The Indian branch of PEN was founded in Bombay by Sophia Wadia in 1934. Along with her husband Indian Theosophist B. P. Wadia, the branch was originally run from the couple’s home before being re-located to Theosophy Hall (pictured) in 1957.
Throughout its long-life the Centre concentrated on creating an intellectual community rather than taking a significant part in political events. However, “it helped endorse India’s claims for freedom via its literary and cultural programme” (Bird, 2017).
Committed to promoting understanding and unity across India, and between India and the rest of the world, its aims were expounded in the first issue of The Indian PEN (March 1934): the Centre was to act as a link between all members of the country and represent Indian writers abroad; chronicle activities of its members and help them become aware of literary achievements in all Indian languages; bring to its readers useful literary news from the world.
From 1945 onwards the Center organized the All-India Writers’ Conferences destined to be, in Sophia Wadia’s words, a “regular forum where Indian Writers Meet”. In an early manifestation of PEN’s commitment to the translation and circulation of regional literatures in the 1930s and 1940s All-India PEN published a series of books on India’s regional literatures in English.
This represented Madame Wadia and the wider club’s commitment to a cosmopolitan, pluralist sense of Indian identity. As well as offering a supportive community of writers, based in Bombay but with a significant membership across India, All-India PEN also offered practical support for writers and published a highly influential magazine, The Indian PEN.
Following Madame Wadia’s death in 1986, Nissim Ezekiel took over as editor of The Indian PEN and de facto leader of the Center, promoting literature, unity and communication through public events and readings, as well as informal gatherings in his office at Theosophy Hall.
In the first issue of the short-lived PENumbra magazine – a follow-up of The Indian PEN that ceased publication in the 1990s – the poet Ranjit Hoskote and current secretary of the All-India PEN Centre writes: “We have taken, as our mandate, the celebration of texts as well as their sustaining contexts. We have committed ourselves again to defending cultural freedoms against their ubiquitous enemies” (2006: 2).
See Emma Bird “A Platform for Poetry: The PEN All-India Centre and a Bombay Poetry Scene” in “The Worlds of Bombay Poetry”, eds. Anjali Nerlekar and Laetitia Zecchini, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, T&F, Routledge, Vol 53: 1-2, forthcoming April 2017.