I made a personal act of pilgrimage in Lahore this week - to the Bradlaugh Hall. This magnificent but sadly dilapidated building is where Freda Bedi - the English woman turned Indian nationalist whose biography I have written - first addressed a political meeting in her adopted home of Punjab.
It was the mid-1930s, and Freda was convinced by her Punjabi communist husband, Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, to address a student rally at Bradlaugh Hall.
'B.P.L. said oh, you know, they want you to talk - it's nothing, you just talk as you talk at a debating society at Oxford. And when I got there I was petrified to find that there were 24,000 people waiting, and this crowd of 24,000 had a very definite opinion about what it should listen to and what it shouldn't. And if it didn't like the speaker it would start beating the ground with sticks and the soles of the feet and making a noise so the speaker would have to go down.
'Anyway, I decided that the reason they didn't like a number of speakers was that they couldn't hear them and the best thing would be to speak pretty loudly. ... So I stood on the platform like a martyr awaiting execution and I suddenly began speaking ... in a very loud voice, and I can still feel the shock that went through the whole 24,000 heads when this slight western-looking person suddenly bellowed into the microphone, must have been out of sheer fright. And that established me as a speaker. I found I could go on speaking and not be drummed out of existence by the sticks and the feet.'
The 24,000 number is not to be taken too literally - but creeping inside the rotting hulk of the building, a rather perilous venture, you get a sense of the scale of the nationalist rallies so often held here. When Freda and other wartime political prisoners were released from jail in Lahore in 1941, Bradlaugh Hall was the venue for the Congress rally to mark their liberation.
It was a stormy and overcast day when I visited the hall - you can get an idea of how it looks when the sun shines from this photo, one of a series, which accompanied an excellent article in the Dawn newspaper a few years ago:
The hall has a fascinating, if somewhat opaque, history. It is very central - just off Rattigan Road and a few minutes' stroll from Government College where B.P.L. Bedi was once a student. And it's named after an English politician, Charles Bradlaugh (I once made a radio documentary about him - you can hear it here). He was a republican and atheist MP on the ultra-radical wing of Victorian liberalism who was famously detained overnight in the Houses of Parliament as part of a tumultuous struggle he staged to be allowed to affirm - rather than take a religious oath - when taking his seat in the Commons.
Bradlaugh took on the informal title when a Parliamentarian in the 1880s of the 'Member for India'. And he was one of the very few British MPs of his day to make the trip out to the biggest and most valued part of the Empire.
In December 1889, Bradlaugh sailed to Bombay to give the opening address at the annual gathering of the Indian National Congress. Yes, that's the same Congress - in institutional terms at least - as the political party which dominated politics once India gained independence, until the recent rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP that is.
Bradlaugh was by then very unwell, in part because of his ceaseless campaigning. Part of the purpose of the trip to India was the supposedly restorative sea passage. He spent not more than two weeks in India and health concerns meant that he wasn't able to fulfil his ambition to travel around the country. And it's clear - in spite of what some local historical sources say - that Bradlaugh never made it to Lahore.
Four years later, in 1893, the annual session of Congress was held in Lahore - and was presided over by Dadabhai Naoroji, who was also a member of the House of Commons (the Liberal MP for Finsbury Central). That seems to be when fundraising started to construct a hall in Lahore not under the direct control of the colonial authorities and so able to be used for nationalist gatherings.
The inaugural stone was laid in 1900 - nine years after Bradlaugh's death - by a prominent nationalist Surendranath Banerjee. Once completed, it became associated with Lala Lajpat Rai, who established the National College in the hall buildings. Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary regarded as perhaps India's foremost martyr of the struggle for independence, attended this college and almost certainly spoke here.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah are among many prominent political figures said to have addressed their followers at the Bradlaugh Hall. It was perhaps the foremost venue in Lahore for nationalist meetings during the first half of the twentieth century.
The hall is slightly hidden away and not fully visible from the main road. That perhaps explains its survival more-or-less in tact - though some extensions were added when the building was, apparently, used as a steel mill after independence.
Although it's supposed to be sealed off, with the help of local historian Faizan Naqvi, I was able to get inside the cavernous hall, which was both awe-inspiring and, given the poor upkeep, deeply depressing.
A detailed study of Bradlaugh Hall - posted below - describes it as 'a gem among all the colonial period building of Lahore' and points to the window design in particular as a remarkable amalgamation of western and local styles. The architecture is certainly, well, non-standard - but its importance lies in the use to which it was put rather than the integrity of its design.
The building is certainly imposing, and given its centrality to the nationalist movement in what was then the capital of undivided Punjab, I do hope it has a secure future.
At the moment, the structure seems broadly sound, but many of the remarkable wooden window fittings are crumbling and the roof is peppered with holes. It was a rainy day when I visited, and floor of the hall - happily constructed of brick - was an array of puddles.
The building is under the control of a curious hangover from the Partition era, the Evacuee Trust Properties Board. After the steel mill closed, the building was apparently used as a school - and although it is said to have been empty for the past fifteen years, my ramble round the interior revealed educational posters of a fairly recent vintage and even a blackboard with some maths sums still clearly legible.
There is now a Save Bradlaugh Hall campaign which deserves support - though there's work to be done to develop clear plans for any future use of the hall and the source of funds to repair and adapt the structure.
But such a magnificent and historic meeting place - a location so redolent of the nationalist movement in Lahore - surely deserves a generous measure of tender loving care ... and cash.
LATER: a piece based on this blog was broadcast on the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent on 27 February 2020. Here's the audio:
It's taken four years of work - but at last my biography of Freda Bedi is out. The Lives of Freda: the political, spiritual and personal journeys of Freda Bedi was launched at the Oxford Bookstore in Calcutta over the weekend. Jawhar Sarcar, a former head of India's public broadcasting corporation, presided - and Ami Bedi, Freda's granddaughter, also spoke..
Who was Freda Bedi? An English woman who made her life in India - the first Oxford woman undergraduate to marry an Indian fellow student, that was in 1933, and who was jailed in Lahore during the Second World War for championing India's national cause over that of her mother country. She later was an active Kashmiri nationalist, a Tibetan Buddhist - and towards the end of her life she became a Buddhist nun.
You can find out more about Freda Bedi and my biography here and I've posted below a reading from the introduction to the book -
There are lots of ways to get the book - which is also available on kindle ... and if you order direct from the publishers, Speaking Tiger, then if you are in India you get a discount and there's no delivery charge. What about that!
The contributors are a roll-call of the most distinguished British academics on India and on international relations and the most renowned of India's coming generation of professors and public intellectuals. The style of the articles is bookish and the volumes didn't generate a huge amount of interest - but this was a new, more assertive style of Indian nationalism assembling its intellectual armoury.
This set (there was supposed to be a fourth volume on constitutional issues, but it never appeared) were part of the publishers' archive. A pity that has been dispersed - but a joy to have these volumes, and in excellent condition.
And the editors? They were both in their early twenties when these volumes appeared and Freda Bedi - whose biography I have written (out very soon!) - had not set foot on Indian soil, though she was to do so in the autumn of 1934 and it was her home for the remainder of her life.
Once settled in Lahore, the Bedis embarked on another venture much in the style of India Analysed, a heavyweight nationalist quarterly, Contemporary India. What a precocious couple they were!
For three years in the mid-1930s, B.P.L. Bedi and his English wife, Freda Bedi, published in Lahore a really excellent leftist and nationalist quarterly. It was called Contemporary India and ran for ten issues, the last a double issue - there's a complete set at the British Library (though the catalogue entry is none too great - it's at P.P.3779hc) and an almost complete run at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
It was a substantial publication - each issue ran to 160 or more pages. 'Netaji' Subhas Chandra Bose was among the contributors. The articles were mainly about Indian politics and economic themes but also extended to Indian folk song and theatre, the caste system, issues relating to gender and such topics as Hitler's rise in Germany, Stalin's grip on the Soviet Union, the Middle East, South Africa, the Bahai religion and much more. It was nationalist - and internationalist. And it is virtually unknown.
At the end of this blog I've posted all the journal's covers to give an idea of the range of content, and also the complete text of Bose's article, which was entitled 'India Abroad'.
B.P.L. Bedi said that the idea for the quarterly came from Werner Sombart, his doctoral supervisor in Berlin and one of Germany's leading social scientists. Sombart lamented that India had no quarterly magazine of intellectual calibre. 'That very day I came back home', B.P.L. recalled, 'discussed the situation with Freda and decided that we must have a quarterly magazine immediately on our return'.
Contemporary India published an extract from Sombart's deeply controversial 1934 volume, Deutscher Sozialismus, which some regarded as advocating a form of German 'national' socialism which offered some intellectual solace to the Nazis.
The intellectual partnership between B.P.L. and Freda had begun earlier, when they were fellow students at Oxford University. They fell in love, and a fruit of their personal and political alliance was a series of three volumes they edited for Gollancz with the title India Analysed.
They became engaged early in 1933 - below is their formal engagement photograph - and married at Oxford Registry Office a few months later, as soon as they had finished their final degree exams. Freda Houlston was from a middle -class family in the English Midlands. She lived a remarkable life, was jailed in Lahore by the British during the Second World War for opposing the war effort, and later became a Tibetan Buddhist nun. I'm writing her biography - it will be published soon .
The Bedis - after a sojourn in Berlin interrupted by the menace surrounding Hitler's increasing political authority - arrived in Lahore in the autumn of 1934. Contemporary India started publication within a matter of months. B.P.L. was listed as the editor and Freda as the managing editor, and they assembled an impressive list of Indian academics as contributing editors.
In politics, the quarterly both championed Bose and the radical wing of Congress, and promoted the interests of the Congress Socialist Party, in which both communists (the CPI was banned at this time) and Congress leftists gathered.
Contemporary India also published some poetry - including this piece by a youthful Balraj Sahni, later a key figure in Indian cinema:
And the journal also published a folk song translated by Nora Richards, the founder of Andretta and a champion of traditional Punjabi theatre and performance:
Freda Bedi told a friend at the close of 1936 that the quarterly was 'self-supporting. and growing every day'. But that was putting a very positive gloss on a precarious situation. The journal was short of revenue and also had to deal with official obstruction and disapproval. And the Bedis' attention moved to another venture, a much more populist political Lahore-based weekly Monday Morning, which achieved both sales and impact but has disappeared completely beneath the waves (if anyone has a copy of knows where there are any, please let me know).
A double issue published towards the close of 1937 was, it seems, Contemporary India's last. This was the only issue to contain plates - to accompany an article by Tandra Devi (aka Mrs Maud Foulds aka the violinist Maud MacCarthy) on puppet and traditional theatre.
The quarterly was a brave and important initiative and deserves the attention of historians of Indian nationalism and leftism.
UPDATED in October 2018 with the discovery in the British Library of the tenth and apparently final issue of Contemporary India.
Contemporary India: covers of all ten issues
So pleased to have come across a marvellous photo taken in Srinagar in the spring of 1948 - this image is a detail from it - of Kashmir's National Militia and its women's wing mustering to be inspected by India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The European woman in the middle of the throng is the remarkable Freda Bedi - about whom I have blogged before. She was born Freda Houlston, went out to India with her Sikh husband and became an active nationalist and communist and later a senior Buddhist woman religious.
I've had a firm identification from two women involved in the Women's Self Defence Corps - and what a marker of the times, they both responded on Facebook after I shared the photo.
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