Ramananda Chatterjee: A Voice in the Void

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    In a time when the term ‘influencer’ is largely a derogatory term, and it is hard to tell whether ‘news’ is fake or real, it is interesting to look back on a pioneering journalist who was determined to ‘tell it like it is’. The man was Ramananda Chatterjee, a teacher-turned-journalist, who ran not one but two outstanding journals noted for their independent stand.

    What was it like to run a publication that offered credible content, did not bend any scruples, and yet was financially profitable?

    Ramananda Chatterjee was the founder and editor of the Bengali journal Prabasi and the English journal The Modern Review. His influence in the world of English speakers in India was so great in the 1920s and ’30s that the League of Nations (precursor to today’s United Nations) invited him to the General Assembly in Geneva in 1926, hoping that he could give the global body greater legitimacy in the eyes of Indians.

    Early Days

    Ramananda was born into a middle-class family, on 29th May 1865, in a village called Pathakpara in Bankura district in Bengal. This was just seven years after the Revolt of 1857 had been ruthlessly crushed and the British Raj was at its height. His father died when he was a teenager, leaving the family financially strapped.

    He was still in school and worked hard to earn scholarships, with which he paid for his own education all the way to post-graduation and helped support his family. In 1888, he stood first in the BA examination, in Calcutta University, and even won the Ripon Scholarship, which was his ticket to education in England. But Ramananda turned it down because of an oath he had taken at the time that he joined the Brahmo Samaj under Shivanath Shastri not to work for a foreign government or take any benefit from it.

    The Brahmo Samaj was an influential movement in Bengal at the time, and the young Chatterjee became a member of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, one of the three groups into which the Samaj had split on theological grounds. Due to his academic brilliance, Chatterjee was offered the post of assistant editor at the Indian Messenger, a journal of the Brahmo Samaj, in 1890. This was a turning point and it set him up for a career in journalism. He also worked as a lecturer at the Brahmo-run City College in Calcutta before he took up the position of Principal at Kayastha Pathshala in Allahabad, in 1895.

    Launch of Prabasi and The Modern Review

    While serving as Principal, Chatterjee launched Prabasi (a term for Non-Resident Bengali), a Bengali journal In April 1901, that was successful from the very beginning. By the early 1920s, the journal’s circulation was around 7,500, a feat considering the low literacy rates of the time. From its first issue, Rabindranath Tagore was one of its main contributors, an association that continued for 40 years. Tagore wrote novels, poems and essays for Prabasi, and developed a close friendship with Chatterjee and Charles Freer Andrews. He was a priest of the Cambridge Mission who came to India to teach at St. Stephen’s College Delhi. However, he devoted the second part of his life in championing the cause of freedom for India.

    And it wasn’t just Tagore. The list of contributors to Prabasi read like a veritable Who’s Who of Bengal’s intelligentsia. On it was historian Jadunath Sarkar, scientists like J C Bose and P C Ray, and artist Abanindranath Tagore, among others.

    In 1907, Chatterjee launched the English-language journal The Modern Review, and this would be a path-breaking publication too. Unlike reputed newspapers like Kesari (founded by Bal Gangadhar Tilak) and later Harijan (founded by Mahatma Gandhi), The Modern Review was an independent journal with no political leanings, funded by advertisements. Many other leading figures of the time, like Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Lala Lajpat Rai, wrote for The Modern Review regularly. The journal soon became the largest-selling English-language publication in India.

    It was in The Modern Review, in 1937, that India’s future Prime Minister Nehru wrote his famous self-critical essay, Rashtrapati, under the pseudonym ‘Chanakya’. In the article, Chanakya described Nehru (himself) as “some triumphant Caesar passing by”, who might turn dictator with “a little twist”. He stressed the importance of questioning the motives of leaders and checking the power they held. The article created quite a stir across India.

    The Modern Review was a platform for a diverse range of writers and contributors, who were happy to feature in a publication that had no political leanings. But there was another reason Chatterjee was able to cultivate an august panel of writers – he paid them. The novel Gora, for example, was the result of a 300-rupee advance, a princely sum in those days, that Chatterjee paid to Tagore. Write a novel whenever you are up to it, was the request. No deadline. Just plain trust.

    Editorial Independence

    Crucial to the success of Chatterjee’s journals was the stand that he took to highlight the injustices of the government. Naturally, he paid a price. His first serious brush with the authorities was in 1908, when Chatterjee was asked to cease publication of The Modern Review or leave Allahabad, a fallout of his criticism of the government. Chatterjee chose to leave and would publish his journals from Calcutta until his death in 1943.

    In 1928, Chatterjee was arrested on charges of sedition, after he published a book titled India in Bondage: Her Right To Be Free, written by the American Unitarian Jabez T Sunderland.

    Unitarianism is a breakaway Christian group which believed in one universal god and not the trinity. It also did not believe in the divinity of Christ. It is also identified with universalism. Chatterjee lost the case and paid a fine of Rs 2,500, equivalent to about Rs 5 lakh today.

    How did Chatterjee manage to publish two independent publications? Early in his journalism career, after editing magazines owned by others, he concluded that no editor could run a journal without interference unless he was the owner too. It was a lesson he learnt when he resigned as principal of Kayastha Pathshala in 1907 when the management was not willing to give him a free hand to equip the school better to provide better education. That was when he started The Modern Review.

    What helped his journals become a commercial success was that they were powered by controversy, a powerful engine of journalism. The July 1930 issue of The Modern Review carried 124 pages of content and 46 pages of advertisements. Its cover price was 12 annas (three-quarters of a rupee). In the beginning, he outsourced the printing of his journals but after becoming commercially stable, he acquired his own printing press.

    Launch of Vishal Bharat

    In 1928, Chatterjee also launched a Hindi-language journal called Vishal Bharat aimed at the non-English, non-Bengali readers in the Indian heartland. Though he edited the English and Bengali magazines himself, for Vishal Bharat, he roped in writer and journalist Banarsidas Chaturvedi, who went on to serve as a member of the Rajya Sabha after Independence. The name of the Hindi magazine was inspired by the concept of a ‘Greater India’, an idea of Indian culture as something that had spread throughout the world and stretched from past to present.

    Vishal Bharat was aimed at the large communities of immigrant plantation workers who lived outside India too, in places as diverse as Fiji and Trinidad, Eastern and Southern Africa. This magazine also helped establish Hindi literary figures,

    It was in Vishal Bharat that noted Hindi Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s famous poem, Jhansi Wali Rani, was first published in the year 1929.

    The Hindi magazine, however, could not achieve much success.

    Promotion of Indian Art Traditions

    Chatterjee spared neither effort nor expense in producing his journals. Part of the aim was nation-building and restoring in Indians the self-confidence that had been knocked out by centuries of colonial rule. They were meant also to counter ideas of ‘superior races’ and ‘superior civilisations’ that were then taking root across Europe and America.

    To counter these ideas, Chatterjee focused on promoting Indian art, culture and literature. He did not dwell on glories from the dim past. Rather, he wanted Indians to take a greater interest in the arts of the time, as well as the scientific and technological breakthroughs taking place in India then.

    Art critics in the West had long dismissed most Indian art and sculpture as grotesque and devoid of aesthetic value. Influenced by these ideas, up-and-coming Indian artists of the 19th century had started to imitate Western realism in an effort to gain recognition. This led to the emergence of the ‘colonial schools’ of art in Bombay and Calcutta.

    Chatterjee enlisted the help of the renowned Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) art critic and art philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy to counter this denigration of Oriental art. Coomaraswamy wrote frequently in The Modern Review and decoded how Indian art favoured idealism rather than realism, and explained why it was by no means inferior to Western art. He was joined in this endeavour by Swami Vivekananda’s British disciple, Sister Nivedita (formerly Margaret Noble), who encouraged young Indian artists from Bengal to learn indigenous styles by copying the ancient frescoes in the Ajanta caves of Western India.

    This was the beginnings of what came to be called the Bengal School of Art, led by Tagore’s nephew Abanindranath, who helped establish Indian art in international circles. Nandalal Bose, Asit Kumar Haldar and Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury were some of the products of this school who attained international fame, with D P Roy Choudhury even being honoured with the Order of the British Empire.

    Colour plates of their paintings were reproduced in The Modern Review and Prabasi, and many subscribers cut them out, framed them and hung them up on their walls.

    The Modern Review and Indian Sciences

    Science found a prominent place in Chatterjee’s journals too, which gave extensive coverage accompanied by illustrations to new instruments like the crescograph, devised by the renowned scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, who incidentally was a former professor of Chatterjee’s. This instrument was sensitive enough to measure small movements in plants in response to stimuli.

    Other articles explored the spiritual element of science.

    A conversation between Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore on the nature of reality, for instance, was published in The Modern Review in its January 1931 issue.

    The journal also carried articles on Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Robert A Millikan, who was known for his research on cosmic rays. Well-known scientists who wrote in The Modern Review included astrophysicist Meghnad Saha, the moving force behind the Damodar Valley hydroelectric project, and chemist Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar.

    The League of Nations

    Such was Chatterjee’s reputation as an influential journalist that the League of Nations sought his endorsement. A favourable report from him would go a long way in helping the British justify the huge financial contribution made by India to the League, it was felt. The Modern Review was, at the time, considered an opinion leader among the educated classes, who also constituted the leadership of the national movement. Being an English-language publication, the journal had a readership in important foreign capitals too, particularly in Britain and the United States.

    So keen were they to obtain that support that the League offered to foot the bill of 6,000 rupees for Chatterjee’s passage to Geneva in Switzerland, where it was headquartered, and his board and lodging there. He politely refused this part of the offer, preferring to pay for himself. Accepting the League’s hospitality, he felt, would prevent him from taking an objective view of its workings.

    He attended the General Assembly but returned disappointed that the organisation could not assist in India’s fight for independence. He wrote in The Modern Review edition of November 1927: “So far as India’s desire and efforts for political emancipation are concerned, the League of Nations would be of as much help to her (India) as a college debating society.”

    Some recent scholars have labelled Chatterjee a ‘Hindu nationalist’ as for some years he was the president of the Hindu Mahasabha.

    He joined the Mahasabha as its President in 1928, to lend the weight of his considerable prestige to protect the interests of Hindus. But by the mid-1930s, he dissociated from the Mahasabha to protest its haphazard functioning. In earlier years, like most of those who joined the nationalist movement, he had also been a member of the Indian National Congress and later the Home Rule League.

    Chatterjee’s journals covered the world too. There were stories on education systems in Germany, Sweden, England and the United States, and travel articles illustrated with photographs from Europe, the newly formed Soviet Union, Japan and South-East Asia. The journalist St Nihal Singh covered the discussions on India being held in the British Parliament; Sudhindra Bose wrote about various aspects of life in the US. Charles Freer Andrews, that forgotten friend of India, wrote about the travails of Indians after visiting various British colonies in Africa, Fiji and the West Indies.

    While Chatterjee did not build a vast empire, he earned enough to send both his sons to the United Kingdom to study. But he poured most of his profits back into his mission to inform, educate and foster discourse. When he died in 1943, he had neither a car nor a house to his name. After his death, his eldest son Kedarnath Chatterjee took over as editor and he kept the two publications alive until the mid-1960s when they had to shut down due to falling readership. But they never regained the sharp edge they had in those remarkable early days before the country was freed and then partitioned when the greatest minds of a nation considered it their duty to talk directly to the reader, and the readers considered it their responsibility to listen and be engaged.


    Kalyan Chatterjee is a Delhi NCR-based freelance journalist. He worked as a full-time journalist in UNI and Deccan Herald. For 18 years he taught mass communication. He is the author of a book Media and Nation Building in Twentieth Century India: Life and Times of Ramananda Chatterjee.

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