Little Big Magazine

A rich selection of writings from The Modern Review, the 1940s journal that shaped the idea of India.

Written by Amrith Lal | Published: December 10, 2016 12:04 am
Patriots, Poets and Prisoners, Anikendra Nath Sen, Nilanjana S Roy, Harper Collins, book review, indian express news Patriots, Poets and Prisoners: Selections from Ramananda Chatterjee’s the Modern Review, 1907-1947

Name: Patriots, Poets and Prisoners: Selections from Ramananda Chatterjee’s the Modern Review, 1907-1947
Edited by Anikendra Nath Sen, Devangshu Datta and Nilanjana S Roy
Publication: Harper Collins
Pages: 352
Price: Rs 450

In the foreword to their selection of writings from The Modern Review, an influential journal of pre-independence India, the editors note that “much of India’s true, and often stirring, history lies in the archives of little magazines and turn of the century journals.” Journalism was a close ally of nationalism during the freedom movement. Nationalists of all ideological hues felt that it was important to bring out newspapers and journals in pursuit of their goal. The best of these publications interpreted nationalism as an expression of man’s urge to be free. National liberation was understood not as a chauvinistic or nativist project, but the struggle for social, economic, political and cultural freedoms that would produce a new society. Its impulses were cosmopolitan and its advocates drew inspiration and energy from a range of sources across nationalities and cultures. The Modern Review, edited by Ramananda Chatterjee, whose 150th birth anniversary was in 2015, was among the finest journals in this tradition. Patriots, Poets and Prisoners is a rich collection of the remarkable journalism Chatterjee produced as an editor for nearly 36 years. The journal, a monthly, began publishing in January 1907 and Chatterjee was its editor till his death aged 78 on September 30, 1943, after sending an edition to press.

Chatterjee conceived The Modern Review as a journal that spoke of, for, and to the emerging Indian nation. He had already achieved eminence as a journalist with Prabasi, the Bengali journal he was editing while also working as principal of the Kayastha College in Allahabad. His biographer, Nemai Sadhan Bose, writes that Chattterjee felt only a periodical in English could speak for the whole of India and foster the idea of national unity. The first issue had contributions from writers from across India, among them Sister Nivedita, G Subramania Iyer, EB Havell and Jadunath Sarkar. The journal was expectedly rich in political commentary, but it also published poetry, fiction, book reviews (including of those published in different Indian languages), and pioneered studies on Indian art. In his remembrance, Jadunath Sarkar wrote, “He (Chatterjee) laid the greatest emphasis on India’s economic problems, her art old and new, and the facts of her historic past dimly known before. In the very first number of his Review, out of 15 articles, three were on economics, two on art, two on Indian history and only one on politics…” Sarkar writes that Chatterjee was the first editor to pay serious attention to Indian painters by the generous provision of three-colour blocks and black-and-white illustrations of their work along with studies of their lives and criticism of their style. The Modern Review came to be about a people, though under foreign rule, reflecting on their destiny and expressing their creative selves. It reflected the spirit of its times — every major debate about the future, present and past of India was reflected in its pages. Chatterjee was associated with the Hindu Mahasabha, and once presided over its annual conference, but felt, like any great editor, that a hundred views would make his publication exciting and the public discourse democratic.

So, we have Lala Lajpat Rai powerful polemic on what ought to be the shape of the struggle for Swaraj (‘The National Outlook’), Mahatma Gandhi’s defence of ahimsa in response to Rai’s contention that the creed of non-violence led to India’s downfall (‘On Ahimsa: A Reply to Lala Lajpat Rai’), Rabindranath Tagore’s critique of Gandhian politics (‘The Cult of Charkha’ and ‘Striving for Swaraj’), Sister Nivedita’s argument for a free India (‘India and Democracy’) and so on. Subhash Chandra Bose was a prolific contributor, writing not just essays, but also sending regular reports and commentaries on developments in Europe. His ‘My Strange Illness’ is a genre-transcending article, written against the background of the turmoil in the Congress in 1939, the year Bose was re-elected party president. A narrative in the first person, it hints at the rampant factionalism and mistrust prevailing then in the Congress.

An article that has immense relevance for our times is ‘We Want No Caesers’ that Jawaharlal Nehru wrote under a pseudonym, Chanakya, in 1937. Nehru, in an impartial tone, dissects the conceits of the “public man”. It is a warning against the mass adulation that can turn him into a despot. He writes, “Jawaharlal has learnt well to act without the paint and powder of the actor. With his seeming carelessness and insouciance, he performs on the public stage with consummate artistry. Whither is this going to lead him and the country? What is he aiming at with all his apparent want of aim? What lies behind that mask of his, what desires, what will to power, what insatiate longings?” Nehru wrote this in the context of having been Congress president for two terms. “Caesarism is always at the door”. We want no Caesars, he concludes.

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