Marxist and maverick focus on a cohort of free-floating reformers

The Sentinels of Culture - Re-visioning the Past
December 2, 2005

Bengal was the first part of India to come under British rule.

The cultural consequences of this early exposure to the West were profound, but there is no clear consensus about its nature and larger significance.

The traditional view was that despite much that was evil about colonial rule, it had acted as a conduit for the cultural riches of the West.

Bengalis had used Western ideas to revitalise all that was stagnant in their society. From the religious reforms of Rammohan Roy to the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, from the chemical studies of P. C. Ray to the physics of J. C. Bose, this "Bengal renaissance" had transformed the cultural life of Bengal, ultimately engendering the nationalist movement that drove the British out of India.

Such heroic readings have long been passe. Since this supposed reawakening occurred in a colonial context and was limited to a relatively small group of Hindu middle-class intellectuals, left-leaning historians have never had much respect for it. The modernity the reformers fought to attain, they argue, was not only a misshapen caricature of European modernity but was also partial, even in the Indian context. It did little to improve the lives of women, lower castes or Muslims. Recent "postcolonial" scholars go further, emphasising that colonialism was a system of cultural control and even its apparently emancipatory consequences were in fact forms of repression. The great socio-religious reformers of 19th-century Bengal were not liberators, but rather dupes and instruments of the West.

Tithi Bhattacharya's The Sentinels of Culture is a stimulating and refreshingly original contribution to these debates. Focusing on the period from 1848 to 1885, she shows how middle-class Bengali preoccupations with education and culture were related to social and economic concerns - the "hallowed circle of the truly learned" was truly exclusionary and formed by the active differentiation of its members from the lower castes and the less privileged. At the same time, the stress on education unified disparate sections in the emerging intelligentsia and gave them a relatively homogeneous identity.

Writing from an explicitly Marxist standpoint, Bhattacharya rejects postcolonial interpretations of the Bengal renaissance. She refuses to see the colonisers as an undifferentiated group of oppressors and points out that the condemnation of any kind of cultural interaction between East and West leads to some absurd conclusions. "Going by this logic one would have to end," she remarks, "by arguing that a man such as Rammohan Roy was somehow corrupted by Enlightenment/colonial ideology and hence pushed for the abolition of suttee."

Rather than constituting a well-knit and powerful comprador elite, the reformers of 19th-century Bengal were members of a petite bourgeoisie that possessed none of the social influence or economic resources needed to transform society. Most reformers' careers, therefore, ended in disillusionment. But, since they had no real class to represent, this relatively free-floating group came, in the end, to speak for a largely imagined "nation", leading to the efflorescence of nationalism at the turn of the century.

The Sentinels of Culture is based on a wide range of 19th-century Bengali writings on education and modernity. Few of these texts have been used by recent historians, and Bhattacharya deserves the highest praise for her sources. Her critique of postcolonial theory is thoughtful and refreshingly maverick. In its attentiveness to material circumstances and the economic dimensions of intellectual activity, the book displays all the strengths of Marxist scholarship. But the deficiencies of the Marxist approach are also evident, including the propensity to ignore ideas and personalities, and a tendency to underestimate all reforms and improvements that cannot be slotted into a Marxian template. Despite the shortcomings, this is an informative book with original insights, and it is a shame Oxford University Press allowed it to be published without even minimal copy-editing or correction of typographical errors.

The other title under review, which is much more carefully produced, addresses the impact of photography on 19th-century Bengali society. Malavika Karlekar's book is distinctive in its emphasis on indigenous attitudes to the technology. Photography was one of many Western innovations Bengalis domesticated swiftly, and, as the wonderful images in Re-visioning the Past testify, it was intertwined with the growth of a civil society and the epic journey of Bengali women from the "home" to the "world".

But the story, Karlekar suggests, is more than a simple narrative of "progress". She sees much evidence of resistance in the images. A woman with neatly folded hands may seem to be an average specimen of the Bengali New Woman until we notice the signs of "struggle, resistance, and change in those hands". Not every reader might thus be persuaded, but those interested in the history of colonial cultures should welcome the book as a perceptive and well-illustrated study of the enthusiasm with which Bengalis incorporated a "foreign" technology into their culture. But although studio portraits became de rigueur in urban middle-class families and no home was complete without photo albums, Bengalis, Karlekar shows, were not simply consumers of the new craft. Of the many enthusiasts who became expert innovators, none was more remarkable than Upendrakishore Ray, whose work on half-tone blocks was a major contribution to the photographic and printing technology of the time. Some of this territory was covered in the late Siddhartha Ghosh's pioneering study Chhobi Tola (published in Bengali in 1988), but Karlekar has unearthed much new material. Her claim that "'reading' photographs brings another dimension to the experience of colonialism in Bengal" is amply justified by her splendid book.

Chandak Sengoopta is senior lecturer in the history of medicine and science, Birkbeck College, University of London.

The Sentinels of Culture

Author - Tithi Bhattacharya
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 2
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 19 566910 X

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