The Tagore Centre UK

September 27, 2015
by Ansuman

Dwarkanath Tagore Lecture presented by Mr Sumit Mitra

The Tagore Centre UK is pleased to present the full transcript and photographs from the centre’s extremely successful event on 2nd August, which featured a captivating talk on Dwarkanath Tagore, the grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore, presented by Mr Sumit Mitra to a packed Centre. We were also delighted to have Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya Kt. CBE FR Eng FRS Honour present as our chief guest. The programme was concluded with music from well-known artist Mamata Lahiri.

Photos and the full transcript from Mr Mitra’s lecture below.

All photos below © and Courtesy: Sharad Raval – click to enlarge


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I thank you all for honouring me to be in your midst this evening.

I am grateful to Professor Lord Sushanta Kumar Bhattacharyya for having agreed to be Chief Guest this evening by rescheduling his busy programme.

My heartfelt thanks to Mr. Amalandu Biswas, Chair of the Tagore Trust, London, to have given me an opportunity to speak on a subject to which I have been passionately attracted for quite some time now.

Warmest thanks to other Trust members, and my friends who have stepped out of home on a Sunday evening to listen to this talk.

Before visiting your superbly organized Tagore Centre, I went to Gordon Square to have a glimpse of the bronze statue of Rabindranath that you had got installed there.

I congratulate you for that valuable contribution to his memory.

It also amazes me that he still occupies so much mind space of the Bengali people.

Living so many miles from his land, you still sing his songs, recognize his poems and remember him on his birthdays.

I know that reading through all the 24 or 25 volumes of his anthology is a challenging task.

His language is getting obsolete, and his work, the poems in particular, are too rooted in their time and place to attract readers worldwide.

But he is still remembered as a national icon, like Goethe in Germany, or Dante in Italy.

However, the subject of discussion this evening is not Rabindranath but one of his very interesting ancestors, Dwarkanath Tagore.

He is too ancient a Tagore but truly remarkable for the range of his ideas and the variety of his activities.

Dwarkanath died in this very city, in 1846, on a stormy and rainy First of August 169 years ago.

He died at the Brown’s Hotel on Albemarle Street near Green Park Underground station; it was called St. George’s in those days.

He was buried at the Kensal Green cemetery in North London, the hearse being drawn by a Royal carriage specially sent by Queen Victoria.

She knew him very closely and so did her entire family.

Before introducing you to Dwarkanath, I think I should have a word or two about a genetic streak that unites him with his illustrious grandson.

It is a passionate love of the West.

Rabindranath was the youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, a religious reformer and a socially conservative Bengali landlord of the 19th century.

He hated Europe’s religious and cultural aggression; he even refused to open letters sent to him that were written in English.

It is said that his father’s influence made Rabindranath dislike his ‘Anglicised’ grandfather in his early life, even though he was born 15 years after Dwarkanath’s death.

Debendranath was a powerful xenophobic influence on his talented son; the poet could come into his own only after his father passed away in 1905.

He began seeing himself beyond national boundaries, and appreciated the experience of life beyond cultural barriers.

He was sort of reborn as a writer in 1910, when he wrote the novel Gora. Its ultranationalist hero gets shaken up at the end when he learns that he was born of Irish parents who had died in the 1857 Mutiny.

It is in his collection of poems, Geetanjali, mostly written around this period, which brought him the Nobel in literature.

It includes the poem Bharat Teertha, which is resonant with his new internationalism, something he always got in him but it somehow got eclipsed.

However, the original internationalist in the Tagore family was Dwarkanath, not Rabindranath.

Internationalism is an attitude which is universally accepted, more or less, in today’s world.

Technology, and global trade, have made it possible for us to live virtually at every corner of the world.

It is due to technology that I can stay in touch with my friends in this city and elsewhere, even though we meet at long intervals.

And I can read both the Telegraph newspaper of London and the one published from Calcutta, at one go.

And it is liberalization of trade which has brought back the non-white world into global production, after being pushed to the bottom in the 18th century.

The global distribution of production has begun to change only recently.

French economist Thomas Piketty, in his magnum opus, “Capital in the Twenty-first Century”, has calculated that Europe and America had 70 to 80 per cent share of global production between 1900 and 1980.

It dropped to 50 per cent in 2010, and Piketty estimates it to be from 20 to 30 per cent any time in the current century.

Dwarkanath’s age is the age of Western dominance, when the sun of global economy was indeed rising in the west.

He lived at a time when technology was still in its infancy; the quickest a message could reach from India to the UK was a good two months.

He was born in 1794 when Lord Cornwallis, the man who lost America to George Washington, was sent to Bengal to govern it; but he revolutionized the land laws there.

His changes created a new class of rent-paying landlords, or zamindars, to which Dwarkanath and his family belonged.

Dwarkanath remained a zamindar till his last; on his grave at Kensal Green is inscribed: “Baboo Dwarkanath Tagore, Zemindar, died 1st of August 1846, age 51 years”.

Yet he was much more than a zemindar; he was entrepreneur, civic leader, and an advocate of social change who thought the British rule alone could bring about systemic changes in India.

He was no defender of racial distinction but was confident that it would go away on its own as governments adopted more rational policy.

He believed the conquered races should give to the conquered, in their own interest, what is known in today’s political terminology as a ‘level playing field’.

The reality of the age was much harsher, though.

This reality is summed up in a moving line from Jean Paul Sartre’s famous preface to Franz Fanon’s book, “Wretched of the Earth”.

The line goes: “Not very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants, five hundred million men and one thousand five hundred million natives. The former had the Word; the other had the use of it”.

It took over a hundred years for this difference to be at least partly levelled, but I am not sure if ‘natives’ have really become ‘men’.

In Dwarkanath’s time, there was hardly any Indian voice in the European narrative.

Dwarkanath Tagore was a curious exception.

It is significant that the British took him almost as one of them.

It is a distinction that does not apply to anyone, not even Raja Rammohun Roy, the celebrated religious and social reformer.

Rammohun was loved by the pious and the learned, including philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and historian Lord Macaulay.

But Dwarkanath had the inside track.

He was invited to play whist with the Royals at Buckingham Palace, and dined even with the Queen Mother.

He was on first name terms with many Dukes and, notably, their wives.

Rammohun dealt with the Empire that was still in its cradle; Dwarkanath, on the other hand, saw the East India Company when its power was at its zenith.

It made a difference.

Dwarkanath befriended the post-Napoleonic War generation that had flooded British India.

The Charter Act of 1813 had vastly reduced the Company’s commercial monopoly, except in tea and the China trade.

More private commerce triggered more influx into India of young Britons, and of Scotsmen, in particular.

Many of them had new ideas like “democracy” and “liberalism” drawn from the intellectual lexicon of a fast changing Europe.

The bureaucrats of East India Company had to grin and bear the incursion of these free traders.

They privately called the newcomers “interlopers”.

Dwarkanath became their friend, philosopher and guide.

Calcutta’s British civilian population was never very large, the number being around 3,500 by 1822; but the expats wanted to have everything that was available at home.

Like newspapers, banks, a good justice system, a strong police organization, better transportation system.

They also sought at least an amicable relationship between the ruler and the ruled.

It was a departure from the “John Bull” era of British indifference to Indian affairs.

The free traders wanted to have independent banks as the Company would not lend them capital.

They wanted newspapers of however small circulation to give vent to their grievances.

They knew that even local newspapers would be seen by London’s crowd of hawk-eyed MPs and activists.

And they would not let the Company rest in peace in their faraway Empire if anything was found amiss.

And of course the new-comers wanted their own kind of theatre.

This urge came spontaneously to a generation that had got used to the emergence of Covent Garden and Drury Lane as its cultural mascot.

Dwarkanath, who could well remain a native baboo, instead became the pivot to reshape the institutions that the newcomers would like.

In 1829, he was the prime mover of Union Bank, the first commercial bank unattached to either the Company or business houses.

The bank extended credit not just to commodity exports, like indigo, but for new ventures like running steamboats.

By the 1830’s, he had stake in almost all leading newspapers of Bengal.

One of them, The Englishman, which was founded with his finance, is still in publication, though under a different name.

And he was also the leading investor in Chowringhee theatre, Calcutta’s very own Adelphi in the first half of the 19th century.

It is said that he even had a romantic link with its leading and talented British actress, an event that had deleterious consequences on his home front.

Though Dwarkanath’s generosity to the British was legendary, he got from them in exchange something very precious.

It is the taste of freedom, and all the good things that come with freedom.

He helped bring a slice of it to India too, particularly in the social sphere.

Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, the Governor General of India, enlisted his help to gather Indian support for abolition of the suttee.

Apart from making India a shade less dangerous for women, suttee abolition also made the country less nightmarish to Westerners.

It removed the stigma India was then carrying in the Western world for images of widows being dragged into funeral pyres of their husbands.

For Dwarkanath, association with the progressive movement paid rich dividend.

It brought him easy access to corridors of power in the Company’s government, and spectacular elevation in his rank at the Board that controlled the two permanent British monopoly trades in salt and opium.

Dwarkanath leveraged his position as Dewan of the Board of Customs, Salt and Opium, to forge very close ties with all who mattered in early modern Bengal.

He was India’s first ‘socialite’ in the modern sense of the term.

He regularly wined and dined with Europeans in his house and also in a Villa he built in the outskirts of the city, at a place called Belgachia.

It was a bold act, considering the age; even Rammohun never ate with Europeans even though he sat with them at the dinner table.

In the words of Kissory Chand Mitter, Dwarkanath’s first biographer, “The rooms in his Villa were a blaze of light and radiant with mirrors and Mirzapur carpets, and crimson damask and green silk”.

Governor General Lord Auckland and his wife attended parties at the Villa and so did a much more demure and class conscious Miss Eden, sister of Lord Bentinck.

Mitter has accurately described what Dwarkanath had achieved by the lavish parties.

He writes: “The (British) civilian forgot his hauteur, the Colonel his pipe clay and the Zemindar his old world prejudices”.

In 1834, Dwarkanath set up a bi-racial firm, the Carr, Tagore and Company, which was the first of its kind.

The British had earlier accepted Parsees as business partners but not other Indians, so his company was an exception.

The year is important as it marks another Charter Act that further limited East India Company’s trading rights.

It did not end entirely, though, as the British Parliament still did not part with two remaining monopolies, salt and opium.

Nearly a century later, Mahatma Gandhi fought against the salt monopoly with his famous march to the Gujarat coastal town of Dandee.

However, soon after its formation, Carr Tagore and Company became the market leader in indigo, a product for which Bengal was famous.

Blue was the colour of fashion and the chemical blue dye was yet to be invented.

Moreover, with Dwarkanath’s special status amidst the ruling VIPs, and with the Press literally in his pocket, he got yet another ‘golden pass’, the freedom to ship opium to China.

Opium was long declared contraband by the Chinese empire, but the Company in Calcutta and Bombay minted money by selling it in public auctions.

It was then sent for onward transmission by the big time opium merchants of London, Bombay and Calcutta.

They in turn got their seadogs to carry it to dealers’ ghettoes in Canton.

With the poppy dollar, the East India Company, and later on Her Majesty’s Government, all but balanced the India budget.

They used the rather questionable income from contraband export to fund the century-long process of empire building.

Something that the poet Kipling rather self-righteously called “the white man’s burden”.

The lion’s share of the loot of course went to the traders, many of whom became wealthy and even dabbled in politics.

The ancestral wealth of former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt owes its origin to opium trade.

On the other hand, many Canton returned Britons became members of the British Parliament.

It is possible that opium bonanza is the root cause and origin of the wealth and prosperity that you see in, say, the Mayfair or Belgravia area of your city.

Still another portion of the opium wealth was obviously pocketed by the Canton merchants and their subordinates.

And that is the secret of prosperity of Hong Kong in the 19th century.

Dwarkanath was somewhere in between, being a middle level sub-agent in the opium trade.

But what is startling is the fact that the British had after all allowed him a share of the game

Opium was the currency of world trade at that time, and China its mint.

The only non-European people whom the British had allowed to ferry the contraband were Parsees.

They were called “near Orientals” and were treated differently from ‘natives’.

They had set up business in Canton long before the British.

But ordinary Indians had no role in it, except as poor poppy cultivators, or small time speculators.

Dwarkanath was the only exception.

Though he did not have a presence in China, a privilege limited only to Europeans and Parsees, he could still ship the goods directly to a British-owned firm in Canton.

That firm, Dent & Company, has long gone out of existence but, till the 1840’s, it was almost as big as Jardine & Matheson, the leader.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to calculate how much did Dwarkanath earn from the trade.

Shipping manifests of the era are generally silent about opium in the hold, the trade being clandestine.

Or “lawfully clandestine”, as a Calcutta newspaper described it in 1839.

But the significance of Dwarkanath’s involvement in the opium trade is far wider than money.

In capital starved India, where people concealed their savings rather than invest them, the inflow of cash from opium gave Dwarkanath opportunity to toy with a new concept.

It is entrepreneurship—an urge to use money for setting up new ventures and to take its attendant risks.

Dwarkanath used Carr Tagore and Company as lever to try and turn his entrepreneurial dreams into reality.

He bought for a pittance a dysfunctional coal pit from a company that had gone bust.

The he turned it into India’s first organized energy firm, the Bengal Coal Company.

With energy source under his command, his next venture was to launch steam navigation on a commercial scale.

He also had a plan ready to lay railway lines for tapping the faraway coal seams, and hauling it to the market in Calcutta.

With steam navigation under way, his new thrust was to launch a sea mail service from Calcutta to Suez.

From Suez, the consignments could go by stagecoach across the desert to Alexandria, and then by packet boats to Southampton.

On his second visit to Europe, soon after the coal company had got operational, he stopped over in Cairo.

There, he discussed with the Khedive, the Turkish viceroy ruling over Egypt, the idea of actually linking Suez and Alexandria across the desert with a railway line.

That was a good quarter century before Suez Canal came into being, at the initiative of Ferdinand de Lesseps.

All along, he was thinking of better transportation using mechanical energy.

It was as late as 1874 that Calcutta had its first pontoon bridge, or floating bridge, across the Hooghly river.

Decades before that, Dwarkanath was hawking the idea of using a ferry boat pulled during high tide by iron chain and steam engine.

It is something like the steam ferry then in existence, across the Hamoaze river, near Plymouth Sound.

Dwarkanath adapted the concept to the conditions in Calcutta, with chairs on the deck for higher ticket prices.

To him, all these were great ideas that would make life easier for one and all, regardless of who is ruling and who is ruled.

He wanted bright and educated Indians to fill in the bureaucratic posts.

He set up Landholders’ Association, the first advocacy group.

Among other things, it told the British that Indians would actually help them run the administration better.

As it was their country, after all, and they naturally knew it thoroughly.

As landlord he was not generous.

He led the British indigo firms into petitioning against the legislative changes initiated by Macaulay, the famous law member of the Company’s Council.

These changes had sought to liberate peasants from unjust and oppressive bondages in which planters got them trapped.

Dwarkanath was not a liberal, nor could colonial Bengal aspire to universal equality.

But he certainty wanted more equality in the world at large.

Dwarkanath lived in a very short window of history.

After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, Britain and India stopped listening to each other; Dwarkanath had died a decade earlier.

However, all through his short but intensely lived career, he sought to explore Europe’s inner life, in its art, culture and music.

And also in its emerging democratic politics.

He spent long times in Rome, Florence and Paris to buy art, often by selling his land assets in Bengal, and then to ship his purchases back to his Villa near Calcutta.

He had a good time with the London elite but also had a keen eye for the parallel development of the politics of dissent.

After his first visit to Europe in 1842, he took with him George Thompson, a powerful orator for slavery abolition.

From England, he rushed to Ireland during its worst drought and famine and met Daniel O’Connell, the charismatic leader of Irish Catholic identity.

He was an honoured guest of the French King Louis Philippe in Paris yet a close friend of Bonapartist groups in London.

Unfortunately, most of his grand projects could not flower due to East India Company’s subtle but forceful opposition.

But Dwarkanath’s advocacy for more Indians in the bureaucracy did succeed, after all, with many Indians becoming deputy magistrates after him.

They included Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, the celebrated novelist.

But the inclusive bureaucracy Dwarkanath had suggested climaxed two decades after him.

Indians were allowed from then to appear in competitive examinations in England for the prestigious and powerful Indian Civil Service.

The ICS is reputedly the “steel frame” of British rule in India.

Satyendra Nath Tagore, Dwarkanath’s grandson and Rabindranath’s elder brother, became the first Indian to qualify for the ICS.

Dwarkanath was a pioneer in making Indians compete not with other Indians, but with the world.

It was with his financial and political encouragement that the first batch of Indian students came to London to study Western medicine at the University of London.

And now there are Indian doctors not only manning your NHS but serving as FRCS examiners.

That trickle has now turned into torrent.

Baron Bhattacharyya, our esteemed Chief Guest, who is a product of IIT Kharagpur, now makes law for Britain.

He builds entrepreneurs from a British university and was honoured with a CBE here and a Padma Bushan from India.

Dwarkanath was the first to lead India into the world stage, but British colonialists were suspicious of him.

They got his big projects spiked one after the other.

The Calcutta-Suez sea mail project, for example, was handed over to a small Spanish shipping company called the Iberian.

It became known as P&O Company; its flag flies till today, though it is now a part of Dubai Port.

Dwarkanath was sad by the high mortality of his projects but he did not give up.

In fact he was planning to get elected as an MP in Britain.

William Gladstone, long before becoming prime minister of Britain, had reminded him that it might be difficult for him to join the parliament.

This is because, being a Hindu, he would not be able to take oath upon the Bible.

Dwarkanath argued that he could still do so as long as he reposed his faith in the Supreme Being.

Then death struck.

It is an irony of fate that, as he was approaching death in a hotel suite in London, on its way was a powerful recommendation from Bengal.

It was to create a class of special citizens in the colonies, on the model of Roman Empire in the ancient times.

Dwarkanath’s was the only name mentioned in the high level memo as a possible citizen of the proposed imperial order.

The move was too late, though.

Dwarkanath was suffering from an unknown ailment—it could be diabetes; he was taken to the coastal town of Worthing for a change of air.

Even there, he took with him his German musician who played his favourite sonatas while he lay in a semi-conscious state.

Within a year of his death, an economic crisis hit world trade, including India; his Carr Tagore company went in for liquidation and so did Union Bank.

Soon his family members turned away from business.

Instead they concentrated on the vast estates Dwarkanath had acquired, and lived off the fat of the land for the next hundred years.

His villa was sold off, and so were the rich collection of statues, busts, paintings, carpets and chandeliers.

Dwarkanath’s quest to discover the cultural heritage of the West came forth in Rabindranath’s lifelong intellectual and emotional links with Europe.

His art and music are a moving fusion of the two cultures.

Much as his grandfather learnt from the West the zeitgeist of the age of industry and gradual democratization of the West.

It was remiss of Rabindranath to ignore, or be blasé, for the ancestral gift that came down to him from his grandfather.

I am referring not just to the vast estates acquired by his grandfather that he inherited.

The idyllic beauty of the land, in today’s Bangladesh, and the abject poverty of its people, perhaps shaped Rabindranath’s persona as an author.

But his true inheritance was his grandfather’s ability to imbibe creative skills from alien cultures, with a tenacity rare for his age.

While staying in France, Dwarkanath often got Friedrich Maxmüller, then a young Indologist in Paris, to spend mornings with him.

Maxmüller accompanied him on the pianoforte, while he sang French and Italian songs.

The celebrated scholar wrote about it in his book on his Indian friends: “I soon found that Dwarkanath had not only a good voice but had been taught fairly well”.

It is strange that Rabindranath did not think it necessary to remember his grandfather anywhere in the vast body of his writings.

In fact it is Rabindranath himself who lit a bonfire of Dwarkanath’s personal and official papers in the Tagores’ ancestral home in North Calcutta.

It happened soon after his father Debendranath’s death in 1905.

Blair B. Kling, late historian, and author of “Partner in Empire”, a wonderful biography of Dwarkanath, wrote an article in the Visva Bharati Quarterly magazine under the headline, “Rabindranath’s Bonfire”, on this mysterious act of arson in an aristocratic family of the colonial era.

It was all the more sad because, with that fire perished almost every record of the contours of imagination of a brilliant mind.

It were not just the record books of his business that were lost.

The fire engulfed hundreds of his letters written to many of his contemporaries, and his diaries, as he was an indefatigable diarist.

With that went a large chunk of a unique chapter in the history of Indo-British relations.

Rabindranath’s hostility to his grandfather is an enigma which is difficult to explain.

It can be neither jealousy nor greed, as that does not square with Rabindranath’s character.

I think the real culprit in this case is colonialism, a poison that infects the ruler as well as the ruled, destroying reason and judgment.

Thus, despite being a “partner” in empire, Dwarkanath Tagore was himself a victim of the Empire.

He was ignored by his foreign allies when he sought fair play, and he got humiliated by his own flesh and blood when he was no more.

Later on, as India began charting its own course as a nation, it closed the lid on an eventful phase when Britain and India were toying with collaboration rather than conflict.

And the conquerors were half willing to make way for give the conquered some representation in running the country.

After Dwarkanath, the Tagores lost the capacity to treat the British on an equal footing, and, after 1857 mutiny, the Indo-British narrative changed irreversibly.

From then, the annals of the Tagores increasingly tended to begin and end with Rabindranath, with not even a footnote for his poor grandfather.

I shall be happy if today’s discussion can contribute to reversing the injustice done by colonialism and aggressive nationalism upon Dwarkanath Tagore, a spirited early moderniser of India.

Thank you.