The 29th of May marked the 150th birth anniversary of Ramananda Chatterjee (1865-1943) , a person who dedicated his life to the cause of nation-building. A vibrant press had played a crucial role in consolidating Indian nationalism. In the formative years, there was a close partnership between journalism and nationalism, as all the nationalist leaders edited and owned their own papers to articulate and consolidate public opinion. They emphasised economic and political issues, but were equally concerned over social reform and regeneration, education and culture. They were actively involved in nation-building with total dedication and commitment.
Ramananda Chatterjee was one such outstanding person who dedicated his entire life to the task of nation-building through the Press. He was the Editor of two outstanding publications Prabashi in Bengali and Modern Review in English. In his youth, he was inspired by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Sibnath Shastri. He had joined the Brahmo Samaj. Politically, he was impressed with Surendranath Bannerjee and Ananda Mohan Bose. Later, he moved away from the moderate group within the Congress. The Ilbert Bill movement and Surendranath&’s imprisonment disturbed him considerably. He participated in the second session of the Congress in 1886.
At the behest of Sibnath Shastri, he took a three-point pledge the alien government is illegitimate; never to seek a position of profit in government; and never to recognize and practise caste distinctions. He resolved to fight for equal rights of men and women and widow remarriage. Ramananda started as a lecturer in City College, Calcutta, from 1890-1895 and moved to Allahabad in the same year as Principal of Kayastha Pathsala, which was an intermediate college. Here, he developed a close relationship with CY Chintamani who was the editor of Indian People, and later of Leader. Ramananda&’s forays in journalism began at this juncture and in the formative years of Modern Review, Chintamani was a regular contributor. Ramananda&’s career in higher education ended in 1905 when he resigned as the Principal of Kayastha Pathshala.
Along with his teaching career he devoted considerable time on writing and edited many journals before venturing into Prabashi. Before that, there was no standardized journal in Bengal. He was aware of the risks involved in starting a new venture. Finance was a major constraint. He realised that the survival of a periodical depended on several factors financial solvency; an owner-cum-editor; a regular and dependable group of writers; and honorarium for contributors. Editorship, he believed, was a sacred trust. He would devote 16 hours a day to the journals he owned and edited.
Prabashi was a bold initiative. Its targeted readership comprised prabashi Bengalis who had moved out of Bengal and had little or no contact with Bengali literature and culture. The first issue of Prabashi, published from Allahabad in April 1901, carried an article on Ajanta Caves, written by Ramananda himself. The cover contained geometrical blocks of the India&’s architectural marvels, notably Taj Mahal, the Burmese Pagoda, Qutb Minar, the Buddhist Vihar of Bodh Gaya, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the Lingaraj Temple of Bhubaneswar and the Gate of Sanchi. Rabindranath Tagore&’s poem ‘Prabashi’ was also published.
The first issue of Prabashi had 40 pages of which 16 contained reproduction of paintings in half-tone. These were unprecedented innovations. A Bengali monthly soon became a forum of discourse on national issues. It emphasized Swadeshi and the need for economic self-sufficiency. In parallel, the need for industries was also stressed. Ramananda encouraged modern art and every issue of the Prabashi published reproductions of masterpieces of Indian art and architecture encompassing the entire range ancient, medieval and modern.
In 1906, he published Jagadish Chandra Bose&’s “Plant Response”. In 1907, he published Tagore&’s Gora, which was a critique of the Swadeshi movement. . On the occasion of Prabashi&’s silver jubilee, Jagadish Chandra Bose wrote: “I feel proud of your achievements. You have truly realized the condition of your country where people are living as foreigners in their own land of birth”. Modern Review was first published in January 1907 and was almost an instant success. It contained articles from such luminaries as Hemendra Chandra Maitra, Dinesh Chandra Sen, G. Subramanian Iyer, Sister Nivedita and Jadunath Sarkar.
Ramananda himself wrote a biographical sketch of the Congress president, Dababhai Naoroji. The British even acknowledged Modern Review&’s influence on public opinion. In the June 1934 issue, Ramananda published the concluding chapter of Tagore&’s Letters from Russia. This provoked a warning from the government. When the book was published in 1931 and serialized earlier, the government did not take note of it but when its excerpts were published in Modern Review, the authorities were compelled to act. Such was the influence of the journal.
Prabashi used to publish incisive discussions on Bankim, but no writing on Sarat Chandra Chattopdhyay was ever published. Ramananda himself acknowledged that he never approached him for a contribution. This was unfair. It redounds to the credit of Ramananda that he never published any criticism of Sarat Chandra either. Ramananda was neither a literary figure nor a politician. But he was a remarkably fearless journalist.
When in 1926 he visited Europe on an invitation from the League of Nations, he did not accept the monetary assistance of Rs 6000 as he thought that it might curb his freedom of speech and expression. He disagreed with the Gandhi-Ambedkar pact of 1933, as being “detrimental to the broader interest of the country”. Again during the Vande Mataram controversy during Subhas Bose&’s presidency of the Congress, his position was diametrically opposite to that of Tagore, whom he revered the most. Syed Mujtaba Ali called Ramananda the “champion of lost causes” as he had published D.L. Roy&’s articles on the philosophy of Kant and Patanjali.
In the normal course, their concepts would have been read only by a few. He mastered the techniques of publicity. Mujtaba Ali once remarked that Ramananda sold Kohinoor as puffed rice. But he never sold any adulterated stuff. This observation was a remarkable summing up of a remarkable editor.