Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Calcutta in the Nineteenth Century; A Review

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Calcutta in the Nineteenth Century: AN Archival Exploration
Bidisha Chakravarthy and Sarmistha De
Niyogi Books, New Delhi 2013

Calcutta is a fascinating city. Its reputation as a City of Joy may be farfetched but as a historical site, Calcutta is the most interesting city of India. If New Delhi is the graveyard of empires, Calcutta has remained a city of culture, cinema, Durga Puja, Communist factional rivalries, naxalite violence and of course, literature and education. From a sleepy hamlet on the banks of the Hoogly, Calcutta became in the nineteenth century the capital of the British Empire in India. The Regulating Act of 1773 vested the Governor General in Council with supervisory powers over all the three Presidencies and during the course of the nineteenth century the city began to grow both in size, in population and in terms of civic and administrative infrastructure. The book under review examines in detail the transformation of Calcutta into a major metropolis of modern India and is a contribution to the cultural and social history of modern India.

The two authors are archivist in the State Archives of West Bengal and have scoured the archives for interesting bits of information about the growth and transformation of the city. In modern historiography of Bengal associated with Barun De, Sumit Sarkar and Sabyasachi Bahattacharya urban history does not have a place. The Subaltern perspective adopted by Sumit Sarkar privileged the social history over cultural history. In the this volume the two authors, both trained as historians have recreated life in Calcutta during the nineteenth century. In 1911 the capital was shifted to New Delhi and Calcutta lost the prominence it once had in the previous century . Human interest stories culled from the archives abound in this volume. The intervention of the English Administration to prevent Sati is ably documented in the book using an anecdote. The attempts made by the erstwhile rulers to ensure a modicum of civic sense in the city is demonstrated by citing the health regulations enacted by the municipal authorities The growth of print culture and the attempts made to regulate the book trade are also studies. As the city grew in size, the hazards of fire also increased and we have a short chapter giving the history of the Fire Service in the city. A city of the size and reach of Calcutta will certainly have its dark underbelly and the authors have dredged from the archives some interesting details of the white slave trade in the city.

The most interesting part of the book are the numerous illustration drawn from the archival sources and contemporary journals and newspapers. The lavish use of documents from the Fort St William Records adds to the attractiveness of the volume. I enjoyed reading this book and wish I could write something similar about my city, Pondicherry where I live and teach.

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