among other things, the modern Indian lady of the house who, along with her family, would like to stay vegetarian for an auspicious day, but who very often remembers its significance only after ruining the day by consuming a breakfast containing eggs. “Our printed versions continue to form the major chunk of our business,” Shakti says. “But the future, even for us, is going to be digital.”

Even the manner the brand is projected is undergoing change. The almanac had always been positioned as a product for the woman of the house. “It is something the woman of the household hangs up at the kitchen, so she can consult it and jot down notes in its calendar,” Jayraj says. It is the first thing a mother gives her daughter when the latter gets married. The latest commercial of the publication features a mother and a daughter, but this time as the mother slips the almanac into the suitcase of her ready- to-depart daughter, it is revealed that her daughter is on her way abroad, to study at Harvard. “Kalnirnay’s literal meaning is taking a decision based on time,” Shakti says. “It would be ironic if we don’t take new decisions ourselves based on this changing time.”