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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 25

P.C. Joshi and Indian Cultural Renaissance

Saturday 9 June 2007, by Anil Rajimwale


P.C. Joshi, the General Secretary of the CPI from 1935 to 1947, left an indelible mark on the modern cultural history of India, in both the pre- and post-independence periods. And this is an extraordinary event of history. If we can credit any one person for the modern cultural renaissance and upsurge in India, it would undoubtedly be P.C. Joshi. Organising workers and peasants is commonplace, nothing new, though very important and crucial, but PCJ grasped the essence of his age and did his best to make this essence express itself in various phenomena. The expressions turned out to be numerous and phenomenal, and among them the cultural ones hold a key place. What was new was that the topmost leader of a Communist Party brought about a modern cultural renaissance. In this sense, to an extent, he played the role of an organic intellectual. He reached a wider circle and unleashed a mass cultural force, an act usually not associated with a Communist leader. The question has not been addressed since. Why and how he could achieve this is not very easy to answer. It has not been properly analysed, and a lot of work is needed for this. However, it can be stated authorita-tively that he had a deep understanding of Indian art and literature and literary artistic movement, as is clear from several of his writings (for example, the popular songs of 1857).

Literary and cultural efforts in India culminated in the activities of the PWA and IPTA. These movements also drew inspiration from world movements.

World Writers Against Fascism

A conference of world writers was held in Paris on June 21, 1935. It was organised by Andre Gide, Maxim Gorky, Andre Malraux , E. M. Forster and others. It led to the formation of the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture Against Fascism.

That was the time when the intelligentsia was rapidly coming out in opposition to fascism. The period just before Hitler’s rise, and in particular after it, led to an outcry among the saner, educated elements of the society. Even outstanding figures like Albert Einstein were being hounded out of Germany. A large number of great writers, scientists and many others left that country fearing persecution and death. No dissent was tolerated by fascism. There emerged a worldwide upsurge among the men and women of letters.
The International Association of Writers brought about a new awareness and clarity in the struggle against fascism. The inspiration of Ralph Fox, Christopher Caudwell, Romain Rolland, Gorky, Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi permeated the world struggle. Henry Barbusse was an active figure. Louis Aragon was an inspirational figure representing French literature, philosophy and the French spirit.

PCJ and the Writers and Artists

P. C. JOSHI represented, in many ways, this very spirit of opposition to fascism and imperialism and to all kinds of injustice inherent in an independent conscious being and individual.

The need to organise a progressive writers’ movement was being felt since the early 1930s, particularly during 1934-36. Groups of writers in many parts of India were trying to break out of the old rut of escapist writing. They were trying to do something creative, propelled by the growing anti-imperialism and anti-fascism.

It was a period of stewardship of P.C. Joshi in the Indian communist movement. And that meant a creative attitude to the growing Indian renaissance. Writers and artists were coming out in a big way to participate in this mass creative activity. The formation of the PWA was the logical result of the events of this period. PCJ’s leadership and guidance was timely; otherwise this opportunity would have been squandered.

A manifesto was released in February 1936. It was signed by Premchand, Abid Hussian, Daya Narain Nigam, Abdul Haq and many others. A new, people-oriented and Marxism-oriented school of writing was taking shape. An organising committee of the PWA was formed. Branches of the Association began to be set up in Delhi, Allahabad, Lahore, Aligarh, etc. The Indian PWA in London had been formed one year earlier. Attempts were made to establish PWA branches in every literary centre of India. Writers in Poona, Calcutta, Bombay, Kanpur, Benaras and other places were contacted.

For the first time in India, writers from widely different parts like Madras, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab, UP, Bengal etc. gathered together in Lucknow. The first All India Progressive Writers’ Conference was held on April 10, 1936 (in Lucknow). It was held without much preparation, only in three weeks time.

The conference was a landmark in the history of Indian literature. It was the first-ever national gathering of writers. They had come together not just for literary purpose but more than that, for national, cultural, social, popular and independence-related problems. A new orientation, of “progressive writers”, was given to the writers’ movement. This was a new stage of the renaissance movement. It was particularly propelled by the anti-fascist environment that had developed on account of rising fascism. The new orientations brought to the fore a mass of writers and literary figures.

The PWA spread rapidly after the conference. Its branches were established in Calcutta, and in several other places.

Famous literary figure Mulk Raj Anand said at the Second PWA Conference in Calcutta in December 1938 that the writers of India had clearly realised that the forces of repression and censorship had thwarted the development of modern literature in India. This method was further developed by Nazism and fascism.

There was a great burst of literary and literary-nationalist activity at the beginning of the twentieth century, despite the oppressive British rule and its system rendering many such writings illegal. The Naya Sansar Publishing House had been established. Sajjad Zaheer’s play Bimar, Ali Sardar Jafri’s Manzil, Anokhi Musibat by Hyat-ullah Ansari, B. B. Benipuri’s book Lal Tara, works of Krishan Chander, K. A. Abbas’ Sparrows and many other works including those by Premchand, the Peasant Poets’ Conference in April 1938, the Mazdoor Poets’ mushairas in Bombay and Kanpur, Jugal Kishore Shukla’s works, and several similar activities reflected intense thought processes at work among the nationalists as well as in the organic intelligentsia of the downtrodden.

PCJ as Literary Organic Organiser

P. C. JOSHI was both a great organiser of writers, artists and intellectuals, as well as a literary writer and intellectual himself. This, for example, is clearly shown by his writings on the literature of the period of the 1857 rebellion. He wrote in his article “Folk Songs on 1857” that folk-songs had been the traditional Indian method of approaching the masses. The organisers of the 1857 revolt made an effective use of these forms. Puppeteers, for example, widely spread the hatred against the British amongst their audience/spectators. The whole crop of folk songs on 1857 was far greater in number than on any other single national event.

P. C. Joshi mobilised a great many writers and artists prior to and in the course of the formation and growth of the PWA and IPTA. He was man of politics, yet greatly loved by the masters of so many and varied crafts including intellectuals, poets, writers, scientists, civil servants, journalists, lawyers and so on, not to talk of workers and peasants.

Perhaps, PCJ was next only to Mahatma Gandhi in getting people’s admiration, that too from such a wide spectrum. People like Sumitranandan Pant, Rahul Sankrityayan, Balraj Sahni, Yashpal, many others—a whole host of artistic, literary and academic circles admired him and were ready to listen to him and read him.

He gathered a galaxy of prominent writers, journalists, artists, economists, historians, film and stage personalities around the party organ National Front and later People’s War and People’s Age. Artists like Chittoprasad and photographers like Sunil Jana were supervised by him. The Party paper and literature under him became a model of political journalism and pictorial presentation unmatched in their times, and are a model even today. The literature of the Party and its organisations had great political and theoretical depth. They always hit the central and key points of the events.

Formation of IPTA

THE Indian people’s theatre and artistic movement was another form of the cultural renaissance of the Indian society.

The formation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1943 was a great event. It has left a lasting impression on the history of the cultural life of India.

THE IPTA was established in the grim background of the Great Indian Famine of 1943, which particularly affected Bengal. The creative people rose to the occasion and responded gallantly by mobilising all the creative forces of India and of Bengal.

The Party (CPI) had already begun to mobilise the great cultural potentials of the people in the country. The foundation conference of the IPTA coincided with the First Congress of the CPI (May 23 to June 1, 1943). The first CPI Congress was a great political event. But it was also a great cultural event, which is equally important. Cultural squads from various provinces, States and regions, and widely different cultural identities participated in the programmes and festivities throughout the period of the Party Congress.

Squads and artistes from Andhra, Bengal, Bihar, Kerala and many other places presented colourful programmes. There was not a dull moment during such a serious gathering. It reflected the Party’s close cultural links as well as richness of the country’s art and culture.

IPTA Conference

THE foundation Conference of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was held on May 25, 1943 in Marwari Vidyalaya, Bombay (now Mumbai).

The Conference was preceded by several preparatory events culminating in the IPTA—formation of the PWA (1936), foundation of the Youth Cultural Institute in Calcutta in 1940, creation of the People’s Theatre in Bangalore in 1941 by Anil de Silva, a lady of Ceylonese origin, formation of the Bombay IPTA in 1942 with herself (Anil de Silva) at the centre and other events.

The name People’s Theatre was suggested by the famous scientist, Homi Jehangir Bhabha. In fact, the name ultimately owes its origin to a book by Romain Rolland on the same theme.

The relief work carried out during the Bengal Famine was a great inspirational force. Several squads in Bengal and elsewhere in India were formed at that time. They not only created mass consciousness but also collected relief materials including money for those affected by the Famine. The noted composer Prem Dhawan, who later became famous in films, film actress Usha Dutt, singer Reba Roy, drum player Dashrath Lal and many others participated with considerable enthusiasm.

P. C. Joshi took the initiative to bring together various squads into one all-India organisation.

Prof Hiren Mukherjee presided over the IPTA Conference. Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Dr Rajendra Prasad and many others sent their greetings. Sarojini Naidu kept up her active interest in the IPTA in later years.

The first General Secretary of the IPTA was Anil de Silva, the Secretary of the Bombay IPTA. N. M. Joshi, the General Secretary of the AITUC, was elected the first President of the IPTA. Among some of the famous personalities in the executive and also as office-bearers were Benoy Roy, K.T. Chandy, Mama Varerkar, K. A. Abbas, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Dr Rashid Jehan, S.A. Dange, Shambhu Mitra, Bishnu Dey, Rajendra Raghuvanshi and others.

The report of the IPTA dealt in detail with various art forms, relating them to social composition and the changing nature of the classes and their balance and inter-relations. It was underlined that the submerged and oppressed masses were stirred by new hope, giving rise to new art and culture forms. The grim reality of fascist attacks on freedom and culture was emphasised. These attacks had led to authentic expressions of art and culture. Premchand and Tagore represented new trends. The IPTA sought to mobilise the progressive tendencies among writers and artists.

In the course of time, a great many outstanding figures worked to strengthen the PWA and IPTA, such as A. K. Hangal, Amar Sheikh, Anna Bhau Sathe, Narayan Surve, Amrit Lal Nagar, Dina Pathak, Salil Chowdhury, Nemi Chand Jain, Sudhi Pradhan, Shanti Vardhan, Ravi Shankar, Shailendra, Sahir Ludhianvi, Bhupen Hazarika, Anil Biswas, and numerous others.

Central Cultural Squad

ALONGWITH the IPTA, the Central Cultural Squad of the IPTA and CPI played a great historical role. It was established in the middle of 1944—under the general direction of Shanti Vardhan, an artist and a famous dancer. P. C. Joshi made particular note of the ballet form of dance and saw that it could be used as a mass form of propaganda and of raising mass consciousness. PCJ’s efforts to use various forms of mass culture made it possible for artistes and others to form new troupes. Popular cultural forms were fast coming up.

The Squad was at first stationed in Bombay in Andheri on the Perera Hill Road. Many important figures joined the squad or the troupe, such as Shanti Vardhan, Uday Shankar, Shachin Shamleon, Abani Dasgupta, Narendra Sharma, Ravi Shankar, etc. The number of artistes in the troupe rose to about 15, including Rekha Jain, Gangadharan Reddy, Nemi Chand Jain, Benoy Roy, Shanta Gandhi, Dina Pathak, etc.

Several dramas, ballets and other programmes were staged by the troupe all over the country, for example—‘Naval Revolt’, ‘Amar Bharat’, ‘Bharat ki Atma’ etc. Dance dramas like ‘Lambadi’, ‘Divine Musician’, ‘Ramlila’, ‘Holi’, ‘Collective Farm’, etc were staged and became very popular. Jyotirindra Moitra’s ‘Navajibaner Gan’, Dr Raja Rao’s ‘Burrakatha’ in Andhra, the Malabar dances, Magai Ojha’s and Amar Sheikh’s presentations became exceedingly popular.

The IPTA and the Central Squad provided a new direction to the Indian stage. Bijon Bhattacharya’s ‘Nabanna’, Shankar Vasireddy’s creations, Thoppil Bhasi’s ‘You Made Me A Communist’ and many others became household names. Names like Habib Tanvir, Balwant Gargi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Acharya Atre, Utpal Dutt, Sheela Bhatia, Tripti Mitra, Ritwik Ghatak, Damyanti Sahni, Balraj Sahni and others became famous all over the country, thanks to the IPTA, CPI, and to the special efforts of P.C. Joshi.

The IPTA and the squad/troupe reached the nooks and corners, the very heart of the rural interiors of India, where thousands and tens of thousands would gather to see and hear their favourite artistes and programmes. The organisation became a mobilising centre for young boys and girls with artistic and literary inclinations, and produced trained artistes and writers on a large scale.

P. C. Joshi himself stated, in the CPI’s Appeal for Election Funds in 1946, that the writers and the artistes had been actively helping the party. Addressing the artistes and the intellectuals, he said that though great poets like Vallathol, Josh Malihabadi, Sumitranandan Pant, Nirala, novelist Tarashankar Bannerjee and literary figures like Manik Bannerjee did not agree with the party on all the points, they proudly told the people that they were friends and well-wishers of the Communist Party.

In the words of PCJ,
The great teacher of Bengali stage Manoranjan Bhattacharya, and well-known cine personalities like K. L. Sehgal, Motilal, Jasraj, K. N. Singh and Pankaj Mallick had highly appreciated the cultural work of our party, and had contributed to the party fund on several occasions.

Our party has actively helped the progressive writers’ and Indian people’s theatre movements. Whatever the political differences, every person in this country appreciates these movements.

The Communist Party stood for true patriotism, morality and democracy and nationalism in this country. He said the party wanted to develop a new culture on the basis of workers and peasants.

We know that our intellectual friends have helped the party in the most difficult of times.

The fortress of imperialism can be taken over only if all the parties of the country come together. Only then would our dear India achieve independence. Only then would our culture flower in full bloom.

He ardently appealed, therefore, to the intellectual friends of the party to help it and to contribute in its work in every way.

Films by IPTA

THE IPTA also produced feature films. Dharti Ke Lal, made by the IPTA, was one of the outstanding films of India. In the words of Mulk Raj Anand, the epic quality of Dharti Ke Lal could be compared with Grapes of Wrath and the Good Earth. It presented the story of a few families in a small village of Bengal during the Great Famine. The music was composed by Ravi Shankar.
Some other films were also made.

The PWA and IPTA subsequently held several important conferences and cultural-political activities, mainly at the inspiration and even direction of P. C. Joshi. These activities left an everlasting impression on Indian history, culture and art and literature. This turned out to be a new renaissance, and its author undoubtedly was PCJ.

P.C. Joshi brought the PWA and IPTA to the centre of Indian art and culture. He also developed the Communists as the motive force of this renaissance. This resurgence lost its force after PCJ’s exit from the Party leadership.

A lot remains to be done to revive and carry forward this cultural legacy. We have to take guidance and cues from PCJ to continue the process.

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