Founded in 1907 by the visionary Bengali thinker and reformist Ramananda Chatterjee, The Modern Review quickly emerged as a vital platform for debates on nationalism, patriotism, history and society. Alongside the leaders of the freedom movement — M.K. Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore —thinkers like Romain Rolland and J.T. Sutherland contributed to its pages. While questions of self-rule, gender justice and caste inequality were hotly debated, the Review also ran fiction, poetry and personal essays,forging a character for itself that was uniquely literary, political as well as cosmopolitan.
Marking Chatterjee's 150th birth anniversary, this anthology, edited by members of his family and introduced by Ramachandra Guha, brings together a selection from the rich archives of the Review to convey its eclectic range and ambitions. Even after a century, the debates that played out in its pages resonate with the spirit of the turbulent times we live in, making it urgently relevant to the state of the nation and the body politic.
Ramananda Chatterjee's descendants had two clear intentions in mind when they revisited the vast and extensive archives of The Modern Review. The first was to pay tribute to his life's work as an editor of a deliberately non-partisan periodical that was driven by the desire to chronicle India's battle for Independence. The most appropriate way to do this was to bring out a volume of selected essays and writings from The Modern Review in his 150th birth centenary year.
The second was to pay tribute to the dozens and hundreds of journals like The Modern Review, published in several Indian languages, where several generations of Indian authors, artists, politicians, scientists, nation-builders, freedom fighters, dramatists, archaeologists, agricultural experts, soldiers, historians, environmentalists and the like had shared their experiences, argued over, and shaped the emerging nation of India.
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 brightest minds from the past. It is a heritage that belongs, properly, to the next generation of Indians, but it cannot be so easily claimed until it is brought out of our archives and libraries.
This is not an easy task, but we can testify that it is an exceptionally interesting one. The Modern Review archives run from 1907, when it was founded by Ramananda Babu, to the 1960s. Since this volume was intended to commemorate Ramananda Chatterjee, we looked only at volumes published between 1907 and 1943, the year of his death, including a few articles from the August 1947 issue as well.
The Modern Review, at its peak, ran to twelve volumes a year, with an average page extent of about 1,600 pages of published material for most years of its life. No 300, or even 500, page compilation would be sufficient to do justice to the roughly 50-65,000 pages of essays, notes, poems, original research, serialised novels, histories, sketches, travelogues, debates, book reviews, art biographies, military histories, polemics and memoirs that The Modern Review published during Ramananda Babu's years as an editor. Once this was established, we felt no pressure to be comprehensive or to attempt a complete overview of the magazine's contents.
As the editor, Ramananda Chatterjee shaped The Modern Review through two qualities. The first is a quality he had in common with a few Indian editors and academics, then and now - an open-ended curiosity about the world at large, and the confidence to let that spirit of inquiry roam free, from the Khasi Hills or the former United Provinces in India to Cambodia, Poland, and the US. He and the Review's other editors, including his son Kedarnath Chatterjee, were equally eclectic in their choice of subjects. A typical selection, taken from 1927, might include articles on Chinese nationalism, progressive Islam, the war on opium, the crisis in South Rhodesia, ancient painting in Ceylon, recent Hindi literature, Upton Sinclair, the history of the Prarthana Samaj, Afsidal temples and Indian womanhood.
This sweeping interest in the world was certainly not a trait limited to The Modern Review - The Indian Mirror, The Hindustan Review, The Calcutta Gazette, Madras's The Indian Social Reformer, for instance, shared that wide view. But The Modern Review made a speciality of pulling in experts from all across India, and all across other nations. It might also be argued that The Modern Review, and its journalistic predecessors in India and elsewhere, were quite familiar with what is now called longform journalism, and what was then practised as ordinary, everyday, leisurely investigative journalism.
The second quality is both easy and hard to describe: Ramananda Chatterjee's love and concern for his country was, in many ways, the driving force behind the Review, the reason for its existence in the decades before Independence. But his patriotism was not of the glib, slogan-shouting, flag-waving kind - the relationship he had with the nation as it shaped itself during the years of the freedom struggle was loyal, intimate, questioning and always fearless.
As we read through the fragile pages of the Review or flipped through virtual pages in digital format, the voices of the nationalists, and then the writers the Review backed and published, began to emerge most powerfully. In the pages of the Review, it's possible to see how close, how open and how respectful the relationships between India's nationalists were, despite and perhaps because of their often blunt airing of their disagreements.
That formed one theme for this compilation: from Annie Besant to Netaji Bose, Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore skirmishing over swaraj, Nehru speaking his mind as though the Review were an extension of his diary, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur writing a piece that would later fuel a key charter of women's rights, we began to get a sense of what it would have felt like to live through the freedom struggle.
The decision to include writers, and three startling interviews that match subject to interview in the most unexpected combinations, was our way of acknowledging the Review's long tradition of publishing original writing, poetry, drama and art. Though it is best known for publishing Tagore's works, chiefly in translation, there were surprises - Bibhutibhushan, Verrier Elwin, Sita Devi and even Premchand had offered stories or poems to the Review at different stages.
The omissions are large and many who are familiar with The Modern Review may regret the absence of pieces or authors they particularly loved. But there was too much to include. We regret that for reasons of pressure of time, we could not include art and architecture articles, because we could not find an easy way to reproduce the drawings and artwork so essential to most of them, given the condition of the original magazines.
But zealous editors could make separate thematic collections of The Modern Review's writings on art and architecture, music and dance, religion, scripture and spirituality, history and archaeology, travel and global diplomacy, natural history and the environment, politics and political biography, and probably science, too, given that it often featured contributors such as J.C. Bose, who sparked off a memorable correspondence in the 'Letters' section over the question of how to properly treat the menace posed by water hyacinths.
This does not mean that everything in The Modern Review archives was pure gold: it had its fair share of abstruse articles, pointless and meandering novels, painfully bad poetry, and journalism that faded as fast as the issue of the day that sparked those quick columns. But one of Ramananda Chatterjee's most remarkable achievements was to keep the standard surprisingly high, and surprisingly consistent: over thirty-seven years, it is rare to find a single issue that does not have something of solid and lasting value - and that is a claim few contemporary magazines could make.
Retrieving articles from the archive was a challenge. Though the family has copies of The Modern Review, the physical copies we could access were often too fragile to be safely scanned. The journal is available in digital archives and in several libraries, from the National Library and the Digital Library of India to the Santiniketan Library, but converting files from PDF and other versions to a suitable format was not always possible. We have elected to retain the original spellings, turns of phrase and place names, rather than to bring these in line with contemporary spellings and usage, since these pieces are part of the historical record and to correct them would be to exceed our brief as editors. For the same reason we have not changed archaic or jarring phrases, so as not to tamper with the record.
To ensure that no errors crept in, we chose to type in articles wherever possible and re-checked them against the originals. This was not the hardship it may seem; it is when you type in the original words and sentences of a Bankim or of Lala Lajpat Rai that you begin to get a real feel for how they thought, and felt, and wrote.
They stop being distant figures from a history textbook, and become, for a moment, the living writers, thinkers and patriots whom Ramananda Chatterjee, J.B. Sutherland, Kedarnath Chatterjee and the rest at The Modern Review offices must have commissioned, asking them to send in a piece for the next issue, to share their next novel with the Review and its thousands of readers across India and the world.
Our thanks to Ms Nandita Sen, Ms Anuradha Chatterjee and Ms Atoka Mitter for their generous assistance, permissions and advice, and to Ramachandra Guha for his suggestions and valuable perspective.
Journals of opinion have had a disproportionate impact in shaping the public discourse of the modern world. Think, for example, of Les Temps Moderne in France, National Interest and The Nation in the United States, the New Statesman and The Spectator in the United Kingdom. These magazines sold far fewer copies than daily newspapers, yet had a far greater influence on politicians, civil servants, social activists and scholars.
The first Indian equivalent of Les Temps Moderne, the New Statesman, etc., was The Modern Review. Founded in 1907 by Ramananda Chatterjee, The Modern Review quickly emerged as a vital forum for the nationalist intelligentsia. It carried essays on politics, economics and society, but also, being run by a Bengali, poems, stories, travelogues and sketches.
Modern Review was the stable-mate of Prabasi, which was published in Bengali and catered exclusively to one linguistic group. As a vehicle for bilinguals from all parts of the subcontinent, the monthly Modern Review appeared, naturally, in English. While being broadly nationalistic it did not hold a brief for any particular political party. The first feature meant that it could act as a genuinely all-India forum; the second that it stood apart from party journals concurrently run by the Congress, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Communists, and the Scheduled Castes Federation.
In a fine scholarly essay on the history of The Modern Review, the literary historian, Margery Sabin, explores the questions that most preoccupied the journal's editor. Ramananda Chatterjee, she writes, 'sustained in his own voice and sponsored in the voices of his contributors fundamental and continuing questions about India's past, present, and future: What constitutes the authentic Indian past? What foreign influences in the present should India welcome or shun? What directions for the future would allow India to become "modern" without betraying its own identity?'
Sabin also analyses how Chatterjee skilfully negotiated his way through the mire of repressive colonial laws restricting press freedom. Since outright calls for Indian independence could attract prosecution on grounds of 'sedition', Chatterjee often quoted British statesmen in praise of liberty and national emancipation. Drawing on a well-stocked library and his own wide learning, 'a plenitude of English voices from the past could be summoned to indict British rule without the editor risking a sentence of his own'. Among the most famous articles published in The Modern Review was `The Call of Truth', by Rabindranath Tagore, which appeared in the issue of October 1921. Tagore had recently returned from a long trip abroad, where he had gone to raise money for his new university in Santiniketan. While he was away, Mahatma Gandhi launched his Non-co-operation movement, urging Indians to boycott state-run schools, colleges, and law courts, organize bonfires of foreign cloth, and court arrest in doing so. Reading the news from India, Tagore was dismayed. As he wrote to C.F. Andrews from Chicago on 5 March 1921: 'What irony of fate is this that I should be preaching co-operation of cultures between East and West on this side of the sea just at the moment when the doctrine of non-co-operation is preached on the other side?'
Later that year, Tagore returned to India, had long conversations with Gandhi in Calcutta, but remained unpersuaded about non-co-operation and its methods. When he decided to go public with his criticisms, he chose The Modern Review as his outlet. In his recent travels in the West, said Tagore, he had met many people who sought 'to achieve the unity of man, by destroying the bondage of nationalism'. He had 'watched the faces of European students all aglow with the hope of a united mankind...'. Then he returned home, to be confronted with a political movement suffused with negativity. Are 'we alone to be content with telling the beads of negation', asked Tagore, 'harping on other's faults and proceeding with the erection of Swaraj on a foundation of quarrelsomeness?'
Gandhi replied in equally spirited tones, albeit in his own journal, Young India. The Non-co-operation movement, he said, was a refusal to co-operate with the English administrators on their own terms. 'We say to them, "Come and co-operate with us on our terms, and it will be well for us, for you and the world." ... A drowning man cannot save others. In order to be fit to save others, we must try to save ourselves. Indian nationalism is not exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive. It is health-giving, religious and therefore humanitarian. India must learn to live before she can aspire to die for humanity. The mice which helplessly find themselves between the cat's teeth acquire no merit from their sacrifice'.
(Some years later, Tagore wrote another critique of Gandhi in The Modern Review, this time deploring the cult of the charkha. The debates between Tagore and Gandhi in their entirety have been published in The Mahatma and the Poet, edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, who has also provided a useful introduction. This is a book that every thinking Indian should possess. It is published by the National Book Trust, which means that every Indian can afford it, but few would know where to find it.) Another celebrated essay published in Ramananda Chatterjee's journal was an auto-critique. In its issue for November 1937, The Modern Review carried a profile of the Congress president, Jawaharlal Nehru. The profile was not wholly flattering; it spoke, for example, of Nehru's 'intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and inefficient'. It noted that his conceit was 'already formidable', and worried that soon 'Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar'.
The essay was written under the pen-name of `Chanakya'. There was much speculation as to who the author might have been. It appeared to be a critic of the Congress president, possibly a critic of the Congress party as well. Then it was revealed that the author was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru himself.
That Tagore would criticize Gandhi in its pages, or that Nehru would anonymously criticize himself here, were marks of how significant The Modern Review was to public discourse in late colonial India. The magazine was vital to intellectual debates as well. It was in The Modern Review that the sociologist, Radhakamal Mukerjee, published his early pioneering essays on environmental degradation in India; and it was to The Modern Review that the anthropologist Verrier Elwin sent his first reports from the Gond country. Among the magazine's other contributors was the distinguished historian Jadunath Sarkar.
As a platform for debate and discussion among India's finest minds and its most public figures, The Modern Review played a major part in the process of national awakening. Education, the rights of women, the relations between religions and castes, India's place in the world - these extremely important subjects were all intensively discussed in its pages. Significantly, the coming of political independence dealt a body blow to the journal. For its perspective was forward-looking, the nurturing of reforming sensibilities among the men and women who would one day come to rule India. When the former freedom fighters slipped comfortably into the chairs in the secretariat, the magazine seemed to have lost its bearing.
That its founder, Ramananda Chatterjee, had died in 1943 also contributed to its decline. Although The Modern Review limped along until 1965, its place had been taken by two new journals of opinion that more actively captured the trials of an independent (as distinct from colonized) nation. These were the Economic and Political Weekly, published out of Bombay; and Seminar, which was published out of New Delhi. More recently, we have seen the reinvented Caravan magazine, which, like Ramananda Chatterjee's own journal, pays as much attention to culture and literature as to economics and politics.
The decline and disappearance of The Modern Review was symptomatic of the decline of the city where it was housed. Calcutta was no longer where the most interesting debates about India's past and future took place.
It is a pleasure to introduce this anthology of essays from The Modern Review, which brings the richness and intensity of those times, those debates, to a modern audience. I hope this book will stimulate greater interest in this remarkable journal, perhaps leading to further (and thematically focused) anthologies from its archives.
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