Payam-e-Azadi

Payam-e-Azadi

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This is the story of a forgotten newspaper that was in a league of its own, a banned daily that fueled India’s first war of independence, the indomitable Payam-e-Azadi.

On the afternoon of 29 March 1857, Mangal Pandey, a sepoy of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry in Barrackpore, rebelled against his commanders, marking the inception of the Great Indian Sepoy Rebellion.

A month earlier, Dewan Azimullah Khan, the secretary of Nana Saheb, returned from England and Constantinople with a French printing press and a great vision of publishing a patriotic firebrand newspaper.

Azimullah, who grew up as an orphan, was a brilliant intellectual with sharp political acumen. He was the Muslim advisor at a Hindu court and the mastermind behind the Sepoy rebellion.

Payam-e-Azadi, aka ‘The Message of Freedom’ was born as a daily newspaper, written in Hindi and Urdu, and printed in Lithopress. Mirza Bedar Bakht, one of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s descendants, was appointed as the chief editor.

Payam-e-Azadi was first published in February 1857 from Delhi and later appeared in several parts of British India and by May, 1857 the Daily had declared its open support to the rebellion.

The sharp and impactful editorials did wonders in mobilizing and motivating the masses to the cause of the rebellion and became a symbol of resistance against the divisive and communal policies of the Company.

The editors wrote, “Hindus and Muslims of India! Rise, brothers, rise. Among all the blessings bestowed by God to man, the most valuable is liberty. Can that mean, treacherous tyrant, be able to deprive us forever? No, never.”

“The Britishers will try to set up Hindus against Muslims and Muslims against Hindus. But brothers, do not fall into their trap and treachery. Hindus, Muslims, brothers – forget all your petty differences and stand on the battlefield under one banner.”

The fiery editorials posed a mammoth threat to the empire. The newspaper was promptly banned for an indefinite period. Bedar Bakht was brutally tortured, forced to eat pork meat and then hanged till death.

Payam-e-Azadi had rattled the mighty British empire so much that when they took control of Delhi, they searched every home for copies of Payam-e-Azadi and if found, each member of that house was hanged to death.

Indian press should be forever indebted to Azimullah Khan and Bedar Bakht who taught the fundamentals of fearless journalism in front of a ruthless authority. Payam-e-Azadi has been largely forgotten today, so are its values, spirit and spine.

Sources

  • Man behind the war of independence 1857/Lutfullah
  • Syed, La presse de la liberté: Journée d’études organisée par le Groupe de Travail edited by Eve Johansson
  • Wikimedia

The curious tale of partition, refugees in Bombay and fish koliwada

The curious tale of partition, refugees in Bombay and fish koliwada

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Every partition story is a weeping witness of dreadful human acts, but a few of them also enrich the cultural cascade of India. The strange origin of Fish Koliwada is one such interesting anecdote.

During partition, many displaced Sikh refugees from Hazara district and Peshawar, who didn’t have relatives in Punjab, Delhi or Kashmir, boarded the iconic Frontier Mail and headed to Bombay with a hope of new life.

They settled down in the Sion-Koliwada military camp, near today’s Guru Tegh Bahadur (GTB) Nagar railway station. Shanties around the streets and dockyard became the shelter of many Sikh refugees who had fled Pakistan after Partition.

Koliwada usually refers to a colony of fishermen. In Mumbai, one can find several urban villages named Koliwada. A machhi market or fish market is usually a prominent landmark for such Koliwada localities.

To earn their daily livelihood, the refugees started working in the city. They became hawkers on the train,  taxi drivers, daily labourers, and a few of them started the business of cooking and selling food. It was the beginning of a unique cultural conversation.

The fishermen of Koliwada introduced freshwater fish to the Sikh refugees, who then added a unique twist by applying their heritage cooking technique. Bahadur Singh, who arrived in Bombay via Amritsar, was one such imaginative cook.

He started a roadside eatery where he served mouthwatering fried fish marinated in a thick batter of chilli paste –  one could eat fried Rawas, Jhinga and Pomfret, wrapped in newspapers. It was an instant hit.

The novel dish gained huge popularity and Fish Koliwada gradually acclaimed national fame for being such a delicious snack. The small eatery, known as Mini Punjab, is now one of the landmark restaurants in Mumbai still serving the Punjabi heritage dishes.

Fish Koliwada was  invented by the Sikh refugees of Bombay but was named after the local fisherman colonies who gave them shelter – an ode to the diverse cultural fabric of India.

Acknowledgements

  • gatewayhouse.in/Sifra Lentin
  • Indian Express/Mohamed Thaver
  • Wikimedia

One of the earliest banned films in India

One of the earliest banned films in India

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The year – 1934. Dhanpat Srivastava, a printing press owner in Benares was an unhappy man, despite being an acclaimed writer. He was struggling with ill health and financial difficulties. Right then, a new opportunity came up.

In the early 1930s, the film industry in Bombay was expanding rapidly. Writers from all over India were congregating there in search of better fortunes. Srivastava also decided to join their ranks – he managed a writing job with Ajanta Cinetone, a film production house for a monthly salary of Rs 8000. For the financially-distressed Srivastava, it was a princely sum.

On 31st May, 1934, Srivastava arrived in Bombay to take up his new role. His first script was based on the struggles of mill workers in Bombay. Titled Mazdoor (the laborer), it told the tale of the unscrupulous son of a deceased mill owner who takes over his father’s mill and exploits the workers for his personal gain, only to be thwarted by his sister who supported the disgruntled workers.

The script was  liked and the film was made. Srivastava even cameoed as a leader of the agitating workers. On 5th February, 1935, the film was sent to the Censor Board for certification. That’s when the trouble began.

One of the influential members of the Board was Byramjee Jeejeebhoy, who was also the president of Bombay Mill Owners’ Association. The film was denied release permission – the official reason given was that its provocative content could lead to agitation by mill workers against the owners.

The film did release in Delhi, Lucknow and Lahore where it did incite strong emotions amongst workers and was soon banned. In an ironic twist of fate, workers at Srivastav’s press in Benares were also said to have been inspired by the film to strike against their owner due to non-payment of wages!

Srivastav was left disgruntled. He was anyway displeased with the commercial environment of the Bombay film industry. On 4th April, 1935, even before his one-year contract with Ajanta  Cinetone expired, Srivastav left Bombay, an embittered man.

Although his movie career didn’t take off, Srivastav’s fame as a writer has endured for generations. We know him better by his pen-name: Munshi Premchand.

Source

https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/people/premchands-failed-film-foray

The Oral Storytellers who’re banned by the British & Nizam

The oral storytellers who’re banned by the British & Nizam

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What if we tell you there was a rural community of oral storytellers who was banned by both the British Raj and the Nizam of Hyderabad because they posed a significant threat to imperialism and feudalism?

Burrakatha was an oral storytelling technique in the Jangam Katha tradition, performed in villages of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The troupe mostly consisted of the main performer(kathakadu) and two others – hasyaka(joker) and rajakiya(politician).

They would perform stories on either Hindu mythology (Jangam Katha) or contemporary social issues through dance, songs, poems,  jokes, dramas or monologues. It used to be an all-night session of storytelling to entertain a village.

Traditionally, the art form originated as devotional music by Telugu nomadic groups but at the turn of the early 20th century, a modern form of Burra Katha had emerged. It became sharper, secular and socio-political.

During the independence movement (first half of the 20th century) in Andhra, Burrakatha was revolutionized and made into a medium of mass awakening to educate the villagers on current political practices. Storytellers became rebels.

The two side artists – the joker and the politician – were key to  the narrative adding strong social messages from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement, to the centre story plot.

Recognizing it as a growing threat and a tool of mass uprising, the storytellers of Burrakatha were banned in Madras province by the British government. Years later,  the tide took a different turn in the 1940s.

During Telengana’s armed rebellion against the feudal monarchy of Hyderabad, the Communist party leveraged the ancient art of storytelling as a form of resistance, as they were banned from public gatherings.

Hundreds of Burrakatha troupes were trained and performed across myriad villages in Andhra under the strong protection of guerrilla fighters. The storytellers became the political epicentre of peasant movements, that prompted a ban from the Nizam.

In independent India, Burrakatha had been used by both national/state governments to educate the rural mass on everything from family planning to polio vaccination drives. However, the advent of television and the internet has pushed folk storytellers to the verge of extinction.

 

Acknowledgements

  • Performers and Their Arts: Folk, Popular and Classical Genres in a Changing India/: Laxmi N. Kadekar, Simon Charsley, Wikipedia.
  • Countercurrents.org/MA Krishna and S. Jatin Kumar

How Armenian immigrants influenced the Bengal delicacy

How Armenian immigrants influenced the Bengal delicacy

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In every Bengali kitchen, “Potol-er Dorma” is a delicacy. The remarkable journey of the dish that tells an exciting story of cosmopolitan Calcutta and a landmark immigration.

Readers who have experienced Mediterranean or Balkan cuisine before may have already been aware of the Turkish delicacy Dolma, a family of stuffed dishes mostly served as an appetizer.

Dolma is Turkey’s national dish, where traditionally grape leaves are stuffed with rice and ground meat. The word dolma comes from dolmark in Turkish, which means ‘to be stuffed’.

However, there is an age-old debate between the Turks, Greeks and Armenians on the origin of Dolma. Armenians believe this is their heritage, and word

‘Tolma’ came from Toli, the ancient Urartian word for grape leaves.

When the Armenians arrived in India and Calcutta in the 16th century to escape Turkish persecution, they also brought a new blend of culture. The recipe of Dolma was one of those culinary customs that made its way to Calcutta.

What everyone may not know, Armenia is the land of ancient winemaking, the land of the vineyards. There are 100 different indigenous Armenian grape varieties. In Calcutta as well, the Armenian merchants grew grapevines in their house gardens.

With the advent of cultural exchange between the migrant Armenians and the native Bengalis, a new form of Bengali dish was formed taking inspiration from the Armenian dolmas – the quintessential  ‘Potol-er Dorma’.

“Potol-er Dorma” or stuffed pointed gourd became a delicacy in Bengali households soon. Fish and prawn are popular non-vegetarian choices for fillings, while, paneer, lentil or coconut stuffing became vegetarian alternatives.

Migration often recounts tales of wonder and terror. Humble Potol-er Dorma is one of the joyful ones to remember.

 Sources

  • Goya.in
  • Indian Express
  • Wikimedia

India’s Bravest RJ

India’s Bravest RJ who ran a secret radio channel to fight the British

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It was no less than a spy thriller when a fearless 22-year-old Usha Mehta from Surat ran an underground radio station to fight the British colonial forces. The story of India’s bravest radio jockey, fondly known as Radio-Ben, and her  secret Congress Radio.

Circa 1942 when all the prominent media were under constant British surveillance, a certain Usha Mehta emerged. She grew up highly influenced by Gandhi and was only eight when she joined the protest against the Simon commission.

1942 was a terrible time for the Indian press, as the prominent editors were forced to suppress all news on  Congress activities to isolate the mass from the momentum of the freedom movement.

Right after the Quit India movement commenced, this young Gandhian, set up an underground radio station to serve the people who were deprived of  information on the political landscape.

Radio was a powerful medium, and with help  from some of her associates, Usha started broadcasting patriotic songs, recorded messages of Congress leaders and other important news to comrades across the country.

She named it Congress Radio, and to dodge the police, she kept changing the frequency and locations. “This is the Congress radio calling on 42.34 meters from somewhere in India”, her resounding voice echoed.

She had messengers all over India informing her about important news. To evade police scrutiny, she would write speeches in invisible ink and record them to be broadcast.

Each broadcast was an independent bulletin, on varied patriotic interests. She would broadcast on Police brutality, war with Japan, Congress and INA movements, stories of mass demonstrations or the strikes by factory workers.

Her colleagues – Babubhai Jhaveri, Vithaldas Jhaveri,  Nanka Motwane and Nariman Printer helped her secure the pieces of equipment and secret hideouts to run the show, which became a symbol of unadulterated courage and national unity.

After 88 days of a brief but fearless run, when she was playing Vande Mataram from a gramophone motor on the frequency, police knocked on her door. It was Inspector Ganesh Kokje, CID Special Branch.

The secret radio station was seized, Usha and friends were arrested and tortured, as someone had leaked the location of their secret hideout.

Sources

  • Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942 by Usha Thakkar. New York Times
  • Hindu

The First Lady of Indian Cricket

The First Lady of Indian Cricket

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As the cricket crazy nation heads into another cricket season, we look back at one of the first ladies of Indian cricket. The daughter of a legend and a star in her own right. The story of the indomitable and multitalented Chandra Nayudu.

Chandra was the youngest of the three daughters of the legendary Col C.K. Nayudu from his first wife. Her love and adulation for the game must have started at an early age seeing her father, the country’s first test captain play and preach the game.

Nayudu hailed from Indore, one of the largest cities in Central India and home to the princely Holkar dynasty. The city also has strong affiliations towards the game of cricket.

Col Nayudu played most of his cricket here. Janardan Navle, the first Indian to face a ball in Test cricket used to ply his trade at the Holkar stadium.

Syed Mushtaq Ali, the country’s first Test centurion overseas was born and bought up in Indore. Curiously Indore is also home to the world’s first female cricket commentator despite what the Aussies might say.

In 1977 during a match between the MCC and Bombay a female voice aired from the commentary box at the Holkar Stadium. The voice was of Chandra Nayudu.

In her college days in Indore, she played the game consistently donning a white salwar kameez and demanded more women play cricket. Back then the women’s game was in its infancy. Chandra was the captain of the first Women’s cricket team from Uttar Pradesh.

After a brief stint in domestic cricket, Chandra went into commentating. In the 1970s she would regularly be on air for Ranji and other domestic matches; her mastery in English and Hindi came through in her equally engaging commentary in both languages.

During England’s tour of India in 79-80, Chandra was part of AIR’s commentary team. The BBC’s male-dominated commentary team was quite surprised by the sight of a female commentator.

She retired from commentating shortly after that. In 1982, she was invited to Lords during the Golden Jubilee Test Match between India and England.

As part of those Golden Jubilee celebrations, she was allowed to enter the Lords Common Room to present her father CK Nayudu’s bat to the Lords Museum.

Former India women’s team captain Diana Edulji, who met Chandra in the 1970s said she was very knowledgeable about the game. “I met her in the early 1970s when we had gone to play a women’s national tournament in Indore. I found her to be very fond of cricket.”

She was a lifelong member of Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association, Indore’s Rotary Club, and Giants International and took part in many social activities. She was active even some years back till her health deteriorated and she breathed her last on April 7, 2021.

Sources

Miss Tagore and Mohun Bagan’s Historic Shield Win

Miss Tagore and Mohun Bagan’s Historic Shield Win

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Our final story to celebrate Women’s History Month, features the incredible Miss Tagore who was instrumental behind Mohun Bagan’s historic IFA Shield win in 1911. A story on the curious tale of Miss Tagore.

On 1st August 1911, shortly after Mohun Bagan’s historic Shield win, The Manchester Guardian reported on certain Miss Tagore being the happiest person after the victory who was the epicentre of Bengal’s athletic movement in 18/19th century.

Manchester Guardian was convinced without Miss Tagore’s driving force, Bengali men wouldn’t have competed against the strong built British men on the sports arena. And they’re not particularly wrong.

The interesting part of the story is, Miss Tagore wasn’t her real identity, as the journalist mistakenly assumed that due to her close affinity to the Tagore family. She was none other than Sarala Ghoshal, niece of Rabindranath Tagore.

She was a social reformer, writer, a strong feminist and one of the few women of her time to participate in the independence movement. While her work in the non-cooperation movement often alludes to literatures, her influence in the athletic movement has been mostly faded.

Sarala Devi interacted with many Indian men, including wrestlers from Punjab, who despite their immense strength, was terrified of the British. This prompted her to become heavily motivated in removing the fear of white skin from the Indian psyche.

She was determined to shape the mindset of the Indian and to improve the physical fitness of the youth of Bengal, she opened a gymnasium on 26 Baliganj Circular Road. The place where history began.

In this arena on 26 Baliganj Circular Road, basic training in wrestling, boxing, firearms, knife-throwing and fencing was given by experts. One of them was Murtaza, who used to demonstrate sticks and sword skills to the youth.

She later organized festivals like Birastami and Pratapaditya Utsav in 1902/03 in the Akhara to reignite the masculinity of Bengali men to defy their cowardice stereotypes in front of the British.

A Sanskrit hymn was recited and a wreath of swords was offered to the martyrs and heroes of the country to inaugurate the festival. Following that, young people would demonstrate physical and weapons skills.

She continued her sharp writing to inspire Bengalis to acquire strength and stamina through physical training. “Bilati Ghushi bonam Deshi Kil” (a native cuff vs a British punch) was one such article emphasizing the cultivation of physical strength.

In the era when playing football or having any form of physical activity was merely a pastime and social stigma for Bengali men, Miss Tagore, a fiery woman from Jorasnako, broke the barrier for the men.

While the stories of women empowering women often fancy us, Sarala Devi was a rare warrior who reformed the phycological texture of Indian men. In her own words, “in a society, women are the driving force, men merely the machine.” How true is that?

Vrindavan widows who’re lured into indentureship

Vrindavan widows who’re lured into indentureship

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For the fifth feature on Women’s History Month, we take a look back at the widows of Vrindavan who were lured into indentureship by the empire.

At the start of the 16th century, Saint Chaitanya inspired a branch of Hinduism that departed from the many rigid norms which plagued it; in doing so he made Vrindavan, the spiritual capital of his new way of life.

Few centuries later, Vrindavan, the eternal playground of Lord Krishna, became a home for the fallen women. Women who were discarded by society were either slated to die as a Sati or were left to be devoured by other forms of patriarchy.

For these fallen women, widows mostly who were seen as a burden on their families, Vrindavan became their abode. They took up Vaishnavism, the proposed way of Saint Chaitanya, and started devoting their lives to the Lord.

However, all was not well in the holy city. In the garb of liberation widows had to face harsh living conditions, poverty; and many even fell prey to sexual exploitation.

When the British Empire took over, they needed labourers to work on their plantations in various parts of the world. Vrindavan interestingly became a hotbed for recruiting women coolies for the empire.

Mainpuri, a district on the way to Vrindavan was prolific in supplying women coolies to the empire. Many women who found their way to Mainpuri en route to the holy city were coaxed into indentureship and found themselves on sugarcane fields halfway across the world.

Many widows went willingly. A new lease of life in a far-off land purportedly away from exploitation seemed an attractive proposition, even if it meant crossing the Kala Pani.

From the perspective of the Empire, they saw it as a way of civilizing a culture. Providing a helping hand to a very marginalized and victimized section of the society.

It was not the first time they had done it, banning Sati and Child marriage were on the face of it good measures though it is hard to guess, what the widows thought of the British rhetoric at that time.

Between 1842 and 1870 a total of 525,482 Indians were taken as indentured laborers to the British and French Colonies. Of these, 351,401 went to Mauritius, 76,691 went to Demerara (part of Guyana), 42,519 went to Trinidad.

These are some rough estimates and it is believed many among the traveling may have been widows seeking another chance at life and whose stories like many others have been lost in the passage of time.

Source

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gauitra Bahadur

Indian Nannies Lost in Queen’s Land

Indian Nannies Lost in Queen’s Land

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In the Fourth feature of Women’s History Month, we take a look back at the ayahs or nannies employed by Victorian Britain who traversed the continents and faced hardships to earn a respectful living.

At 4 King Edward Road in the historic borough of Hackney in London stands a very curious house. Though its façade might not give much away, it once used to be a shelter for nannies who came all the way from the Indian subcontinent to be part of the lavish life of Victorian Britons.

At the start of the 19th century, the idea of domestic help was becoming quite a trend in the Empire. Rich British families were hiring Indian women as nursemaids or nannies to look after their children.

These families were so impressed by the nannies, soon they started taking them all the way to the British Isles. During the time of Queen Victoria’s crowning, the sight of an Indian Ayah on the streets of London was very common.

The ayahs developed deep bonds with the children and were quite efficient in handling them. Their honesty, cleanliness, and courage to travel coupled with low wages made them an attractive proposition.

However, it was not all fun and adventure, language barriers and societal stigma of traveling overseas were ready-made problems. To add to that some employees terminated their services arbitrarily leaving them penniless and stranded on alien soil.

When the numbers of these stranded nannies went into the hundreds, a group of English women came together to form a temporary shelter for them. They named it Ayah’s Home, its first address was 26 King Edward, Hackney.

The shelter not only proved to be a temporary respite but a home away from home. It doubled as a placement agency as well helping the nannies in finding alternative employment if their previous job was terminated. The Ayah’s Home used to care for 90 to 140 ayahs a year.

The cases of abandonment were not to go away, however. The case of Minnie Green, an ayah from Bangalore is particularly interesting. She took her employers to the British court upon her termination and surprisingly won.

In 1921, the Home was shifted to No 4, a more spacious premise on the same road in London. Lady Chelmsford, the wife of a former Viceroy of India was at hand to inaugurate the Home at the new premise.

Some estimates say that around 100 to 150 Indian nannies traveled every year to England during the Victorian era. A certain Mrs. Antony Pareira is said to have made the journey on 54 occasions.

Even though constant efforts are being made to revive their history, these courageous travelers and caregivers mostly remain hidden figures in a world still muddled by the effects of colonial empires.

Recently a blue plaque was placed at the home at 26 King Edward Road, after rigorous efforts by @ayahshome who are trying to bring the stories of the Ahyas into the light.

Sources:

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