An Early Communist – Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta, 1913–1929

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An Early Communist
Suchetana Chattopadhyay

April 2012

ISBN:  978-81-89487-93-5
Rs 350

From an occasionally employed, lower middle-class Bengali Muslim intellectual on the borderline of starvation in the city, he was to become ‘the chief accused’ at the Meerut communist trials started by the colonial government in 1929. What was the road travelled before challenging imperialism ‘from the dock’? In 1913 Muzaffar Ahmad (1889–1973) was just one more individual adrift in the sea of migrants arriving from rural Bengal to Calcutta. His ambition was to be a writer. Yet in the vortex of metropolitan upheavals, his life would take a completely different turn. Taking Muzaffar Ahmad’s early career (1913–29) as its chronological frame, this book examines the dialectical interplay between social being and a wider social consciousness in late colonial Bengal which drew a section of Muslim intellectuals to communism.

Muzaffar’s life converged with a significant phase in the social and political history of India and the world: 1913 marked the eve of the First World War, while the Wall Street stockmarket crash set off the Great Depression in 1929.During this period, especially after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, socialist ideas and communist activism became politically familiar in different parts of the globe. In the post-First World War climate, many alienated urban intellectuals– from Cairo to Shanghai – stood at the crossroads of established identities and radical currents. Informed by working-class protests from below and a leftward turn in the literary/cultural fields, many in India were also moving away from the political routes open to those from their social background to combat colonialism and identifying with alternative visions of decolonization.

By tracing this process in the context of Calcutta through Muzaffar Ahmad’s transitions, the little investigated history of the left in Bengal prior to Meerut is unravelled, and is related to the convergences between individual radicalization and the emergence of a new political space in a colonial city. The connected histories of communism, port-cities, Bengal Muslims, workers, intellectuals, youth, migration, colonial intelligence, early left organization, radical prose, local/regional activism and internationalist currents are also probed in this context.

Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. She studied at Jadavpur University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and has published articles in South Asia Research and History Workshop Journal.

 “In her remarkable book … the historian Suchetana Chattopadhyay locates the social and political growth of Muzaffar Ahmad in the city, not just in the intellectual byways of College Street but also in the slums of the working class, the area in the centre of the city where many of the streets are now named for Muzaffar Ahmed and his comrades (such as Abdul Halim).”

– Vijay Prashad, Frontline, Aug.–Sept. 2011

Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency

Ashish Rajadhyaksha

April 2012

9.25 x 7.25 inches
xii+444 pages
ISBN:  978-81-89487-97-3
Rs 650

Nowhere has the cinema made more foundational a public interventin than in India, and yet the Indian cinema is consistently presented as a something of an exception to world film history.  What if, this book asks, film history was instead written from the Indian experience?  Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid reconstructs an era of film that saw an unprecedented public visibility attached to the moving image and to its social usage.  The cinema was not invented by celluloid, nor will it die with celluloid’s growing obsolescence.  But ‘celluloid’ names a distinct era in cinema’s career that coincides with a particular construct of the twentieth-century state.  This is not merely a coincidence:  the very raison d’etre of celluloid was derived from the use to which the modern state put it, as the authorized technology through which the state spoke and as a narrative practices endorsing its authority as producer of the rational subject.

Arguing that there was a ‘spectatorial pact’ around the attribution of state authority to the celluloid apparatus, Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid explores the circumstances under which social practices surrounding the celluloid experience also included political negotiations over its authority.  While modern states everywhere have put the cinema to varied and by now familiar uses, in India we had the politicization of key tenets associated with the apparatus itself.  Indian cinema throws significant new light on the uses to which canonical concepts such as realism could be put, and on the frontiers at which cinematic narrative could operate.

The book throws new light on a phenomenon that is arguably basic to all cinema, but which India’s cinematic evidence throws into sharpest relief:  the narrative simulation of a symbolically sanctified rationality at the behest of a state.  This evidence is explored through three key moments of serious crisis for the twentieth-century Indian state, in all of which the cinema appears to have played a central role.  Bollywood saw Indian cinema herald a globalized culture industry considerably larger than its own financial worth, and a major presence in India’s brief claim to financial superpower status.  The debate on Fire centrally located spectatorial negotiations around the constitutional right to freedom of speech at a key moment in modern Indian history when Article 19 was under attach from pro-Hindutva forces.  And the emergency (1975 – 77) saw a New Indian Cinema politically united against totalitarian rule but nevertheless rent asunder by disputes over realism, throwing up new questions around the formation of an epochal moment in independent India.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha is Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS), Bangalore and a critic and writer on cinema, art and culture.  He is author and editor (with Paul Willemen) of the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, and author of Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic.


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