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Paper trail: How the world’s first Armenian journal emerged in Madras in 1794

On Madras Day, retracing the origins of ‘Azdarar’ and the merchant community that supported it.

Under the shade of frangipani trees in the quiet garden of Chennai’s 245-year-old Armenian Church is a grave decorated with an open book. Engraved on the book in block letters is the word “Azdarar”, which means “The Intelligencer” in Armenian. This was the first Armenian journal in the world, published in Madras in the year 1794, when the merchant community from the mountainous, Eurasian country was thriving in the city.

The grave belongs to Reverend Haruthium Shmavonian (1750-1824), who was the editor and founder of Azdarar, hailed as the Father of Armenian Journalism. Shmavonian was born in Shiraz, a cultural hub in Iran. After the sudden death of his two sons, Shmavonian moved away from the crowded city to study Persian, which he ultimately mastered. His later voyages led him to settle down as a priest in Old Madras, where he eventually began the journal Azdarar on October 28, 1794 publishing business and world news in Armenian for the settlers in Madras.

The journal lasted only for 18 months, for reasons unknown. “The journal, sad to say, did not last long – and the few attempts to revive it also failed,” wrote city historian and chronicler S Muthiah in his book Tales of Old and New Madras.

Little is known about this Armenian journal today. While much has been written about the elegant architecture and the famous bell tower of the Armenian Church in city newspapers, the journal usually receives only a passing mention.

Old ties

The Armenian connection with Madras dates back to the 1600s, when merchants arrived by sea to trade in jute and silk, spices and precious stones. The first traces of Armenian settlements in India can be found in Surat in the 13th Century, where Armenians settled after fleeing from the persecution of the Islamic Caliphate in Persia and the Armenian Highlands. The community soon spread its network and settled in the port cities of Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon and Madras.

Armenian Street in northern Chennai still serves as a reminder of the city’s links with the Eurasian country. The bustling street, which is now lined with street vendors and tea shops, also houses the remnants of an era long past. The Armenian Church, where the grave of Shmavonian lies, was once the focus of the city’s Armenians – not only for religious gatherings but also as a storehouse and library for a large collection of books for the local community. According to one study on Armenian print culture, a merchant prince named Shahamir Shahamirian, established the first Armenian printing press in India in the city of Madras in 1772 in India. This press also published a number of important works of Armenian political thought and modern constitutional thinking around 1787, including The Snare of Glory by Shahamirian – the first republican-inspired proto-constitution of the future state of Armenia.

But these books dwindled in numbers along with the community. After the city’s last Armenian moved to Bengaluru around 2007, there were no more descendants of the original settlers in Chennai. But even today, the Republic of Armenia acknowledges its strong ties with India, and Madras in particular, as it prepare to build a monument in front of the Victory War Memorial in Chennai to mark 25 years of diplomacy with India.

“The Armenians of Madras were famous for their printing press and charitable work,” the Consul General of the Republic of Armenia, Shivkumar Eashwaran, told The Times of India. “They even set up an Armenian newspaper Azdarar, which they printed and distributed in the city.”

Reverend Haruthium Shmavonian's grave. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan
Reverend Haruthium Shmavonian's grave. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Pioneer journal

“What would the history of Armenian journalism be without the world’s first Armenian newspaper Azdarar, published for two consecutive years by Haruthiun Shmavonian in Madras from 1794 to 1796?” asks historian and Armenian studies scholar Sebouh Aslanian.

Reverend Haruthiun Shmavonian was “the last of the great Madras-Armenians,” according to S Muthiah. The first Armenian leader was the magnetic Kojah Petrus Woskan, who was responsible for the strong relationship the community had with the British. Woskan was also known for building the first bridge across the Adyar river and the flight of 160 steps up the St Thomas Mount.

Shmavonian’s Azdarar however, had an impact not only on the local community but across the world. The periodical was considered to be one of the origins of Armenian nationalism. “It was the first attempt to speak for the community which was scattered across many port cities,” said Hari Vasudevan, Professor Emeritus of Calcutta University. The centenary jubilee of the the founding of the journal was celebrated in 1894, by Armenian journalists in Venice, Vienna, Marseilles, Constantinople and many other cities.

According to Aslanian, Azdarar contained novel features for the 18th century Armenian readers. Since the Armenian community were primarily traders, several pages in each issue were devoted to making commercial information publicly available – such as the timetables of commercial shipping traffic in the Madras port, the price lists of various commodities traded in local markets and advertisements of goods for sale.

Shmavonian himself apparently noted in his first editorial that his main aim was to “provide useful news to Madras’s then fledgling community and especially to its business leaders.” But Azdarar had a wide variety of articles. Besides business news, each issue also contained social and political news about various Armenian communities across India, said Aslanian. The periodical also had sections that would recap news from Europe, which was excerpted and translated from English language newspapers in India and Europe.

The publishing of the Armenian journal on a regular basis was quite an unusual phenomenon, said Hari Vasudevan. “The publishing of a non-English, non-European periodical was not something very common,” he said. “This notion of producing for a reading public was not known in Iran and East Turkey at that time. It was usually only almanacs that were distributed, concerning details of the position of stars and auspicious dates of the month.”

Scholars suspect that the British newspapers and periodicals circulated were an important influence on Armenian print culture. Since the British were their competitors in trade, the Armenians needed to keep their community up to speed with the latest trade developments. “Many of these innovative features were creative adaptations from English-language newspapers that had just begun to appear in India, including the idea of presenting information pertinent to the business community in a public forum,” wrote Aslanian.

The Armenian merchants were regular travellers, and culturally united by the churches they built and their Christian practice. But the Azdarar is regarded as one of the first non-religious attempts to bring the community together. Today, in a Madras church that lies 4,000 kilometres away from their homeland, the inscription on a grave is testament to the first voice of the Armenians.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.