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History: Putting India in print

By creating a database of 255 pre-Independence journals, Rahul Sagar has helped show how our forefathers arrived upon an idea of IndiaWomen’s rights’, ‘A Question of Nationality’, ‘Moral Sentiments from Kalidasa’-these are some of the pieces that readers of a July 1909 edition of The Arya, styled as a ‘monthly journal of light, love, and…

By creating a database of 255 pre-Independence journals, Rahul Sagar has helped show how our forefathers arrived upon an idea of India

Women’s rights’, ‘A Question of Nationality’, ‘Moral Sentiments from Kalidasa’-these are some of the pieces that readers of a July 1909 edition of The Arya, styled as a ‘monthly journal of light, love, and life’, would have encountered. Published between April 1901 and October 1909, from Madras, the monthly was one of several periodicals thrashing out contemporary debates in pre-Independence India. Long forgotten, The Arya, and others like it, have now been located and indexed on an online database, thanks to the efforts of an Indian scholar.

In 2012, Rahul Sagar, who was then teaching political thought at Princeton, ordered a handful of magazines including the Modern Review, Indian Review, and Hindustan Review following a few discussions. One magazine led to another, with the dawning realisation that India had a surfeit of colonial-era publications thrumming with rich conversations.

“In these periodicals, we see them honestly grappling, with the strengths and weaknesses of our civilisation,” says Sagar, now a Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at New York University, Abu Dhabi. “We see them imagining the future and coming together to debate and even realise their aspirations. Who can read these essays and not feel grateful that we were blessed with public figures such as these, that we belong to a civilisation that argues and debates, that searches, however imperfectly, for the higher and greater things in human existence?”

Over the next several years, with the help of grants, institutional support and an army of volunteers, Sagar hunted down thousands of editions of 255 English-language journals published from 1857 to 1947. Though the periodicals are not available online, the database, Ideas of India (Ideasofindia.org), provides a sense of what these were, what they contained and which libraries in the world hold them. Scholars and lay readers alike can use the searchable index to identify what they want and request the holding libraries for access. “The index I have built is like a map. Now, that we know what was written and where it was located, we can once again take up the ideas and thoughts of our forefathers,” says Sagar.

These journals were concerned with exploring ideas, not the daily news, and what they do is provide glimpses of the churn in Indian socio-political thought. “Having dipped into some of these journals myself, I know these are incredibly rich and feature a range of debates and contributions in pre-Independence thought,” says Ramachandra Guha, historian and author of several books on Gandhi and modern India. “How does an old civilisation engage with a modern, technological power? How will India emerge after Independence? Such introspection and reflection were an important feature of the journals and they mapped a very exciting period of Indian history.”

As educational institutions grew in India in the 19th century, so did the population of newly-educated, urban Indians. Exposed to British periodicals of the day, they sought to do something similar at home, engaging on the economy, foreign affairs and religion. “These periodicals teach all who read them that India’s intellectual history is more diverse and rich than we realise,” says Sagar. “We tend to focus, even deify, a few well-known figures, whereas, in fact, India was the site of great intellectual ferment, where hundreds of learned and erudite individuals were deeply involved in shaping and transforming our sense of self.”

Sagar points out that national regeneration was one major theme of the 19th century, while the later focuses included reviving civilisational glory and concerns around inequality. “Now, many of these old debates are back on the table. How to express and prioritise our various identities? Should we prioritise economic growth or eschew it because it generates inequality and ecological harm? Should we embrace globalisation or fear it because it makes it harder to retain traditional practices?” asks Sagar. “…These periodicals show that these questions are not new and that disagreement is not unusual.” The periodicals faded quickly in post-Independence India, both because their writers and contributors were busy with nation-building, and because of the arrival of quicker media such as radio.

Ideas of India includes 315,000 indexed articles, worked over 12,900 hours with 161 libraries used, 147 researchers deployed and $360,000 spent. One of the biggest challenges was “recruiting and coordinating research assistants, especially in India”, according to Sagar. He also suspects there are many libraries that hold valuable documents, that he has simply been unable to access so far.

The hope now is that a philanthropist will help make all the journals accessible online. “This is an impressive and valuable effort and an enormous work of retrieval to get them all in order,” says Guha. “Rahul Sagar and his team have done an amazing job and, hopefully, the next phase of digitising them all will also come through.”

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