Flowering of scientific research in nineteenth century Calcutta

Published: Saturday 30 September 2006

-- "Calcutta: A Tradition in Science" directed by R Ramachandran and Dilip Banerjee

The efflorescence of scientific research in mid-19th century Calcutta is a matter of lively debate amongst historians and social scientists. The subject is now on a different medium: the documentary. It promises much: most importantly, an immediacy rarely achieved in academic monographs on the interplay of science and politics in colonial India.

R Ramachandran and Dilip Banerjee's narrative is built on accounts of individuals and institutions. The documentary begins with images of early 20th century Calcutta, a city with a vibrant culture of scientific enquiry. The directors see this engagement as integral to the 19th century Bengal renaissance.

The establishment of the Asiatic Society by Wilson Jones in 1784 gave Calcutta a distinct institution devoted to science.However, Indians were not recognised as equal partners in the endeavour. As an example, the film cites the case of Radhanath Sikdar, who played a significant role in the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India in the 1830s, but received scant recognition compared to his British mentor, George Everest. Another geologist figures in Ramachandran and Banerjee's narrative: Pramatha Nath Bose. The geologist had an important role in identifying iron ore in Mayurbhanj -- now in Orissa -- that led to the emergence of the Tata Iron and Steel Company.

A montage consisting of facsimiles of the Calcutta Journal of Medicine, visuals of St. Xaviers College, its science departments and the observatory built by the college's founder, the Jesuit priest, Eugene Lafont, carries the narrative forward. We are told how Mahendra Lal Sircar's famous exhortation in the Calcutta Journal of Medical Science led to the foundation of the Indian Association for the Cultivation, and are informed of the attraction exercised by Lafont's magic lantern lectures. Organised institutional research in Calcutta, though, had to wait for the founding of University Science College in 1917 -- largely due to the efforts of Ashutosh Mukherjee, Calcutta University's first Indian vice-chancellor.
Indians make a mark By then, however, Indians had begun to make their mark on Calcutta's science scene. The film has visuals from the careers of two of India's pioneering scientists: J C Bose and P C Ray. The former's research in short electromagnetic waves and plant physiology was well known by early 20th century, while the latter's vision to integrate science into an Indian developmental agenda found fruition in the Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Company.

We are also given vignettes into the careers of Meghnad Saha, C V Raman and U C Brahmchari. The film concludes by introducing the Society of Petroleum Geophysicists, which today carries forward the ideals of Calcutta's great institution builders.

Where is history? The focus on individuals and institutions sometimes gets in the way of situating science in its historical context. The directors do hint at the political moorings of their protagonists, but the viewer longs for more. Social history of science in Calcutta is not elusive material. Opinions were voiced vociferously in The Dawn, the Calcutta Review and scores of other journals and magazines that spawned in post-renaissance Calcutta. Each scientist chronicled in this documentary engaged with the past and with modern scientific knowledge in distinct ways. For example, Ray's History of Hindu Chemistry was a political project very different from J C Bose's engagement with modern science. Institutions such as the National Council for Education emerged out of such debates.The Swadeshi movement, moral and theological engagements and networks of a new urban life impinged on the development of science in colonial Calcutta.

Distancing scientific pursuits from historical contexts only helps foster hagiographies of scientists, and that surely is not the objective of the directors of this film under review. One does understand that the directors are constrained in having to detail much within a limited time frame. Images create and sustain political ideas, and science has long been kept out of such a critical frame. It is time that those who feel responsible for science, also become accountable to a more democratic conception of knowledge. One sincerely hopes that this pioneering film spurs such projects.

D Senthil Babu is with the French Institute of Pondicherry

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