‘Explorations in Colonial Bengal’: Captivating glimpses of colonial Bengal : The Tribune India

Join Whatsapp Channel

‘Explorations in Colonial Bengal’: Captivating glimpses of colonial Bengal

‘Explorations in Colonial Bengal’: Captivating glimpses of colonial Bengal

Explorations in Colonial Bengal: Essays on Religion, Society and Culture Edited by Achintya Kumar Dutta. Orient BlackSwan. Pages 350. Rs 1,495

Book Title: Explorations in Colonial Bengal: Essays on Religion, Society and Culture

Author: Achintya Kumar Dutta

Salil Misra

The history of Bengal as a region has had some very distinctive features. Islam entered Bengal as early as in the 13th century. Vaishnavism developed as a dominant strand here since the 15th century. The British rule was also first established in Bengal, before the rest of the country came under its control. The social structure in Bengal developed under multiple and diverse influences. The volume under review is a collection of essays on the cultural and religious life of Bengal since the emergence of Vaishnavism under the sacred leadership of Chaitanya. It also engages with the specificity of Bengal’s encounters with modern economy and politics. These essays have been written as a tribute to the historian Ramakanta Chakrabarty (1932-2019) by his students, friends and admirers. Chakrabarty spent his professional life as a professor of history at Bardhman University. His book ‘Vaishnavism in Bengal, 1486-1900’ was a pioneering study of the development and spread of the Vaishnav faith in Bengal since the times of Chaitanya till the 20th century. Most of the essays in the volume are devoted to themes that were of interest to Chakrabarty.

The volume is rich in content and there is a great diversity of issues that are discussed in it. Three themes will be of particular interest to the readers: spread of Vaishnavism in Bengal and from there to other regions; the impact of new technological inventions such as the gramophone on society and culture in Bengal; and Rabindranath Tagore’s uneasy and complex relationship with nationalism.

Bengal added many important dimensions to Vaishnav Bhakti within sacred Hinduism. Much like Christianity and Islam, Hinduism, too, as it spread across new areas, came to be marked by a separation between the high and low traditions. The high Hinduism was doctrinal, scripturalist and textual. Low Hinduism, by contrast, was marked by folk practices, rituals and an absence of theological scholasticism. The main function of Vaishnavism, as it developed in Bengal since the 15th century, was to bridge the gap between the high and the low and bring them closer to each other. Many essays in the volume highlight the key figures, main texts, important institutions, and dominant practices associated with Vaishnavism. An active role played by women saints was an important feature of Vaishnav Bhakti.

On the women question, one essay by Varuni Bhatia has emphasised an important ambivalence within the Vaishnav Bhakti tradition. On the one hand, Vaishnavism played an emancipatory role by creating a space for women’s active participation in rituals and religious life in general. But this also engendered an attitude of upper caste male puritanism which stigmatised this participation and looked upon such women often as prostitutes. So whereas Vaishnavism was successful in drawing women into active religious rituals, it was not very successful in overcoming patriarchal attitudes on the question of women’s participation. As was also the case with so much of 19th-century social reform, it often strengthened patriarchy rather than weakening it.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the culture and society in Bengal came to be influenced by some new technological inventions such as the gramophone. While in the West the new technology was first used for recording the speeches of important leaders, in Bengal it was used to revive and retrieve traditional music. It also became a great instrument for nationalist mobilisation during the Swadeshi movement (1905-08). It was particularly effective as it reached those audiences who had no access to the printed word. The reach of the recorded word was obviously larger than that of the printed word. Tagore, more than anyone else, realised the potential of the new medium. He recorded his speeches, statements and songs on the gramophone. It was through this medium that a new musical genre — Rabindra Sangeet — was established and popularised. As with so much else, the gramophone technology arrived in India through the British colonial route. The Indians who opposed the British rule nonetheless embraced the new technology with great gusto and also made it an instrument in the anti-British mobilisation.

The example of gramophone technology also highlights an important feature of India’s encounters with modernity. In developing their response to modernity, the Indians traversed the crucial, and often elusive, middle ground between total rejection and unselective acceptance. They made a distinction between the ‘baby’ and the ‘bathwater’ of modernity. While they rejected imperialism, colonialism and Western domination in general, they did not let this opposition come in the way of their full acceptance of the ideas of universalism, rationalism and secularism, but also modern technology which had the potential of liberating human life from the shackles of superstition and medievalism. Quite clearly, Tagore was the leader of this nuanced, complex and selective approach towards modernity.

Tagore also made universalism his vantage point while making an analysis of nationalism. It was during the course of World War I that he developed a sharp critique of nationalism. Tagore saw nationalism, particularly the European version of it, as based on the greed for wealth, leading to violence and aggression by one country over another. It was indeed a great conceptual innovation of Tagore to project nationalism as a form of imperialism. He understood this imperialism to be a great obstacle in the path of genuine pan-human universalism. The essay by Anuradha Roy in the volume unravels the history of Tagore’s intellectual engagement with the idea of nationalism.

All the essays in the volume provide important slices of the cultural, religious and economic life of Bengal during the last three centuries. Anyone interested in them should turn to this volume for information and debates.