New database of pre-Independence Indian periodicals from1857-1947 reflects a nation forging its identity

Manik Sharma

For years Professor Rahul Sagar worked with researchers, students and libraries from around the world to collate a database of Indian Periodicals that flourished between 1857 and 1947 and are evidence of a once fertile land of reading, writing and intellectual discourse. In an interview with Firstpost, Sagar spoke about the challenges of his endeavour, what the existence of such rich yet lost texts proves, and why these periodicals all eventually disappeared.

Compared to what you've amassed, there must be wealth of periodicals, papers, prints lying in homes and trunks across India. How does one put all of that together? Is it even possible? How would you go about it?

This is an excellent question. Of the periodicals I have found and indexed, there are still some volumes missing. These volumes are effectively lost for good in the sense that they cannot be found in any library in the world.

But they may well lying in private libraries around the country. Since the launch of the database I have been contacted by families that have inherited large private libraries and are unsure about the importance and relevance of the contents. There must be hundreds more in such a condition.

I have thought of approaching the problem in two ways. I am going to write an opinion editorial specifically about this issue, and with the support of reporters such as yourself, I hope to spread the word so that people will check their private collections.

I also plan to create a website where I will list all missing periodicals, which cannot be found anywhere in the world, and then try to 'crowdsource' them. It will take some pushing to get this done, as everyone is busy. But perhaps I will be lucky enough to stumble on a hidden treasure trove.

In putting together your collection, what was the biggest challenge you faced? Was it coordinating with people, or was it negotiating access and funds? 

As a practical matter, coordination was easily the greatest challenge. Recruiting, but also managing research assistants around the world was a complex business.

Since I had to control costs, I relied on students, especially undergraduates. Many of them were simply marvellous, with a great work ethic. But, very reasonably of course, this meant that many had competing priorities, which could not be neglected. So, for example, I'd recruit someone, go through all the background with them, and then they'd have to drop out suddenly because their own research needed more attention. Then I would have to start all over again.

Funding is always a challenge when you're creating a public good, because everyone benefits, but no one has a particularly strong incentive to donate. I was very fortunate to have the support of NYU Abu Dhabi and the National University of Singapore. Without them, there is no way this would have come to fruition. The very enthusiastic public response shows how important it is for universities to support research that creates public resources and so makes knowledge more accessible to the wider public.

A cursory look at these journals also shows the various native hotspots of thought and debate, so many journals local to a place. What does that signify, according to you? What does it say about the diversity and reach of Indian discourse?

You are absolutely right that the periodicals show a great clustering effect. The principal cause was the creation of public universities after 1854. In every city where a major public university came into being, we find a host of periodicals. Thus, we see the first batch of periodicals appear in Calcutta, Madras, Allahabad, and Bombay, and then later expand to Lahore, Patna, and Delhi. This history gives a very good example of the impact that universities, and the liberal arts especially, have in fostering a culture of debate and deliberation.

It is also crucial to acknowledge how important the Princely States were to these periodicals. We see important periodicals coming out of Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, as well as some of the smaller Princely States in Rajputana. But, more importantly, we see the rulers of these Princely States, especially highly educated rulers like Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda, the various rulers of Mysore and Travancore, providing the patronage necessary to keep these periodicals alive during periods of financial stress, e.g. during World War I. We must revere this benevolent spirit.

Independence should have technically helped journals and publishing flourish. What happened? Would it be fair to say that great churn then, comes amidst great struggle, or is that too much of a simplification?

The passing of these periodicals is a very bittersweet development.

The great purpose of these periodicals was to foster a national conversation about what kind of country and society India was and should become. Because they were in published in the English language they could, and were, read throughout the country. Thus, they had an impact and a reach that could not be matched by vernacular periodicals.

Yet, precisely because they helped bring about a nation, once that nation had been created, these periodicals were no longer needed. As soon as readers and subscribers became citizens, their attention shifted from thought to action. The news of the day became their primary concern, and the radio and the national newspaper, became the primary means of collective communication.

So, to end on a sweet rather than bitter note, we can say that these periodicals lived a full and happy life, because they served their great purpose in the creation and realisation of modern India.

What is the British influence (direct or unintentional) on the intellectual output during this period? What did it enable and what did it restrict?

One of the great lessons taught by these periodicals is that there were aspects of the colonial experience that were actually very important to making modern India what it is.

When we talk about 'the argumentative Indian', we should remember that our distinctive public sphere, where argument and humour are greatly prized, owes an immense amount to these periodicals, which were themselves fashioned on the great British periodicals of the Victorian era. Periodicals of these kinds are not to be found in China or Japan, for example.

The British did much to support these periodicals indirectly, principally by supporting public education. It was also very well known that from the Viceroy down, British officials read the more important periodicals very carefully in order to understand "native" opinion. I have myself seen countless references to them in the letters of the Viceroys. This attention gave the periodicals great stature.

The British were, naturally enough, sensitive to criticism. So they effectively policed the bounds of what these periodicals could say. It will be controversial to say this, but I think the heavy British hand in the background did much to encourage the development of a sophisticated 'public opinion' that was based on facts and arguments rather than violent rhetoric.

Consequently, learned individuals with moderate and worldly views, rather than radicals and rabble rousers, played a leading role in shaping public opinion. This is, I dare say, one key reason why India was saved from the excesses that other postcolonial societies experienced.

Publishing and printing is a big challenge. Even traditional publishers struggle with printing and sustaining. How would these periodicals have survived? Is there a lesson in them once having existed and survived for a while?

The brutal challenge of publishing is monetisation. What periodicals produce is valued and shared by everyone, but no one person feels the pressure or compulsion to fund public-spirited publications. This is what is sometimes called the 'free rider' problem that afflicts the provision of public goods.

Usually, the answer is to rely on the State to provide public goods, since individuals will not do it. But a periodical cannot rely on state funding without seeing its independence compromised.

Hence the answer can only lie in the creation of what the great French theorist of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville called 'aristocratic persons' in a democratic age €" foundations, trusts, and endowments, that will support in the common good what solitary individuals are too short-sighted to support.

Was there a periodical or a text that particularly stuck with you, for some reason or the other? Which one and why? Is there a periodical, that for some reason, you're still looking for?

I do not have the heart to pick and choose between these periodicals. I love them all dearly, each with its own virtues and gifts. These periodicals reflect India's remarkable pluralism and it is as impossible to choose between them as it is choose between the parts of India.

Given my own background, what I found especially fascinating were essays by Indians who were gathering the courage to travel overseas in the mid-19th century. They faced danger at sea, loneliness when abroad, and social stigma when they returned. But they persevered nonetheless, because they hungered to learn what was necessary to remake India. It is impossible to read their essays without feeling humbled by the greatness of their spirit.

I was very moved when I read this striking passage, written in 1886 by Bishan Narayan Dar when he was a student in England. Then a student in England, Dar had been excommunicated for travelling overseas. He refused to commit penance on his return to India, and was excommunicated from Hindu society. Yet, nearly three decades later, in 1911, he was appointed the President of the Congress, the greatest honour of the day. This is what Dar said in 1886:

"Whatever may be the voice of prejudice, this may be safely foretold, that the English taught generation, headed by those who have been, or will hereafter be, educated in England, is destined to be the most powerful element of Indian society. Insignificant as this movement of the Indians' coming to England appears, still, it has that within which passes show. It has its source in the eternal principles of Progress, and day by day, as it grows older, it is sure to grow wider, like a river which grows broader as it flows farther away from its mountain-spring. (A Kashmiri Pandit, "A Word about England-Visiting Indian Youths", Indian Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 181, 1886)"

Professor Sagar's database can be accessed at

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