The historical framework of A Comprehensive History of Modern Bengal, 1700-1950 deals with three thematically distinct periods-the decline and fall of the Nawabi regime in Bengal and the remaking of the polity of Bengal in volume I (1700-93); the reawakening of Bengal in volume II (1793-1905); and the freedom struggle against the British Raj in volume III (1905-50). However, these three volumes are structured such that they allow for overlappings in the periods covered, going back and forth in time: themes and narratives often move seamlessly from one volume to the other, retaining their coherence and inter-connectedness.
Volume I of this series of three books begins with a close study of the events at the start of the eighteenth century, and covers ground up to the year 1793 when the Permanent Zamindari Settlement in Bengal marked the closure to a contentious issue after much experimentation. The essays in this volume deal with a variety of themes like political history and warfare; activities of the various European companies; maritime economy; internal trade and markets; demography and environment; growth of Calcutta; zamindars; urbanization and de-urbanization; banking and credit; art and artists; social banditry; and Islam and the Muslim literati. Some of these essays attempt to cross the accepted patterns of periodization and the themes they deal with are relooked at in the volumes that follow.
Volume II of this three-volume series begins with the Bengal Renaissance, with essays on Rammohan Roy, the Derozians, the Tagores, Vidyasagar, and religious thought and social reform in nineteenth-century Bengal. The volume is rich in the depiction of the social and cultural history of Bengal, with essays on Calcutta as a commercial metropolis; the middle-class intelligentsia; castes in Bengal; popular culture; Bengali language and literature; and the growth of journalism and public opinion, besides chapters on industrial economy, peasant economy, and banking and credit. The idea of legal modernity; the Sundarbans; medicine and public health; the ramifications of the 1857 Revolt in Bengal; and Bengali Muslims and their literature have also been touched upon. The issues raised in the essay on gender in this volume continue to be further discussed in the next volume.
The third and last volume in this series begins with the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and the main theme dealt with is the anti-imperialist struggle, with a focus on nationalist and communalist politics between 1905 and 1947. The Swadeshi era; civil society and politics in Bengal and its nationalist trajectory; the Muslim League; and Bengal’s communal challenge during 1940-7 are some of the other issues discussed. It delves into social questions, the adivasi quest for a new culture; caste and politics in Bengal; the rise of a middle-class intelligentsia; the evolution of a Muslim literati; and the story of the Hindi-speaking people in Calcutta. Three essays explore the position of women in Bengal, touching on their marginalization. Related themes, within the broad structure of the volumes, which deal with the industrial labour movement; science in modern Bengal; Bengali literature and its links with nationalism and communism; the Calcutta Police; Bengali theatre songs; and late colonial art are also discussed.
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya was Professor of Indian Economic History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the Vice Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan. He was also Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, and Founder President, Association of Indian Labour Historians. In 2017 the Indian History Congress felicitated him with its highest honour for his contribution to the writing of the history of Bengal. Some of his notable publications are Archiving the British Raj, 1858-1947 (2019); The Colonial State:Theory and Practice (2016); The Defining Moments in Bengal, 1920-1947 (2014); and The Financial Foundations of the British Raj: Ideas and Interests in the Reconstruction of Indian Public Finance, 1858-1872 (1971, revd. edn. 2005). The prestigious Rabindra Puraskar was conferred upon him in 2011 by the Government of West Bengal.
ASI SIT DOWN TO write the 'Foreword' to this 3-volume A Comprehensive History of Modern Bengal, 1700-1950, I cannot but refer to the last line written by the late Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya in the 'Introduction' to this monumental work. Aware that this would be his final contribution to a glorious career, he brought to it his immense and wide scholarship, his meticulous research and his brilliant mind to leave us a volume that would be remembered as a milestone for many years to come.
In the history of the Asiatic Society's recent publications, the three volumes of A Comprehensive History of Modern Bengal, 1700-1950 will be considered a landmark for a number of reasons. First, one of the seniormost historians of our time, Professor Bhattacharya, not only conceived of and pressed for the adoption of this proposal, but also volunteered to be the Honorary Editor of this prestigious project. In December 2016, when the green signal was given to it, a three-year time limit was imposed for its completion by the Council of the Asiatic Society. Second, a Working Committee constituted by the Council duly monitored the progress of the work under the academic stewardship of Professor Bhattacharya. The prerequisite set by the Committee was that all the identified authors for these three volumes be given a fixed date for the submission of their respective chapters. They were also provided with a common style sheet and editorial instructions and were required to present their drafts at two successive authors' workshops conducted at the Society's premises in Kolkata between 7 and 9 February 2018 and 3 and 5 August 2018. Third, Professor Bhattacharya, in spite of his failing health, personally attended these two workshops and stayed longer than was physically admissible or comfortable for him. Thereby, he had the chance of meeting all the contributors and exchanging ideas and interacting with them, barring some who could not attend but exchanged mails with him. Fourth, he meticulously went through all the chapters, did the necessary editing and wrote a lucid but succinct `Introduction' common to the three volumes. Because of his standing in his field, he could gather a galaxy of scholars from various parts of the globe who were determined to fulfil the mission of their beloved Sabyasachida or Bappada (as he was referred to fondly) with whom they had worked and whom they loved and revered. In watching him supervise and prepare these volumes, we have had the rare pleasure of witnessing a dedicated academician fighting a soldier's battle unto the last to complete his cherished last major work.
I sincerely feel that after a long time The Asiatic Society has achieved, through these volumes, a demonstrable success in completing a time-bound important project which will register its presence among scholars across all divides throughout the country and beyond.
THE EARLIEST EXPOSITIONS Of the history of Bengal in modern times can be attributed to the confluence of four historiographic traditions and cultures: the translation into Bengali of J.C. Marshman's History of Bengal in 1848 by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a companion volume published by Ramgati Nayaratna in 1859, and a relatively independent work, written by Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay between 1865 and 1869.' Another parallel tradition of historiography is represented by works of historians like Gulam Hussain's Chronicles of Bengal, a derivative of the tradition of Mughal or Indo-Persian historiography. And then there was the stream that sprang from Europe's discovery of Asia's ancient past, particularly the development of a whole new discipline of Indology. Finally, there is the search for the past through the efforts of people like Akshay Kumar Maitreya and Rabindranath Tagore.
Given such diverse constitutive elements in the historicizing of Bengal's past, it is not surprising that the literature we encounter is a complex discourse that has never been free of controversies. An attempt to write history beyond controversy is universally admitted to be an impossible task today, and our attempt will be no exception. However, it was also widely felt that, given the advances in research after 1967 as well as the newly developed approaches to history, a fresh endeavour was needed to survey the present state of knowledge of the history of modern Bengal in the period 1700-1950. Our attempt has been, in so far as an enquiry comprehending hitherto known outlines of contemporary and generally accepted modern knowledge by the scholarly world may allow us, to form some idea of the location of a consensus among scholars who otherwise hold differing views. The principle we have relied upon is to identify recognized authorities in their fields of specialization, who may belong to different schools, ideologies, methodological categories, etc., and to allow them the freedom to formulate their view of the consensus among scholars. Hence, the apparently unexciting and unambitious request that was sent out to scholars contributing to the projected volumes was that the objective is to provide an evaluation of the present state of knowledge.
Some conceptual questions relating to regionalization need to be addressed before we move forward. Questions like 'What was the concept of Bengal in the imagination of the traditional Bengali mind in the eighteenth century?, and 'What sort of unity was attributed to Bengal, other than the obvious one of language?' inevitably come to mind. Mukundaram Chakrabarti in early seventeenth century prefaced his poetic narrative Chandi Mangal with the praise of various gods and goddesses. As a routine, like other poetic texts of the times, Chakrabarti begins with a dik-bandana (literally, worship of the quarters of the compass), invoking the presiding deity at each major pilgrimage centres as well as the smaller temple sites in different directions. A larger number of sites are chosen from the south of Bengal because when Chakrabarti was writing the Chandi Mangal, he was situated in what is now the district of Midnapore, having migrated from his native village in Burdwan. He begins with major centres beyond Bengal: Neelachal in Orissa (present Odisha), Vrindaban, Ayodhya (Ayodhyae bandibo thakur Sri Ram), Gaya, Prayag, Dwaraka, Hastinapur, and Varanasi. Then the poet mentions serially the temples and deities within his knowledge in Bengal, ranging from major centres like Kalighat to lesser temples and sites of pilgrimage like those in Bikrampur, Kharagpur, Teotia, Damanya, Chandrakona, Tamralipta, etc. Similarly, Ray Mangal, written in AD 1723 by the poet Hari Deb Sharma of the present district of Howrah, has a dik-bandana listing places of pilgrimage, but his range is more limited, not going beyond Puri and Vrindaban. What is interesting here is the inclusion of pirs (holy men) revered by Muslims. Thus, along with Mahamaya or Jagannath, you have Dafar Khan Gazi of Tribeni or Sarenga Saheb also listed.' Clearly, there is little sense of demarcation here by region or religion.
The regionalization followed by the earlier scholars of Bengal dividing Bengal into rarha and banga, appears to have no relevance in our contemporary discourse just as little attention is paid to pre-1971 subregional identities, except in moments of nostalgia vis-a-vis the country that was left behind by migrants after 1947. And though plenty of evidence is available of the fact that the cultivation of local and regional history was important for the sustenance of local patriotism, which is reflected in local history writing in the Bengali-speaking regions in the early twentieth century, that still does not help us answer the question: how do we define regional history? I will begin with the proposition that though historians talk about regions all the time, they usually do not give any thought to region as a concept. I have in mind academic historians in the sphere of professional historiography, as distinct from writers who use history to build regional sentiments for political purposes.
Professional social scientists have often used regional categories without paying much attention to how they are defined. Let us look beyond Bengal. Some of the regions pertain to a particular historical period: the Bombay Presidency was a colonial invention, without a past and was wiped out as a category after Independence. Some regionalization have deep historical roots: the Oudh of the British period, preceded by Awadh of the medieval times, in turn, preceded by the semi-mythical, sacred Ayodhya though the spatial boundaries of each shifted considerably. Sometimes historians also use a regional category by projecting backwards, recently created political or administrative units: there are now histories of Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand. Needless to say, the basis of regionalization is also diverse: regions may be defined culturally (e.g. Maha-Koshala or Jharkhand), or linguistically (e.g. the Bhojpuri region), or in terms of administrative units (e.g. Northern Circars of the Madras Presidency or any district of British India), or according to ecological classification (e.g. the Gangetic delta), or again as ethnic identities (e.g. the Telugu identity). One begins to wonder, then, if any kind of systematic thinking has been devoted to regionalization, given this diversity and confusion.
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