A new collection of writings from 'The Modern Review', and the history of intellectual journalism in India
Ramananda Chatterjee was arguably the most influential Indian editor in the last few decades of colonial rule. He began publishing The Modern Review in 1907. In an obituary of the departed editor in 1943, the historian Jadunath Sarkar wrote that the list of contributors in the 37 years that Chatterjee edited the journal was actually a dictionary of the greatest Indian intellectuals of that time, plus several notable foreigners. There is a dash of hyperbole here—no B.R. Ambedkar, for instance—yet the claim is not altogether off the mark. Every issue of the review packed a lot of intellectual punch. Besides the new Indian elite that devotedly followed The Modern Review every month, the British colonial authorities too read it closely to understand Indian nationalist opinion on contemporary issues.
An excellent collection of writings from the The Modern Review has now been published—Patriots, Poets And Prisoners: Selections From Ramananda Chatterjee’s The Modern Review, 1907-1947. The pieces selected for this book give us some idea about the quality of writers who contributed to the journal—Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Sister Nivedita, M.K. Gandhi, Verrier Elwin, Premchand, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and several others. There is an essay in the book by Tagore in which he criticizes the cult of the charkha propagated by Gandhi. Bose interviews the French writer Romain Rolland at a time when Europe was hurtling mindlessly towards yet another conflagration. And of course there is the famous essay in the November 1937 issue, in which someone hiding his identity behind the pseudonym Chanakya warned readers that Nehru had the makings of a potential dictator. It was only revealed much later that the writer of that playful essay was Nehru himself.
Some of the old issues of The Modern Review are available in the wonderful Digital Library of India, a treasure house of old publications. These issues provide ample proof of the intellectual heft that Sarkar wrote about in the 1943 obituary of its editor. Many of the greatest minds of that time wrote regularly for Chatterjee.
What did the journal publish? There were clearly some obsessions—especially political freedom, economic challenges, Indian art and our national history. For example, the February 1936 issue had long essays on the poetry of Robert Burns, travelling through West Africa, wedding songs of the Punjab, the prospects of cotton mills in Bengal, the idea of political federation, labour issues in Jamshedpur, Sufism in Sind, the adventures of Indian philosophy in America, separate pieces on the philosopher Brajendra Nath Seal, Guru Gobind Singh, Joseph Stalin and Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda, then back to the opium evil in Assam, impressions of the Calcutta art exhibitions of the year, a report on the All India Women’s Conference in Travancore—plus the usual features such as editorial notes, book reviews and excerpts from other journals. It is hard to come away unimpressed.
The Modern Review had a truly national sensibility. It had writers from every part of the country. Bengali writers dominated the Calcutta journal, naturally, but that is also explained perhaps by their intellectual leadership of national affairs in those decades, matched only by the Pune liberals. Some issues even have books in various Indian languages reviewed (an idea that is worth pursuing even today). There was also, for some time, a regular feature on eminent Indian women. And a lot of attention was lavished on global affairs, which tells us something about the expansive horizon of the editor as well as his readers. A 1943 issue had five essays on China, including one on the recent advances made by Chinese women, written by Madame Chiang Kai-shek herself.
Chatterjee was more than an intellectual impresario with a roster of brilliant writers. His own monthly editorial notes were scholarly, and are a lesson in editorial writing. Several contemporaries have noted that Chatterjee had a passion for data gleaned from voluminous government reports, which were written, then as now, in an anodyne style to dull the senses. Nirad Chaudhuri, who worked for some time at The Modern Review, wrote in his autobiography about this obsession with data, though he claims to have told the editor that statistics are just a bunch of lies.
Such commitment to the facts was seen in several Indian nationalists at the time, before the politics of the inner voice took charge, as Ambedkar pointed out more than once. One example are the Marathi editorials by the fiery Pune duo of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, who also backed their arguments against British rule with information from important government reports or parliamentary debates in London.
Chatterjee personally veered towards the extremist camp led by Tilak, and the overall spirit of The Modern Review was described to me by the conservative writer Swapan Dasgupta as “progressive Brahmoism". Tagore was obviously a major influence. Chatterjee became the president of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1929, and his presidential speech at Surat clarifies that the fight for Hindu political rights in no way contradicts the broader quest for a united Indian nation, where every citizen has equal constitutional rights. However, he remained insistent that Hindus should maintain their numerical strength as well be careful not to get short-changed in the constitutional negotiations of those years. This was the old Hindu Mahasabha of learned patriots such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Mohan Malaviya, V.D. Savarkar, N.C. Chatterjee, M.R. Jayakar and Ashutosh Lahiri—and not the contemporary party of Kamlesh Tiwari.
One editorial note in The Modern Review commented on the battle between the reformist and sanatan-ist wings of the Hindu Mahasabha on the issue of inter-caste marriages, and the abolition of caste in general. And yet, despite his own political affiliation, Chatterjee, in an editorial note on 50 years of the Indian National Congress, warmly commended the main vehicle of the Indian national movement for bringing together people from all religious groups, linguistic communities, castes and income classes for a national endeavour. “It is not claimed that during its past life of half a century the Congress has not made any mistakes as to choice of men or methods. No human organization is or can be infallible. What is claimed, and claimed rightly, is that the Congress has throughout stood for and striven for the whole nation—not for any class, section or community more than for any other".
Journals like The Modern Review provide a unique window to their times. As the three editors of the new book—Anikendra Sen, Devangshu Datta and Nilanjana S. Roy—write in the foreword: “By bringing out this volume, we hope to draw attention to the fact that much of India’s true, and often stirring, history lies in the archives of little magazines and turn-of-the-century journals. These periodicals, if curated and reissued, allow readers today to listen in to history as it was being made, with few filters between them and the leaders or the brightest minds from the past."
Benedict Anderson, the great theorist of modern nationalism, has argued that the emergence of nations as imagined communities owes a lot to the rise of “print capitalism". The printed word helped promote a common national discourse that in turn became one of the key factors in the creation of a national identity—especially in the way it “helped to build that image of antiquity so central to the subjective idea of the nation". In that sense, the selections from The Modern Review give us a rare insight into the fusing of a common Indian identity.
The Modern Review was preceded by some excellent intellectual publications such as The Quarterly Journal Of The Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, The Indian Social Reformer and The Indian Sociologist. And it was followed by journals such as Economic And Political Weekly, Quest and Seminar. None of these periodicals had or has a large base of readers to compete with the reach of the mass media, but they made up in impact.
In his book Articles Of Faith: The Story Of British Intellectual Journalism, Neil Berry has written on journals such as the Edinburgh Review, Fortnightly Review, New Statesman, Encounter and London Review Of Books. They too had a far deeper impact on their country than the bare numbers will ever reveal. Berry argues that such high-minded journalism played a key role in crafting a new society in Britain, and its editors were civic leaders in the way they drove the national agenda.
That is also what editors like Ramananda Chatterjee once did.
The journals that followed
The Modern Review, paradoxically, lost its former glory after India attained the political freedom that the journal so passionately fought for. Only a few notable journalistic enterprises have followed its footsteps. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the Economic And Political Weekly (EPW), which began life as the Economic Weekly in 1949, and was reborn in its current form in 1966. The founding editor was another Bengali, Sachin Chaudhuri, who worked in what was then Bombay. The original journal was in many ways the embodiment of Nehruvian India, and its social democratic dreams.
The EPW has been criticized—quite rightly, in my opinion—for being dominated by Marxists, rather than remaining true to the eclectic hopes of its founder. But it has over the years been the natural home of some of the best thinkers on India. Few researchers of Indian economic thought can ignore the raging controversies in its pages over the years.
The two other intellectual journals worth mentioning here are Quest in Mumbai and Seminar in New Delhi. The former was a child of the heated ideological battles of the Cold War years, and was published by the liberal Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was later dragged into controversy following the revelation that it was secretly funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency. A few years ago, Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar brought out a selection of some of the best articles published by Quest. The names of some of the writers tell us a lot about the high standards of the journal: Rajni Kothari, Nirad Chaudhuri, Satyajit Ray, Dilip Chitre, Khushwant Singh.
A sister journal, Freedom First, was launched by the liberal politician Minoo Masani, backed by people of the stature of Jayaprakash Narayan, and kept going by the indefatigable S.V. Raju. It seems to, unfortunately, be on its last legs, and is trying to be reborn in a digital format. Its archives have been brought together by a group of liberal activists (www.indianliberals.in). I am also tempted to mention the cerebral Swarajya, with which C. Rajagopalachari was closely associated, but it was perhaps more a current affairs weekly than an intellectual journal. It has now got a fresh lease of life.
Seminar is now in its sixth decade. It was set up by the formidable duo of the late Romesh and Raj Thapar in Mumbai, and shifted later to New Delhi. The former began as a Communist who later drifted towards a more open leftism. One of his previous enterprises—Crossroads—was shut down by the Jawaharlal Nehru government, and hence became the subject of one of the landmark free speech debates in India. What is unique about Seminar is that each monthly issue takes a deep dive into one particular problem, almost like an academic seminar. Its latest issue has 11 essays on the “pedagogy of dissent".