Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Chronicle of Colonial Calcutta

Elite and Popular Culture in 19th Century Calcutta
By Sumanta Banerjee
Calcutta:Seagull, 1998, pp 248, Rs 395

THIS is a fine study of elite and popular culture in nineteenth century Calcutta and their interactions. The author has collected with meticulous care, the required materials and has brought in his imagination to make the analysis eminently elegant. In a sense, Sumanta Banerjee, through this writing, has provided the needed stimulus for similar initiatives by intellectuals of some other metropolis such as Madras or Bombay which saw as Calcutta did, a certain dualistic cultural growth in the wake of colonial administrative and economic growth.

The author first identifies the gaps in the pre-existing studies. One, as is pointed out, is the lack of an appropriate correlation in conceptualisations of cultural growth in a colonial society between socio-economic changes and cultural products. The Marxist initiatives in this regard also could not fructify, partly because the Marxist concepts and categories did not fit in with the social and economic situation then prevalent in Calcutta and partly because these were generally “urbanised or punctuated with slogans to meet the demands of an immediate political situation or to make them acceptable to the city's middle class audience”.

The major influence for the author in understanding the cultural scenario of nineteenth century Calcutta, specially the culture of the bottom, emanates from Paulo Freire’s widely acclaimed work Cultural Action for Freedom where ‘the culture of silence’ is formulated. Sumanta Bannerjee seeks to examine the process through which “the culture of the lower orders was silenced by an indigenous elite” in the nineteenth century Calcutta, an elite “whose thought patterns and attitudes were shaped by listening to the voice of the metropolis from England.” This sort of cultural division, however, has an element of unreality. For instance, how do we place Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar whose conceptualisation of modernity was essentially non-western and was not based on a distinction between bhadralok and chotolok discourses in culture?

A useful discussion on the nineteenth century Calcutta's economy and society is provided in the beginning. An interesting aspect was the neat bifurcation of the city between the White Town of the English settlers and the Black Town of the native population. The latter was developed by the new rich who came up mostly through their humble connections with the colonial rule. According to the author, there thus grew a parvenu class which was dominantly Hindu. But a moot point is why these parvenus, unlike in the west, could not contribute to Bengal’s economic growth. The author touches upon the caste transformation which was slowly then taking place in Bengal. As is pointed out, “the client-patron relationship based on caste... between the first native settlers... tended to break down by the middle of the nineteenth century”.

Two elegant narratives are on folk culture and elite culture in the nineteenth century Calcutta. The farmer's basis was rural folk art and literature which the in-migrants from the countryside brought in. However, there was an important element of assimilation from the new urban milieu as a result of which a distinctive urban folk culture came into existence.

The principal forms of folk culture persisted throughout the period, but each of them had a certain dominance at a point of time. The popular rhymes about contemporary events and characters were conspicuous in the early phase, while the second and third phases were marked by Kobi-walas and jatra-walas respectively, All their performances were warmly greeted by popular acclaim. However, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century there occurred “a furious struggle for existence by these folk artists in an unequal competition with new cultural artefacts (of superior technology) and in the face of an organised campaign launched against them by the educated Bengali gentry.” A major aspect of urban folk culture in action was to provide satire and fun with the result that there emerged “a gay carnival”. The folk artists, as the author points out, “created an irreverent and iconoclastic world in opposition to the bhadralok world of strict rituals and stiff restraints”. However, this market place culture was generally insensitive to some of the major events around such as peasant uprisings. This was because the artists were eager to avoid any confrontation with the Raj.

There is in the following chapter, a lively analysis of elite culture. Initially north Indian classical songs and dances were an important part of the Calcutta elite entertainments. However, from the middle of the nineteenth century the earlier eclecticism of the gentry began declining as the new generation of English-educated, thoroughbred bhadraloks, were determined to set up a distinct elite culture of their own. This, which was fostered by the Raj, actually grew at the expense of Calcutta folk culture in the course of time got peripheralised. The bhadralok’s alternative in culture to the folk jatra was the modern theatre which came up in plenty. Not only in terms of technology but also in terms of the performance and the character of the audience the new elite culture was different.

In the face of the rise of the new bhadralok cultural forms a segment of Bengalees’ common possession based on folk culture, mercilessly declined. As the author brilliantly sums up,” the nineteenth century elite culture was shaped by two prevailing attitudes — one, the tendency to despise the folk tradition.., under the influence of English education; and two, the desire to discover a cultural identity with the upper class literature, music and fine arts of the past based on Sanskrit classics and Mughal court culture”. Actually there arose a bilingual (bicultural) elite who refused to be wholly Anglicised and yet, kept themselves away from uneducated, unsophisticated masses.

There is a refreshing epilogue which seeks to show the current effort of the Calcutta elite to receive the folk jatra which, however, “in its form and content transformed almost beyond recognition in the commercial environment of the modern metropolis.” This, in the author's perception, is a case of “cultural imperialism”.
One may not agree with this, but Sumanta Banerjee has done an excellent job which deserves praise and emulation for similar constructions in other major cities of the country.
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