objects of research: Titania Palast, Berlin

A Kino in Berlin

We begin in a kino (cinema) in Berlin. Post-Berlin is battered and bruised far more than almost any city in the world. The Allies have carved up the city into four administrative zones: the British, French, American, and Russian sectors respectively. This is also where people who are concerned about culture from the Allied sector are wondering how to regenerate “culture” in this city again. Some of them are scheming.

Berlin, 1945

To make this more complicated, it would seem like the Allies already have areas of influence that will ultimately result in Berlin being divided between the East and the West, just like Germany itself. This is where West Berlin needs a pick me up. Surrounded by the “East”, West Berlin hosts the first Congress for Cultural Freedom conference on the 26th of June 1950. The venue is Titania Palast.

Titania Palast is one of those spaces in Berlin that surfaces again and again under the auspices of historical circumstances. It was one of the biggest cinema halls in Berlin when it was inaugurated in 1928. Most people know it today as the cinema where the Americans started the International Berlin Film Festival, better known as the Berlinale, in 1951. It was the spot where the first concert of the Berliner Philharmonie took place after World War II (1945). It is also where the Freie Universität’s “Gründungsversammlung” took place on 4th of December 1948. Much of this is commemorated on a plaque outside.


This is where the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) begins its work. The Congress itself was attended by quite a few famous writers, philosophers, and “thinkers”; names like Tennessee Williams and Bertrand Russell come up when we look at the list today. What did they do there? They drew up a manifesto against “all encroachments on the creative and critical spirit of man”.

Since this is during the Cold War, and just after the Berlin Blockade, this well-attended congress in West Berlin is also hinting at the Communists across the border (not far from Titania Palast) who are, then, those who are controlling thought. Declassified documents have of course shown that much of this was funded by the CIA. But at the time, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was the space for culture. And this is where we also meet Mike Josselson.

Josselson appears in the introduction of Campaigning Culture and the Global Cold War: The Journals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (edited volume by Giles Scott-Smith and Charlotte A. Lerg) as the enigmatic American of Estonian origin who spoke English, German, French, and Russian. Josselson, who had already been in Germany for interrogations of German POWs, quickly becomes a part of the CCF and starts convincing intellectuals to serve as editors in the global struggle against Marxism/Communism. This was reported by the New York Times in 1966 as well.

With that background, we land in Bombay.

Berlin to Bombay

Bombay was the venue for the second conference of the CCF. Given its Non-Alignment Movement times, it is not surprising that the CIA was worried that “that Indian intellectuals, artists, and writers might also refuse to take sides.” (Pullin 285) Hence, they land in India for the second iteration of the congress.

Even as I write this, I am not sure of the amount of work that has been done or should be done on Indian poetry’s publication circles and this conference in 1951 (Pullin). The Indian Congress for Cultural Freedom (ICCF) has its own little history that I will not go into. What comes out of this is the Quest magazine, the archive of which lives in a bizarre Freedom First website these days. I have to Eric Pullin’s work here as exemplary in this field and that is who the reader should go for that part. There is also a Graziano Kratli’s essay that touched upon this briefly.

The part that amused me as I went down this rabbit-hole was to imagine a poetry reading. This is what I will end with.

It is probably warm as the communist/pacifist Allen Ginsberg starts reading his poetry on the balcony of Ebrahim Alkazi, the Bombay theatre director (Nerlekar 61) in 1962. Not far away, Arthur and Glorya Hale are in their Nariman Point apartment where they await instructions from Harry Rositzke, who was their CIA station chief in Delhi (Kratli 185). Nissim Ezekiel, one of the editors of Quest, publishes almost every poet who was probably there in that Ginsberg poetry reading. Ezekiel does not remain the editor of Quest for a long time. But for that brief moment, Ezekiel is the best fit that Scott-Smith and Lerg write about in their introduction: Journal editors who were “often well-known intellectual personae in their national contexts and beyond, and their public standing both required and allowed them to demonstrate a certain degree of independence from Paris (and of course, from the United States).” (13)

Curiously, as I start digging into Indian poetry’s publishing circles and connections, I find myself within 20 mins from Titania Palast in Berlin. I take the S-Bahn, across the former borders that divided the East and West sides of Berlin, and end up at a generic Kino in Berlin. There is no sign of the CCF and its history in this place now. They call it Cineplex Titania now. There is a plaque, of course. And as Roman Mars says, always read the plaque.

Further Reading

Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer

Supriya Nair, Publishing Revolutionary Road

Francis Stoner Saunders, Who Paid the Piper

Michael Warner, Origins of the CCF

Giles Scott-Smith and Charlotte A. Lerg (ed.), Global Cold War: Third World Intervention and the Making of the Cold War
– Eric Pullin, “QUEST: Twenty Years of Cultural Politics”

objects of research

I have long wondered the fate of this blog. This website started as a post-midnight idea one winter night in Kreuzberg where I lived between 2015-2018. As the years have progressed, I have undertaken quite a few foiled ideas on this blog. Yesterday, as I started reading on a particular archive, something of a clarity brick fell upon my post-midnight brain. This is about the future of this blog.

The Blog as an Archive Machine

The essential use of this blog has always been to aid some form of archiving; hence being named, archivbox. The name came from this cardbox I saw on the streets of Kreuzberg one day when I was taking a walk. The name seemed right for something that is a relic of internet culture: the blog. Now that I am writing and reading things about archives of Indian poetry and about postcolonial literature in general, I am curious about blogging as a research phenomenon. Think of a reaction channel but somewhat more reflexive and definitely more background. With the possibilities of embedding and linking seemingly disparate and farfetched things together, a blog is the research journal we need to go about our business of thinking about things.

The Blog as a Journal

Given its the desultory existence, this blog, however has had no raison d’être so far. I find the thought of writing a private journal on the internet a little too voyeuristic if not downright self-centred. In the coming posts, this lack of purpose will be willed into something more productive in a more academic sense. The blog as a journal of a person is too boring. The blog as a roll-call of publication even more so. This is something else. This is about producing more content to make myself read and process more things. Notes, connections, archives, etc, etc.


Other than the usual tabs (About, Current), you can find all my posts about my objects of research in the links below:

  1. The One about Indian Oil
  2. The One about Titania Palast

objects of research: Indian Oil

One of these days, as one does, we come across a relic. It is a relic that feels alienating precisely because it is not our past. It is a past that we have not lived through. We cannot look back. This is the past of our grandparents, at best. For many of us who were born away from the urban centres, even that is a stretch. The imagination does not go that far, I want to say. To make up for imagination one does not possess, one must have the archival tonic. This became my way of understanding this past some years ago.

Today, as a part of my research on Indian poetry and magazines, I came across the archives of the Quest magazine. Looking at this magazine archive from the 1950s-1970s, this odd feeling came upon me. Indian Oil advertises Gauhati Refinery in 1960s. First public sector refinery built with Romanian assistance (because the Eastern Bloc was a thing). Among 173 rupee Agfa cameras with rangefinders that were sold only in Delhi, Calcutta and Madras, and Indian Airlines fares from Bombay to Colombo (daily!), is this news of hope of a refinery in Assam.

Did the readers of this magazine know where Assam was? Did they even know where Gauhati was? Would they know now? It is not just the odd juxtaposition of the Assamese refinery and the metropolitan spaces but the sheer distance that one sees from this moment of hope.

Names will change: Gauhati will become Guwahati, Madras Chennai. People will burn themselves in Assam in the name of this oil. All of that is a mere decade away. But in 1960s, it is still a different world. People can still cling on to some sort of hope that I cannot imagine inhabiting in 2020.