Saturday, 10 August 2013



One of the most conspicuous monuments in the South Park Street Cemetery is that which marks the grave of Sir William Jones. The lofty obelisk, its clear-cut lines towering far above the surrounding structures, is typical of the person who sleeps below, whose name similarly dominates all others in the history of the decade during which he labored in Bengal.  Sir Jones arrived at Calcutta in 1783. He came to India as a judge of the Supreme Court in succession to La Maistre (1783). His reputation had indeed traveled before him as is evident from the fact that while a scholar at University college, Oxford (1764) he began his studies in oriental and other languages, translated a life of Nadir Shah from Persian into French (1770) , wrote a Persian grammar (1771), translation of poems and six books of commentaries on Asiatic poetry and  published a translation of the Arabic Mollakat.

One of Sir William Jones’ earliest acts in India was the founding of the Asiatic Society, and for ten years he labored with unrelenting zeal and astonishing learning, carrying out his duties on the bench with care and dignity, studying Sanskrit, writing voluminously, translating learnedly, attending the weekly meetings of the society he had founded, and to which he contributed many valuable papers, notably his disclosers as president. It is curious to note that according to writers in CALCTTA REVIEW for September 1846: “He discussed the Chinese and their origin, as a people who are mentioned in Manu. As race of outcast Hindus noticed Japan, The Britain of the East, colonized by Hindus in1300 BC where Hindu idolatry prevailed from the earliest ages”. (Source: C. L. Buckland "Dictionary of Indian Biography”H.E.A. Cotton “Calcutta past and present”)


It may not be superfluous to recall for some in the present generation, the circumstances which associate this old Calcutta tomb with the name of a man who is among the most striking alike by his character and his powers as a great master in verse, a prose writer of a highest rank- Walter Savage Landor. Not long after leaving Oxford in 1797, when about 21 years of age Landor was staying at Walsh Cost, where he met, and was on friendly terms with Lord Aylmer’s family. One of the young ladies of the family becomes his especial favorite. Miss Aylmer was at that time four years younger than Landor, and they seem to have been thrown much together. The tender and lasting impression which his young friend made on Landor, is seen in the sad and gentle allusions to her in some of his poetry written many years after the time to which it refers. It is curious to note that Landor’s introduction to fame was indirectly or accidentally associated wth Miss Aylmer. Landor’s first miraculous beauties named “GABIR”.

Lady Aylmer, the widow of Henry, the fourth baron, married secondly Mr. Howell Price. Possibly it was in consequence of this re-marriage that her daughter Rose went to Calcutta to her aunt Lady Russel, wife of Sir Henry Russel, who became a reputed judge, and was afterwards made Chief Justice, and eventually a baronet.

The Calcutta Gazette in the first week of March 1800 records the sad event, “On Sunday last at the house of her uncle Sir Henry Russel in the bloom of youth and possession of every accomplishment that could gladden or embellish life, deplored by her relatives and regretted by a society of which she was the brightest ornament, the humble Miss Aylmer.”

When the news of her death reached Landor, he wrote first draft of the little elegy carved as it were in Ivory or Gems.

                     Ah, what avails the sceptred face ?
                     Ah, what the form divine
                     What every virtue, every grace
                     Rose Aylmer, all were thine
                     Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
                     May weep, but never see
                     A night of memories and of sighs

                     I consecrate to thee.


Strange to say, this grave also like that of Rose Aylmer next has claim on the interest as that of one associated with a name illustrious in English literature, a poet greater than Landor- “Lord Byron”. The tomb is that of a young sailor, Captain William Mackay who died in 1804, and the inscription over it recalls his “manly fortitude” which “his interesting narrative of the ship of the JUNO will testify to future times”. Such indulgent forecasts of sorrowing friends are not often realized, but this one comes nearer to being so than most, owing to the little narrative having fallen into the hands of Byron, with whom as a schoolboy, it was favorite reading, and the deep impression which it made on him was shown when he came to write the shipwreck in DON JUAN.

The first account of this wreck was sent to India by the magistrate of Chittagong and appeared in the Calcutta Newspapers. Two years afterwards William Mackay wrote the little narrative of it in the form of a letter to his father, which was published. It was this publication which Byron read when he was at Dr. Glennie’s school at Dulwich.

[Sources: a) " Calcutta Past & Present" by Kathleen Blechynden, edited by Nisith Ranjan Roy.  b) " Echoes of Old Calcutta " by  H. E. Busteed. (Rupa &Co.)].

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio  

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio was a fiery Indian teacher and poet. As a lecturer at the Hindu College of Kolkata, he had invigorated a large group of students to think independently. This Young Bengal group played a key role in the Bengal renaissance. Derozio was generally considered an Anglo-Indian, being of mixed Portuguese descent, but he was fired by a patriotic spirit for his native Bengal, and considered himself Indian.

“My Country ! In the days of Glory Past
A beauteous halo circled round thy brow
And worshiped as deity thou wast,
Where is that Glory, where is that reverence now ?”

The son of Francis Derozio, he was born at Entally-Padmapukur at Kolkata on 10th April 1809. He attended David Drummond’s Dhurramtalla Academy school, where he was a star pupil, evading widely on topics like the French revolution. 

He quit school at the age of 14 and initially joined his father’s concern at Kolkata and later shifted to Bhagalpur. Inspired by the scenic beauty of the banks of the river Ganges, he started writing poetry. Some of these were published in Dr. Grant’s “India Gazette”. His critical review of a book by Emmanuel Kant attracted the attention of the intelligentsia. In 1828, he went to Kolkata with the objective of publishing his own poem. On learning that a faculty position was vacant at the newly established Hindu College, he applied for it and was selected. This was the time when Hindu society in Bengal was undergoing considerable turmoil. In 1828, Raja Ram Mohan Roy established the Brahmo Samaj, which kept Hindu ideals but denied idolatry. These resulted in a backlash within orthodox Hindu society. It is in the perspective of these changes that Derozio was appointed at Hindu college, where he helped release the ideas for social change already in the air.

In May 1826, at the age of 17, he was appointed teacher in English literature and history at the new Hindu College, which had been set up to meet the interest in English education among Indians. He was initially a teacher in the second and third classes, later also for the fourth, but he attracted students from all classes. He interacted freely with students, well beyond the class hours. His zeal for interacting with students was legendary.

His brilliant lectures presented closely reasoned arguments based on his wide reading. He encouraged students to read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and other free-thinking texts. Although Derozio himself was an atheist and had renounced Christianity, he encouraged questioning the orthodox Hindu customs and conventions on the basis of Italian renaissance and its offshoot rationalism. He infused in his students the spirit of free expression, the yearning for knowledge and a passion to live up to their identity, while questioning irrational religious and cultural practices. Derozio’s zeal for teaching and his interaction with students created a sensation in Hindu college. His students come to be known as “Derozians”. He organized debates where ideas and social norms were freely debated. In 1828, he motivated them to form a literary and debating club called the Academic Association. In 1830 this club brought out a magazine “Parthenon”(only one issue came out).

Apart from articles criticizing Hindu practices, the students wrote on women emancipation and criticized many aspects of British rule. He also encouraged students into journalism, to spread these ideas into a society eager for change. In mid 1831 he helped Krishna Mohan Banerjee start an English weekly, “ The Enquirer”, while Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee and Rasik Krishna Mallick began publishing a Bengali paper, “The Jnanvesan” . He took great pleasure in his interaction with students, writing about them:

“Expanding like the petals of young flowers
I watch the gentle opening of your minds..”

He was close in age of most of his students (some were older than he was). The motto of Derozians was “He who will not reason is a bigot, he who cannot is a fool, and he who does not reason is a slave.” So, all ideas were open to challenge. Many of his inner circle of students eventually rebelled against Hindu orthodoxy, and joined the Brahmo Samaj, while some like Krishna Mohan Banerjee converted to Christianity, and others like Ramtanu Lahiri gave up their scared thread. Others went on to write in Bengali, including Peary Chand Mitra, who authored the first novel in Bengali (Alaler Gharer Dulal). The radicalism of his teaching and his student group caused an intense backlash against him.

Due to his unorthodox (legendarily free) views on society, culture and religion, the Hindu-dominated management committee of the college, under the chairmanship of Radhakanta Deb, expelled him as a faculty member by a  6:1 vote, for having materially injured (the student’s) morals and introduced some strange system the tendency of which is destruction to their moral character and peace in society. In consequence of his misunderstanding no less than 25 pupils of respectable families have been withdrawn from the college.

Though facing penury, he continued his interaction with his students, indeed  he was able to do more, helping them bring out several newspapers etc. However, at the end of the year, he contracted cholera, which was fatal at that time, and died on 26th December 1831 at the age of 22. Being a Christian apostate, he was denied burial inside south Park Street Cemetery; instead he was buried just outside it on the road.

This anti-imperialist fervor also separated him from the Anglo-Indian (The Eurasian) community, who were overwhelmingly pro-British. At one point he urged his fellow Anglo-Indians that it would be in their interest to unite and be cooperative with the other native inhabitants of India. Any other course will subject them to greater opposition than they have at present. His ideas had a profound influence on the social movement that came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance in early 19th century Bengal. And despite being viewed as something of an iconoclast by others like Alexander Duff and other (largely evangelical) Christian Missionaries, later in Duff’s Assembly’s Institution, Derozio’s ideas on the acceptance of the rational spirit were accepted partly as long as they were not in conflict with basic tenets of Christianity, as long as they critiqued orthodox Hinduism.

Derozio was an atheist but his ideas are generally believed to be partly responsible for the conversion of upper class Hindues like Krishna Mohan Banerjee and Lal Behari Dey to Christianity. Samaren Roy, however, states that only three Hindu pupils among his first group of students became Christians, and asserts that Derozio had no role to play in their change of faith. He points out that dismissal of Derozio was sought by both Hindus such as Ramkamal Sen, as well as Christians such as H. H. Wilson. Many other students like Tarachand Chakraborty became leaders in the Brahmo Samaj.

Sources :

The Fakeer of Jungheera (1828)—Poems. London: Oxford University Press 1923.
Poems . Edited by P. Lal. Susobhan Sarkar. Calcutta : Writers Workshop. 1972.

Henry Louis Vivian: Derozio (1808-1831), Anglo-Indian Patriot And Poet ; A Memorial Volume. Edited by Mary Ann Dasgupta. Calcutta: Derozio Commemorative Committee, 1973. 


For centuries the British have been fascinated by the cultures of India, and they have struggled with greater or lesser success to understand them. For the eighteenth-century European, the most intriguing mystery of India was Hinduism, a faith that confusingly seemed to advocate both world-denying asceticism and riotous physical pleasure. Why were some Hindu temples, unlike English cathedrals, richly decorated with erotic sculptures? Where Christian god endured unbearable suffering, Hindu gods seem to rejoice in sex. But around 1800, one man, Charles Stuart, decided to explain to the British that Hinduism should be seriously studied and greatly admired. Stuart started off as a cadet in the Bengal Army in 1777 and rose through to become a general by 1814 without any battle experience, but at the same time without any “connections”. He was certainly considered an eccentric, constructing a temple in Sagar Island , acquiring an India Bibi and being formally certified as ‘gone native’. In 1778 he wrote his first article about military clothing and professed the use of Indian clothing and articles in India, as they are convenient and appropriate and states by attacking European prejudices. He also writes extensively about the treatment of an Indian soldier and the aspect of discipline, and here is where it becomes amply clear that this man had studied the Indian psyche in great detail, on matters of pride, position, custom and tradition.

But though he admitted to be anti-Christian, he stated that he had not converted to Hinduism, for he would have had to leave the army as well. As part of his study of Indian cultures, Stuart put together a huge collection of sculpture- designed to include “examples of each deity as a kind of visual encyclopedia of religions and customs.” some rare and old, and of high artistic merit. His method of collection was not altogether honourable,  for some rumors of taking them away at night by force have been mentioned. His collection was displayed to the public at his home in Calcutta, converted into a museum.

It was one of the first serious attempts to present Indian culture in a systematic way to an European audience. (Upon his death, several of these were interred into the tomb. Most of his collection went to England after his death and were eventually auctioned off by Christies. Some went to British museum and some to private hands for pittance). Far from finding Hinduism disconcerting, Stuart saw in it an admirable framework for living, that was at least the moral equal to Christianity, and in 1808 he published his views in a pamphlet, “ Vindication of the Hindoos”: “Wherever I look around me, in the vast ocean of Hindu mythology, I discover Piety….Morality….and as far as I can rely on my judgment, it appears the most complete and ample system of Moral Allegory the world has ever produced.”

Stuart spoke out strongly against missionary attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity. He thought it simply impertinent, and his intention always was that his collection should be seen in England to persuade the British to honor this great world religion.

             a) " A Solitary vindicator of Hindoos" - by Jorg Fisch.
             b) " Lives of Indian Images " by Richard H.Davis.
             c) " The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700" - by Jeffery Cox
             d) " White Mughals" - by William Dalrymple.
             e) " The History of medieval Vaishnavism in Orissa" -by Prabhat Mukherjee.

             f)  wiki (net)

             Research  -Santanu Roy.

             Picture Courtesy - Sudip Ghosh.        

No comments: