(Baboo Jabberjee, BA, by F. Anstey; from the Project Gutenberg free e-book)

(Published in the Business Standard, February 2012)

Their anniversaries slide by unremarked, except for a handful of scholars and critics who remember the little magazines from a century ago. It’s hard to imagine that era now, when the printing press was as much a symbol of the new technology as the Kindle might be today.

It’s equally hard for all but a few historians and scholars of the calibre of Ramachandra Guha, Aloke Rai, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra or Shahid Amin to imagine the excitement of that time, and the zest of the journals and periodicals that flourished a century ago. Today’s magazine stands offer journals on everything from film stars to motoring to parenting, but a century ago, political commentary, fledgling literature and (admittedly terrible) poetry reigned.

Many took for their model a British original, subverting it in the way of the wily Oriental. 140 years ago, the Indian Charivari joined a long and distinguished list of magazines inspired by the satirical eye of Punch. The Parsi Punch, one of the earliest imitators of the original, was to transmute itself into the Hindi Punch, and Muhammad Sajjad Hussain was to make the Oudh Punch famous as an “Indian vernacular serio-comic paper, the first of its kind ever published in Northern India”.

The Indian Charivari began by reviewing, often favourably, such subjects as the efforts of British painters at the Simla Exhibition, but moved rapidly into political commentary. It was famous for bringing an Indian style to its lampoons, using references to Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings and local folk art in its caricatures—including a celebrated one of Lord Curzon, depicted as the goddess Saraswati in a commentary on educational reform.

Mookerjee’s Magazine was founded slightly earlier, in 1861, and was among a score of emerging journals published across the country, from Bengal to Madras, that allowed themselves extraordinary licence. Its stated aim was to cover “Politics, Literature, Sociology and Art”, and within a few years, it had drawn criticism. This was not for its poetry, which was in the best traditions of splendidly awful Indo-Anglian verse (Song of the Indian Conservative, for instance, or an ode to Mohinee, the Hindu Maiden), but for its politics.

In its pages, a defender writes: “That Mookerjee’s Magazine should be deemed notorious, and the quality of its articles depreciated by certain Anglo-Indian writers who see nothing commendable in any independent Native undertaking is not at all surprising. Chime in with their views and write yourself down a humble admirer of Hugrut and his oracles, and you are sure to be petted and fondled as a very respectable Hottentot… “

The contents of Mookerjee’s ranged from the comfortably obscure—a plaintive essay asking Where Shall the Baboo Go, much pedantry about Indian religious texts—to the surprisingly contemporary.

In our current obsession with memoirs from the “insider”, it’s worth remembering that Mookerjee’s Magazine published the drily critical Reminiscences of a Kerani’s Life in serial form, which skewered Baboo and Sahib alike. The Indian fascination with long-form journalism showed up in its pages as well—the current affairs magazines at the turn of the century thought nothing of carrying a roughly 40-page history of famines in India, for instance, as Mookerjee’s Magazine did.

This article, Indian Famines in the Past, was just one of the many instances where Indians spoke out against the erasure of their history—in this case, British India’s perceived indifference to the plight of the famine-stricken. The piece was written just after the famines in the Upper Doab, Orissa and Rajputana, and just before the great famines in Bihar, parts of South India and the Ganjam famine.

By the 1890s, the figure of the intellectual, especially the Bengali baboo, was a familiar enough one to be caricatured—both by fellow Bengalis and by writers like F Anstey, whose Baboo Hurry Bungsho Jabberjee B.A. was immortalized in 1897. About 105 years ago, after Mookerjee’s Magazine had quietly folded up its shamiana, another journal would become the most influential Indian English periodical of its time. The Modern Review, started by the journalist and reformer Ramananda Chatterjee, would have among its contributors Rabindranath Tagore, Verrier Elwin, Sister Nivedita and remained determinedly non-partisan all through its existence.

Ramchandra Guha adds an unusual contributor to that list—Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote a splendid rant against himself under the pen-name Chanakya. Chatterjee, like many of the intellectuals of the age, was comfortably bilingual, and edited the Bengali journal Prabasi as well as the Review, which may also have given the Modern Review its inclusiveness and eclecticism.

Most of these journals, and the early pamphlets and periodicals published in Madras, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and other printing hubs around India, are almost forgotten, rarely archived. Some of this indifference to the past may be changing—The Best of Quest, edited by Laeeq Futehally, Arshia Sattar and Achal Prabhala, brought back a sense of the intellectual debates of the 1950s. But few remember Mookerjee’s Magazine or the Oudh Punch, or the biting wit of the Hindi nationalist journals of the previous century. That’s a big gap in our memory of ourselves.

I’m at: twitter.com/nilanjanaroy