At a time when dissent and debate in universities across India are under threat, there is one educational institute which is celebrating its long-held tradition of encouraging students to be daring, inquisitive and thought-provoking. As you walk through the campus of Presidency University in the heart of Kolkata, huge banners bearing life-changing questions raised by its alumni stare you in the face.
“What is the future of a fledgling nation?”, “Can one man build an army?”, “What is the cure for poverty?”, “Can Indian cinema touch the world?” are just some of the mysteries of life solved by past students of Presidency thanks to the educational grounding they received at their alma mater, which is celebrating its bicentennial this year.
From freedom fighters to Presidents, Nobel laureates to Oscar award winners, poets and philosophers to pioneering scientists — Presidency has given all these to the Indian sub-continent. Its distinguished alumni have left their impressive mark in academia and all walks of life across the world.
The first of its kind
Presidency started its journey in 1817 when a group of English and Bengali men, including Raja Rammohan Roy and David Hare, decided to raise funds through public subscription and establish a college that would provide western and liberal education to boys from “respectable Hindoo” families. This would be a first in the whole of Asia.
Until the 18th century, education in India was restricted mainly to the traditional Sanskrit tols and madrassas and there was no place where students could learn the sciences, arts and technologies of the world. Hindoo College was started on January 20, 1817, in two parts as a school and college where the languages of instruction were English, Bengali and Persian.
Though established to educate Hindu children, the founders of Hindoo College, had resolved to impart secular, non-denominational education. Within three months of the beginning of classes the number of students rose from 20 to 69 and from 1824, the College started receiving partial financial support from the British government.
In 1852, it was proposed that the College be opened to all communities and in 1855 when the government finally took it over, it separated the junior section which became the Hindoo School and the senior college was renamed Presidency College. All impediments to admission of non-Hindu students were removed from Presidency.
In 1857, Calcutta University was established and Presidency College became affiliated to it. Ironically, despite being the pioneer of university education in India, Presidency was not given university status until 2010 when an Act passed in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly finally made it Presidency University. It was only in 1944 that girls were admitted to Presidency, but ever since it has been co-educational.
Time to celebrate
Thousands of Presidencians as the alumnae call themselves descended on Kolkata recently to mark the beginning of their alma mater’s 200th anniversary, which will be celebrated with programmes and events throughout 2017. The revelry was kick-started at dusk on January 6 — marking the first day classes were held in 1817 — with a spectacular ceremony at Prinsep Ghat on the banks of the Hooghly river. A soulful musical performance by the Presidency choir was followed by a laser show that threw light on the rich history of the college.
Other events included a vintage car rally, a heritage walk starting from the house of alumnus Swami Vivekananda to the Presidency University and ending at the famous Coffee House where Vice-Chancellor Anuradha Lohia hosted a lunch for the old boys and girls. A Global Education Summit gathered leading scholars, scientists, authors, academics and administrators from all over the world.
In pursuit of knowledge
Alumnus and chairman of the Presidency mentor group Sugata Bose said he was looking at an “enabling and non-interfering” role from the state government for the educational institute to flourish. Bose, a Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament and academic at Harvard, is the grand-nephew of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who founded the Indian National Army pre-independence. The young, radical Netaji was famously expelled from Presidency in 1916 for tripping up one of his professors for making anti-India comments.
Alumnus Amartya Sen set the ball rolling by recounting Presidency’s secular character. “It is very important to recognise the institute was born out of a civil society initiative and is probably the oldest institution in the world which has no religious connection” Sen told the august gathering in the newly spruced-up Derozio Hall.
Delivering the Founder’s day address were both President Pranab Mukherjee and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In his address, Dr Manmohan Singh said, “I believe that every university must give the freedom to pursue knowledge even where the knowledge may be at odds with established intellectual and social traditions. We must guard this freedom very zealously” — a legacy established by Presidency.
The state government has sanctioned Rs 10 crore for the year-long celebrations as well as Rs 50 crore to renovate the heritage campus on College Street. It has also provided land at Rajarat, outside Kolkata and in Kurseong in north Bengal for two new campuses. With the extension of space, the university hopes to add many new departments, a museum of history and a digitalised archival library of valuable documents written by eminent personalities and alumni of the university.
The bicentenary provides Presidency the opportunity to rejuvenate and enable it to play a significant role in the global transformation of university education in the 21st century and for the next 200 years.
Notable alumni & achievements
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee -Poet & writer, composed Vande Mataram
Swami Vivekananda-Founder of Ramakrishna Mission
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose-Founder of the Indian National Army
Dr Rajendra Prasad -First President of India
Abu Sayeed Chowdhury-Second President of Bangladesh
Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem-Sixth President of Bangladesh
Mohammad Ali Bogra-Third Prime Minister of Pakistan
Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose -Pioneering scientist
Amartya Sen -Nobel Prize in Economics
Satyajit Ray -Oscar award-winning filmmaker
Satyendranath Bose -Physicist, who discovered Bosons
Jyoti Basu-Longest serving CM of West Bengal
Aparna Sen-Actor and filmmaker
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