Patronage of Publics

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

-Pratyoush Onta

The end of Rana rule in 1951 was an important rupture in the history of public life in Nepal. In an important essay first published in 1970, the scholar of literature and history Kamal P Malla characterised the 1950s in the following manner: “The post-1950 decade in Nepal is characterised, in the first place, by a sense of release and emancipation of the intellect from a century-old political and priestly yoke, and in the second place, by an unprecedented expansion of intellectual and cultural opportunities. The decade can aptly be called a decade of extroversion. For it was a decade of explosion of all manner of ideas, activities and organised efforts.”

The political and civil freedoms that became available to Nepali citizens after the end of Rana-rule allowed for the possibility of many experiments. These experiments included various efforts related to the public cultivation of intellectual life in Nepal. It is interesting to note that some of these efforts in post-Rana Nepal received patronage from leading members of the erstwhile Rana oligarchy, infamous for its repression of any efforts related to intellectual life. It is the aim of this essay to provide a straightforward description of three such organised experiments.

The Madan Puraskar Guthi

The most well-known example of such Rana patronage is perhaps the Madan Puraskar Guthi which was registered in Lalitpur in December 1955. The Guthi had been endowed by a gift of three lakh Indian rupees from Rani Jagadamba, the widow of late Madan SJB Rana, son of Rana premier Chandra Shumsher who had ruled Nepal from 1901 to 1929. The endowment is currently Rs 35 lakhs. Its primary initial mission was to annually honour books written in the Nepali language in four different disciplines and genres: gadhya sahitya (prose), padhya sahitya (poetry), darshan or samajik sastra (philosophy or social science) and bigyan (science). This mission had been identified by the late father-son duo of Kedarmani Acharya Dixit and Kamal Dixit, who were both in the service of Rani Jagadamba.

Interest income earned from the endowment was used to award a cash prize to writers who had been deemed by a selection committee to have produced the best books in these disciplines/genres in any given calendar year, according to the Bikram Era. Starting from the mid-1970s, the Guthi decided to honour just one book in the Nepali language each year, irrespective of genre. From the late 1980s, the Guthi has also been awarding a ‘Jagadamba-Shree’ award to individuals or institutions deemed to have made “commendable contributions to the progress of the Nepali language”. About four years after its founding, the Guthi started publishing its quarterly magazine Nepali. The first 225 issues were edited by the late junior Dixit, and I discussed its archival corpus briefly in an article published in these pages earlier (December 30, 2017). These works by the Guthi embodied a non-Rana initiated public action supported by Rana wealth.

Nepal Sanskritik Sangh

The second example described here actually predates the Madan Puraskar Guthi. The Nepal Sanskritik Sangh was founded just days before Rana rule came to an end in February 1951. Shailendra Nath Rimal and a group of young Nepalis, most of whom were from the greater Dillibazaar area in Kathmandu, were the actors behind this founding.

The Sangh’s remit was to promote Nepali culture through a variety of activities. Running a library, organising sports tournaments and publishing were some of the early works done by this organisation. Incidentally, its early publication Bhimsen Thapa and Tatkalin Nepal, written by Chittaranjan Nepali, won the first Madan Puraskar Award for the best book published in the social sciences/philosophy for the year 2013 BS. The Sangh was supported financially by donations of land and cash from at least three sons of Chandra Shumsher: Babar Shumsher and Kaiser Shumsher initially and later from their eldest brother, Mohan Shumsher. The Sangh has its own building in Kalikasthan, Dillibazaar with a bust of Mahakavi Laxmi Prasad Devkota in front and an auditorium inside that is used for lectures and discussions. In later years, it has also hosted musical performances and debate competitions. The organisation is still alive today, but it has seen better days.

In 1958, the Sangh published the first issue of its own magazine, Sanskriti, under the editorship of Gehendradev Pathak. Since this issue contains a request to writers to send articles in Nepali or English related to different themes of ‘Nepali sanskriti’ we can assume that the mother organisation intended Sanskriti to be a regular periodical. However, as far as I can tell, only one issue was published. In later years, the Sangh did occasionally publish a souvenir under the same title but souvenirs are event-related publications and not regular periodicals. I suppose two factors were important in the non-continuation of Sanskriti as a periodical: the Sangh’s event- and performance-centred cultivation of literary and cultural publics in Nepal, and the absence of an editor with the kind of commitment shown by Kamal Dixit to editing Nepali.

Nepal Sanskritik Parishad

The third organisation I want to discuss here is the Nepal Sanskritik Parishad which was established in late 1951. Its founders were some of the most influential Nepali writers, researchers and politicians at that time and its main objective was “the overall development of Nepali culture and to do research on ancient past subjects.” Towards that aim, it planned for five primary departments—literature, music, art, culture and languages and dialects—each to be staffed with five scholars selected on the recommendation of subject-experts. Although history was not declared a separate department, one would have to assume that the founders of the Parishad thought of it as a, to use today’s development jargon, ‘cross-cutting’ theme present in all of the above-mentioned five departments, through which it also planned to execute research in those subjects.

The constitution of the Parishad also made provisions for a publication department to publish original writings and translations and journals as necessary. It further planned for a library for the use of its members, who could be individuals or organisations with focus similar to those of the Parishad. Its general meeting would be held annually and it would elect a 15-person executive committee with five office-holders: chair, vice-chair, secretary, assistant secretary and treasurer. The first 15-person executive committee was headed by the politician BP Koirala as chair. Writer Balkrishna Sama was the vice-chair and Kaiser SJB Rana was the treasurer, who also financed the Parishad’s publications and other activities. The Parishad intended to provide fellowships to scholars and also award prizes for original writings in the languages of Nepal. During the 1950s, the Parishad became a platform for some research support and publications. For instance, it supported the critical editing of unpublished manuscripts by historians associated with the Samsodhan Mandal and published a few of them as books.

Just as in the case of the other organisations, the Parishad decided to publish a periodical under the editorship of the late Isvar Baral (whose official name was LS Baral). The first issue of the Parishad’s journal, Nepal Sanskritik Parishad Patrika, was published in April 1952. In the editorial published therein, Baral wrote that only cultural consciousness could make the social change brought about by the political change (namely, end of Rana rule) a robust one. He added: “Now that Nepal was freshly awakened, we have to do a lot of research.” He went on to discuss why research in the areas of history, linguistics, archaeology, Buddhism and many other themes were necessary and how historical artefacts—both documentary and material ones—needed to be preserved in Nepal to realise such work. Baral thought of the Parishad as the Nepali equivalent of research centres in India and various royal societies of Great Britain. Only four separate issues (the last being the joint issue no 4/5) of the Patrika were published. When editor Baral decided to take up a teaching job in India in late 1956, the Parishad’s activities declined. Hence although the Parishad showed much promise initially, its organised activities decreased after 1956 and stopped in 1964 when Kaiser SJB Rana died.

These three experiments in the public cultivation of intellectual life in Nepal, initiated during the 1950s, were definitely financed with ‘feudal’ money dispensed by various Rana patrons. And that is not surprising, given the infancy of both the post-Rana state and the foreign aid industry in Nepal during the 1950s. These and other similar experiments deserve substantial attention from social and intellectual historians who are interested in documenting and analysing the social lives of associations in 20th century Nepal.


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