Lifestyle Books and Art 03 Nov 2019 How orators pioneere ...

How orators pioneered women’s rights, Indian freedom movement

Published Nov 3, 2019, 2:03 am IST
Updated Nov 3, 2019, 2:03 am IST
A leader is one who communicates with the masses through speech.
The microphone men: How Orators Created a Modern India by Priyadarshi Dutta Indus Source Books, Rs 799
 The microphone men: How Orators Created a Modern India by Priyadarshi Dutta Indus Source Books, Rs 799

On December 15, 1829, Raja Rammohun Roy and Dwarkanath Tagore, friends and pioneers, addressed a public meeting in the Town Hall of Calcutta (now Kolkata). They spoke favourably of the contract farming of indigo (blue dye) that had been introduced in Bengal. History proved their estimations wrong, as coercive plantation of indigo became a menace in the long run. But that did not falsify the importance of their advocacy. Their real message was in the medium— public speaking. Theirs were apparently the first speeches on a public question delivered by any Indian. Soon public speaking or oratory emerged as a tool of mass communication. Though Roy’s early death prevented him from pursuing the medium, Dwarkanath revelled in it in several public meetings.

Speechmaking is essentially training in thinking rather than in speaking. Roy pioneered analytical thinking on contemporary questions. He pondered upon judicial and revenue issues, freedom of press, rights of women and settlement of Europeans in India. He combined these with his thoughts on religious and social reforms. He expressed his ideas mostly in the form of essays, thereby becoming the precursor of prose writing in India. Oratory is critically dependent on the growth of prose. Roy thus prepared India for the great era of public speaking. He led India into a new time zone where thinkers lived in the present rather than in eternity.


Public speaking, seen in universal perspective, arrived late in India. There was a time lag of two thousand years between the first documented speech in the West (Greece) and that in India...

The rise of speechmaking in nineteenth century India was a sort of revolution. It transformed her national life, giving it a modern outlook… The matrix of power in the ancient or medieval times did not allow persuasion. There was no concept of shaping a collective future. Force, rather than reasoning, was the instrument of change.

Quite a few scholars have stated that India had a tradition of debate and arguments. They have attributed the modern democratic discourse in India to that ancient tradition. But there is a serious lacuna in this line of thinking. The polemic in ancient India was centred on metaphysics not politics. It is interesting to see king Menander (Milinda), hailing from the highly politically conscious race of the Greeks, discussing only spirituality with the senior Buddhist monk, Nagasena in Milinda Pahno (Questions of King Milinda). It would be an overstatement to assert that political debates in nineteenth and twentieth century India were an offshoot of the tradition of philosophical debates in ancient India…


The Bengalis pioneered speechmaking in India. They seemed to have emulated the meetings of the British nationals in India. But there the comparison ceases.

The ideas they considered were quite original. The object was to represent the people’s grievances to the government. The compiler of the Indian Year Book, 1862, says public meetings might have always existed in India in one form or the other. The village communities gathered below the venerable tamarind or banyan tree to discuss local questions. In the cities, members of a caste or guild would assemble in the house of one of its principal representatives to deliberate upon issues connected with their immediate interests. But the new thing was to consider the national affairs...


The ascent of the power of the spoken word during the first century of printing in India might surprise us. Such a paradoxical phenomenon was noticeable even in Victorian Britain. How did the spoken word become so influential when printed works were making headway in India? One argument could be that the bulk of the Indian population was still illiterate. They were more receptive to spoken words than written text. But such a hypothesis is not without its drawbacks.

During the nineteenth century it was a literate audience that was enamoured with the spoken word. It was only after 1920, when Gandhi took the message to the masses, that the audience profile changed... It will perhaps be better to see press and public speaking as complimentary strands of opinion-making.


But spoken words always enjoyed a peculiar advantage vis-a-vis print regardless of the audience’s literacy profile.

Leadership is something that only spoken words can forge. A leader is one who communicates with the masses through speech. He or she takes responsibility for his or her words there and then. Otherwise the person is just an intellectual or writer, dealing with loads of information and theories.

Speechmaking had skeptics even during its heyday. Some of them were votaries of violence and found supplication before the British demeaning. Speeches were mostly petitioning by talk in those days. And there were others who felt speechmaking alone could not achieve anything. The heroes of the platform could be fake…


In Gandhi, we encounter a new approach towards speechmaking. It became only an aid, not the foundation of his political programme. His mainstay was Satyagraha or civil disobedience — wilfully breaking the law to go to prison for a just cause. Previously, the audiences in meetings were mere spectators. Gandhi gave them a sort of god’s work through Charkha, the spinning wheel. He made them into recruits of movement. The crowd was never as orderly or saintly as he had wanted. Thus, violence, which Gandhi clinically eschewed, could not be always avoided. But nonetheless he brought the teeming multitudes of India onto the foreground of history.


Excerpted from Dutta’s The Microphone Men