IT is impossible to even begin to address this ‘Idea’ of Seminar without remembering Raj and Romesh. Not simply because the idea of Seminar owes its origin to them, or on account of their establishing this journal, but because in a very real sense Seminar, in its essentials, has remained within the foundations laid by them. They built a super structure, gave Seminar an identity, but more importantly an ethos that was near unique.
Both Raj and Romesh were metropolitan-urban with left leanings and an essential, indeed irreplaceable element of the intellectual high society of Delhi. I was much younger than them, new to Delhi and its incestuous ways, entirely rural in birth as in upbringing, not at all left in opinion, and looked curiously not so much upon the social milieu of the then Delhi, or its pretension – as with all capitals that they are the country – as at its intellectual engagements. That was the backdrop. In any event, well before my intrusion into Delhi, Seminar had fascinated me. Its circulation in mofussil India was virtually non-existent. It had a presence in some of the army reading rooms but only just. Whenever, therefore, I chanced upon this magazine of enquiry, I poured through it avidly.
Long years ago, it seems now, upon some issue or the other I wrote a letter to the Editor of Seminar. I did quite a good deal of letter writing then, being in uniform. Of course, such missives were never acknowledged and seldom published. Romesh startled me by writing a polite letter back to say that this was not ordinarily what they did, but he would, nevertheless, carry my letter in the communication section. That is really how my friendship with Raj and Romesh began. That friendship was an intellectual adventure for the three of us; Seminar was only an occasional vehicle upon which we loaded the overflow of our conversations. For that, in another sense, lay at the root of Seminar – conversation, now alas a lost art. What else, after all, is a seminar all about if not with civility, carrying a conversation through an issue.
The original character of Seminar as established by the Raj and Romesh team was iconoclastic. It was an enquiry into the ferment of our times – remember, we are now talking of decades that seem for ever away. Those were the decades that attempted a rediscovery of India – post the early euphoria of Independence. The challenge of such a venture lay both in the mode adopted, which was unique: one subject at a time, thrown open for enquiry; as in the method: comments by a wide variety of men and women published as a seminar of ideas.
That is how Seminar, in consequence, became a colloquium of ideas, not through the spoken word but rather through the discipline of the written. There was no editorial negotiation on what you thought or said. There was but one expectation, that voice be given to views through the written word, and that this examination of ideas be from diverse angles, through as wide a lens as possible.
It is truly remarkable that this journal of intellectual inquiry survived. Principally, I now know in retrospect, because of the approach that Raj and Romesh brought to the venture; also, with it, of course, the persistence with which they pursued it; the primacy of the written word in intellectual inquiry that they affirmed in the process, and, the vast array of contributors that they could invite, not so much as remote or stand-apart authors, but as participants in this exciting adventure of an inquiry into the great issues of the day. Admittedly, one of the major contributory factors was also the fact that this was well before the advent of the Indian television age. The written word continued to have great authority then, as I presume it still does, though in a considerably devalued and diminished form.
The founder editors of Seminar had their own political philosophy. But it was not fixed; it could not have been. Primarily because they were intellectually honest. They could not have been otherwise and yet make Seminar work. They observed politics, even played it on the fringes as late Indira Gandhi’s friends (also one time confidants), but did not permit political participation cripple thought. Their views evolved, with time, even I believe as Seminar evolved through the spread of the topics covered in its pages, and by the intellectual churnings of the diverse contributors.
As the issues clashed, the founder editors evolved and so did Seminar. This was the measure of the founder editors’ dimension, of their intellectual honesty; also their ability to grow with their authors, with the times, shaped by the experience of the issues. Seminar was not all about politics. It couldn’t be. It engaged with many social and economic issues. But the dominant underpinning remained political because, just as now so then, in this stage of our evolution as a state, politics has dominated all aspects of our national endeavour.
Both Raj and Romesh left their stewardship of Seminar almost simultaneously. The challenge that confronted the second generation editors and managers lay, firstly, in not being overwhelmed by the dominating shadow of the founders, to permit Seminar to evolve as a vehicle, but still of ideas, yet much more resonant of the altered idiom of inquiry and of the concerns of today’s India. In this they have succeeded entirely.
The last forty years have after all seen a remarkable transformation, in the world as within our country. The velocity of change has, at times, been terrifying. Leave alone predicting or forecasting the dimensions or contents of the coming challenges, commentators have scarcely been able to keep up. From a period when the written word dominated India, we have arrived belatedly, yet not fully even now and somewhat hesitantly to the outer edges of this age of informatics. The sheer volume of information that is now available to a student or a scholar, instantaneously, is overwhelming. Also in this age of consumer electronics and the dominance of instant television news, even newspapers are late; weeklies or fortnightlies already history.
It is not a paradox that they thrive, but for one reason alone. Television informs about events: such journals (even newspapers) then tell their readers of what actually to make of these events. Filling the gap between information and education, they tell the reader what to think. This is not dissimilar to instant foods. But informed analysis and an attempt to understand the current of events (also the undercurrents), an examination of the unaddressed remains, at least uptil now in India, the preserve of the written word. In this age of informatics, a traversing of this path from information to examination to analysis remains woefully inadequate. And that is what Seminar continues to attempt; Seminar and a few other journals of this genre stand apart. May they prosper and their tribe increase.
As one of the early subscribers to Seminar my great good wishes to its second generation editors, of strength to their pen, of objectivity and sharpness to their and their authors’ intellect. All good luck thus to Seminar in the coming decades.