OFF the shelf
Delhi College: bridging cultures
V. N. Datta

The Delhi College: Traditional Elites, the Colonial State and
Education before 1857
ed. Margrit Pernau.
Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Pages 340. Rs 625.

The Delhi College: Traditional Elites, the Colonial State andBehind every book there is a writer. Are the books written for the personal gratification of authors? Is the purpose utilitarian, educational or to gain public applause? There are writers who publish books because they are inspired by purely a disinterested pursuit of knowledge and to clarify the issues that agitate them. Some books are just a compilation of the proceedings of conferences held by academics. The book under discussion is a collection of varied essays dealing with the history of Delhi College and its development in different spheres of activity.

The editor, Margrit Pernau, says the focus of this work is on translations not in the linguistic sense, but to bring into view the translators themselves. Translations stood at the centre of Delhi College activity, and the author mentions in this connection the Vernacular Translation Society and Maulvi Zakaullah’s multi-volume history of India, a translation from Persian sources.

Most of the articles concentrate on the learned personages of Delhi College to explore how the original interests of the British were carried out, reinterpreted, adapted, resisted and ignored in the life of the institution. Delhi College is seen as a cultural media of building a bridge between India and Western cultures. In her introduction, Margrit Pernau gives a broad summary of the articles published in the volume. Adopting uncritically C.F. Andrew’s sweeping generalisation that Delhi College was a cradle of Renaissance, Pernau is far from explaining what Renaissance is and in what way are its characteristics reflected in the hustle and bustle of the college.

In the first chapter, Ebba Koch analyses and illustrates the main features of the architecture of the Madrasa of Ghazud-din-Khan at Delhi situated near Ajmeri Gate. In a brilliant presentation, Transculturation, Assimilation and its Limits, William Dalrymple makes two significant points, first in the early period of their rule the British in Delhi mimicked the Mughal elite, but later, the native Delhiwallas mimicked the British. In the early phase, the British mixed and mingled with the natives, wore their dress, kept native women in their harem and smoked hookas. However, later due to the Utilitarian and Evangelical influence, a new class of British administrators emerged who kept Indians at a distance and looked with contempt on native institutions. The author shows how the old amity and goodwill subsisting between two cultures was gone forever.

In Chapter 3, M. Ikram Chaghtai presents a brief sketch of Dr Aloys Sprenger, an Orientalist, who served as Principal of Delhi College from 1845-47. The author highlights the key role that Sprenger played in disseminating scientific knowledge through translations of Western literature into Urdu. In his scholarly essay (Chapter 5), C.M. Naim provides an authentic commentary on the Persian works of Shaikh Imam Baksh Sabbai and the relationship that subsisted between him, Ghalib and Mohammad Husain Azad, the trio that contributed substantially to the vitality of Delhi culture.

Gail Minault has provided with sensitivity the intellectual portrait of Master Ram Chandra, the mathematician who served in Delhi College. The author emphasises that Ram Chandra’s unique contribution lay in the development of Urdu journalism through the publication of his various literary Urdu journals.

Through his lectures and published works, Ram Chandra brought his pupils closely to the springs of Western education and learning. He was strongly opposed to making English a medium of instruction in schools and colleges. His conversion to Christianity in 1852 stirred much controversy in Hindu and Muslim circles.

Michael H. Fisher’s essay on Mohan Lal Kashmiri (1812-77) makes an interesting reading. In fact, Mohan Lal Kashmiri’s multifaceted personality provides to the biographer a fascinating subject for research. He represents a type that was to be commonly found in the native circles on which the British were to depend for ruling the country. Mohan Lal, a Kashmiri of the Zutshi sub-caste, was educated at the Delhi English College.

He was the early product of Anglicised education. Though born in an orthodox Brahman family, he had adopted Shia religious tradition. Endowed with sharp intelligence and shrewd judgement of human nature, Mohan Lal, highly proficient in the English language, joined the British diplomatic service, and won the confidence of top-ranking British officials. As an emissary, he was dispatched to Kabul to negotiate a settlement with the Afghan authorities on some of the key contentious issues that were pending between the Afghan and British governments.

Later he went to England and married an English woman. He met Queen Victoria and other British dignitaries. Fascinated by British aristocracy, he sang the glories of the Raj in his travel accounts. His Travels has become a standard vade mecum for researchers because it throws a valuable light on the contemporary political situation in India and abroad.

The author regards Mohan Lal as a social and cultural intermediary between India and England. There is an odd comment that the author makes when he writes that Jawaharlal Nehru had identified himself with Mohan Lal (259). There was nothing in common between Mohan Lal and Nehru. Mohan Lal was an opportunist ever anxious to advance his material and professional interests, and was absolutely subservient to the British. It is true that Nehru wrote the Forward to Mohan Lal’s Travels, but to identify him with Mohan Lal is absurd.

In Chapter 7, Avrill A. Powell traces the career of Munshi Karimud Din’s career and his literary contributions both by way of translating some Arabic works in Urdu and writing a few original books such as Education of Women. The book closes with the final essay on Deputy Nazir Ahmad and his association with the Delhi College.

This is an uneven work like most corporate studies. However, terms like ‘Delhi Renaissance’, ‘dawn of a new era’, etc., need analysis before these could be applied uncritically.