Sutista Ghosh

Assistant Professor of English, WBES
Kabi Jagadram Roy Government General Degree College, Mejia
([email protected])


This paper attempts to explore the traits of alternative modernity in Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri’s popular science writings by focusing on how he incorporates indigenous elements in the evidently derivative space of popular science writing for children in the juvenile periodicals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial Bengal. Upendrakishore’s attempts of indigenization can be seen to be in keeping with the burgeoning nationalist spirit, especially that of the nationalist Brahmo leaders who aimed, firstly, at identifying with the indigenous culture and then revitalizing it from within with the ideals of western modernity which thereby revealed their ambivalent responses to modernity, situated between the pulls of sameness and difference. DilipParameshwarGaonkar aptly observes that, “Everywhere, at every national or cultural site, the struggle with modernity is old and familiar” (Alternative Modernities22). Therefore, while Upendrakishore accepted the modern ideals of rationality in reforming the traditional cultural epistemologies and thereby creating a modern scientific temperament among the children through his popular science articles, he at the same time was engaged in incorporating indigenous, culturally informed “functional equivalents” of western modernity from his own tradition, exhibiting the spirit of “creative adaptation.” The ‘particular’ form of modernity for Upendrakishore, then, constituted in combining the reformed Indian cultural tradition with the apparently western corpus of science and thereby making a ‘difference’ therein which then came to manifest the essence of alternative or national modernity in him.

Keywords : Alternative modernity, nationalist spirit, popular science, indigenous culture, western epistemology, creative adaptation.

The very response to modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal, had always been ambivalent, dwindling between the pulls of acceptance and rejection, simply because the history of modernity in India had been invariably embedded in the history of colonialism. The ambivalence, that can be theoretically put as that between the “pull of sameness and the forces making for difference”1(Alternative Modernities 17), in the response to modernity was an offshoot of the cultural project of nationalism that in its burgeoning state formulated its nationalist ideology in terms of a creative synthesis between the “best of the West and the best of the East” (Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World 77). In the context of modernity, this can be articulated by taking recourse to Charles Taylor’s theoretical formulation of “creative adaptation”. According to him those who attempt at “creative adaptation” happen to be “drawing on the cultural resources of their own tradition that would enable them to take on the new practices successfully” (“Two Theories of Modernity” 183). However, between these two extremes, there was the proclivity to negotiate between the pulls of acceptance leading to “sameness” and at the same time the crucial nationalist necessity to make “difference”and it is this negotiation wherein lies the essence of alternative modernity. If at all there exists any universal feature of modernity, it is that by making one apply the elements of rationality, it helps determine the particular demands of one’s ‘own modernity’ or to mould the understanding of western modernity so as to make it suitable for one’s particular condition2. The spirit of alternative modernity lies in finding one’s “own” or “particular” modernity.

It is from this premise that the basic arguments of this paper would follow. In the corpus of science articles for children in the juvenile periodicals which heavily borrow from western science, one finds how the middle-class, reformed Bengali intelligentsia, under the profound inspiration of nationalist feelings, exercised the modern ideals of rationality to determine that the particular needs of their situation would never be fulfilled by merely translating and mindless aping of the western science but by incorporating within it such elements as derived from indigenous tradition that would endow it with an indigenous dimension and also put it in a specific native context. The particular needs, as becomes evident, were for creating accomplished future citizens bereft of colonial indignities, empowered with scientific knowledge and surcharged with nationalist feelings through their encounter with the indigenous elements.

In so far as Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri’s popular science articles are concerned which he contributed to various juvenile periodicals of his time including his very own Sandesh3, one finds that he too often derived materials for his science writings from western sources. However, it is not always that he mentions the sources of his derivation explicitly as when he declares at the end of his article “Machrangar School” (“The School of Kingfisher”) that it has been derived from English books or mentions at the end of his article “MulBarna” (“The Original Colour”) that it has been derived from Deschanel’s Natural Philosophy. The derivative nature of his science writings is to be understood implicitly from various references to the stories of sahibs, and European adventurers that he incorporates within them. But what is significant is that even within that presumably derivative space, he leaves his unique signature of indigenization.

Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri, a prominent children’s writer of nineteenth century colonial Bengal, sometimes embraces traditional Indian myths while writing science articles for children which can be perceived as his unique way of indigenizing an apparently western epistemology i.e., science. One of the basic premises around which the nationalist consciousness was gradually taking shape in colonial India and its growth predicated upon, as Partha Chatterjee observes, was the revaluation of the attributes of indigenous ‘culture’ and locating the difference therein: “The more nationalism engaged in its contest with the colonial power. . ., the more it insisted on displaying the marks of its “essential” cultural difference. . .” (Nation and its Fragments 26). Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay tried to locate this difference in the spiritual dimension of indigenous Hindu culture that presupposed superiority on the grounds of ethics. The reason behind projecting Hindu philosophy as the national-cultural ideal was that Hinduism was practised by the majority of Indian population and also that Hindu religious culture was supposed to share a ground of commonalityowing its origin to a common language i.e., ancient Indian classical Sanskrit or any language allied to it (Nationalist Thought 76). Almost at the same time, the Adi Brahmo leaders’ defence of indigenous culture against west-inspired ideologies also led to the earliest expression of nationalist feelings and ideologies in colonial Bengal. As David Kopf comments: “Rajnarain (Bose) was perhaps the earliest of all the Adi leaders to respond. . . with a bold nationalist plan . . .” (179). Another leader of Adi Brahmo Samaj, Dwijendranath Tagore, was again a passionate upholder of nationalist culture whose nationalist ideology was based on the perception that westernizing model was anything but useful to nation-building and modernism. He, therefore, argued that national modernizers had to first identify with their indigenous culture and then work within it so as to revitalize it(Kopf 185).

In the context of the upsurge of nationalist consciousness in terms of the Hindu philosophy and culture, Upendrakishore’s incorporation of ancient Sanskritic tradition—epical, mythical and literary—associated with Hindu cultural tradition, in the corpus of his popular science writing deserves critical attention. Raychaudhuri, a follower of Brahmoism, made attempts to make the children identify with their national-cultural ideal. Unlike his father-in-law Dwarakanath Ganguli’s explicit involvement in Indian nationalism, there was little explicitly nationalistic in Upendrakishore for, as ChandakSengoopta so pithily expresses, “Upendrakishore sought ultimately to build the future nation” (emphasis original 7). In so far as Upendrakishore’s incorporation of direct traditional cultural references in popular science writings is concerned, one comes to understand that he perceives them as repertoire of collective traditional knowledge which the children must know along with the scientific details. In employing these parts of indigenous cultural epistemologies, he seems to have two specific purposes—either to extend the horizon of imagination of the children through analogies or to simply discard the absurdities associated with the myths. Imagination is considered to be an important attribute of cultural modernity. The primers of the first half of the nineteenth century in colonial Bengal, fashioned as per the western pedagogical practices prevalent in eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, emphasised objective rationality and a distrust of imagination. However, what they actually revolted against was the absurdities of imaginary tales; but in their militant adherence to western rationalism, they shunned all kinds of imaginative elements often embedded in traditional folk, fairy and mythical tales that might have had a positive impact upon the children. By seeking the trait of western cultural modernity i.e., imagination in the indigenous resources of traditional culture and in considering imagination to be an aid in the rational appreciation of science, Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri certainly unfolds the spirit of alternative modernity within the textual peripheries of popular science writings. Again, he evinces another aspect of negotiation with modernity, thereby manifesting the spirit of alternative modernity, when he at first brings up and then discards—implicitly or explicitly—those elements of myths that he considers to be irrational and hence unscientific.

In the text, “Sheyaler Golpo” (“Tale of Fox”)4, as Upendrakishore attempts to humourously broach the topic of the fox’s supposedly wide range of knowledge coupled with cunningness, he brings in an analogy that involves an indigenous reference to a Bengali caste and a traditional Indian myth: “Just as napits5 are among the humans, the crows among the birds, Naradamuni among the gods, so is the fox among the animals” (Upendrakishore Samagra 745). In Hindu mythology Naradamuni, the son of Brahma and devout worshipper of Lord Vishnu, is known to be a great Vedic sage who was also called “devarshi”—the king of all the rishis—for the range of his knowledge, intellectual sagacity and wisdom. Along with Narada’s scholastic range of knowledge, many anecdotes about his natural mischievous cunningness also find expressions in Hindu mythologies. As Upendrakishore appropriates this myth about Naradamuni to define the scholastic attitude of the fox along with its shrewd cunningness, his primary intention seems to be expanding the imagination of the children where they can imaginatively connect the scientific truth about fox’s cunning knowledge with that of the mythical stories of Naradamuni.

In the article, “Gorilla”, as Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri expatiates on the Gorillas who reside in the African forests, he tries to inculcatein the children the very idea about the position of Gorilla among the African animals. In this connection, he introduces an analogy from the ancient Indian epic Ramayana: “Just as Hanuman was among the warriors of Sri Ramachandra, so is gorilla among the animals of that country (Africa)” (748). The point of similarity that the analogy tries to bring home is regarding the ‘chief’ status or position shared by Hanuman and Gorilla in their respective contexts. In Ramayana, Hanuman is the devout devotee of Sri Ramachandra and the chief of the monkey-warriors who fought for the sake of Sri Rama: “Hanuman expanded the notion of the divine, perhaps more than any other being in Hindu mythology. He appeared as an agent governed by dharma like any human, yet while in an animal form he was divine” (Handbook of Hindu Mythology 146). What is significant is that Upendrakishore avoids mentioning, perhaps deliberately, the mythical accounts of superhuman adventures undertaken by Hanuman like the lifting up of the whole mountain of Kailasa, building the bridge across ocean (setubandhana) to reach Lanka, slaughtering the demoness of Mount Mainaka and the like; neither does he extol the status of divinity enjoyed by Hanuman in the Hindu cult of devotion. Rather, by comparing the Hanuman with Gorilla, he simply underscores its ‘animal form’. His adoption of the reference from the Ramayana in his analogy is secular and in keeping with the essence of Brahmo spirit of modernity. However, by bringing in an analogy from ancient Indian mythical tradition, he happens to create an imaginative space where the children can at least imaginatively reconnect with mythical stories of Hanuman and Sri Ramachandra so as to understand the position and status of Gorilla among the African animals.

In the article, “Timingil”, Upendrakishore happens to introduce the children with mammoth sea animals like, what was known in ancient Indian tradition as,timingilwhich literally means a gigantic sea animal which can even gulp a whale. Herein, he brings in a reference from the ancient Sanskrit epic Raghuvamsam by the great classical poet Kalidasa where physical detail about the whales is found. In Canto 13 of Raghuvamsam, as Kalidasa depicts Rama and Sita over the “foaming sea”, Rama finds whales and other sea-creatures frolicking in the water of the ocean: “And great fish, with gaping jaws take in the river flows, together with creatures in them, and then spout the water through the openings upon their head” (371-72). Upendrakishore’s purpose of introducing this reference from the Sanskrit epic is to point out to the children that even an ancient Indian epic has pertinently captured the scientific details about the whales which is actually matched by the practical observation.

In “Akasher Katha: Dui” (“About Sky: Two”) which is a scientific article on astronomical issues, Upendrakishore attempts to inform the children about the scientific facts regarding the stars. Here, he introduces a myth from the Mahabharata where Arjuna while undertaking his journey from earth to heaven encountered some effulgent personalities and came to know from Indra’s charioteer Matali that these were the congealed souls of the pious personalities transformed into stars6 (831-32). By introducing this myth from the ancient Indian epic tradition, Upendrakishore acquaints the children with a part of their cultural tradition that has some connection with the astronomical imaginings of the stars.

Many such similar instances can be cited from Upendrakishore’s popular science writings. An analysis of Upendrakishore’s incorporation of the indigenous elements from the ancient Indian Sanskritic tradition reveals that in his vision, mythic imagination and scientific imagination were not always exclusive but often inclusive, as myths and references from ancient Indian tradition are often seen to endorse scientific truths and observations.Again, imaginative dimension which is taken to be the characteristic of myths often forms the basis of and leads to the imagination that is proper to science. This is one perspective that justifies the claim of alternative modernity exhibited by Upendrakishore as he provided the culturally informed indigenous equivalents of the western cultural modernity i.e., imagination. Again, Upendrakishore proves deliberately meticulous in discarding the irrational aspects of mythical traditions with a view to developing scientific temperament among the children. Tradition, when carefully reformed through modern ideals of rationality, was considered worthy to sustain and nourish children leading to a better nation where the boons of modernity would be firmly rooted in and harmonised with the best elements of indigenous tradition and culture. In the nationalist context, the concept of modernity envisioned by Upendrakishore was, therefore, a ‘different’ or ‘alternative’ modernity that combined tradition and modernity, myth and science, imagination and rationality in a holistic harmonious unison.

Notes :

  1. In this context, it is worthwhile to take note of DilipParameshwarGaonkar’s further elaborations on this point: “However, to think in terms of alternative modernities does not mean one blithely abandons the Western discourse of modernity. That is virtually impossible. . . . Whoever elects to think in terms of alternative modernities must think with and also against the tradition of . . . many other Western (born and trained) thinkers” (Alternative Modernities14-15).
  2. See Partha Chatterjee’s “Our Modernity” (p.8).
  3. Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri started writing for the children by contributing to the children’s periodical Sakha in 1883. He also wrote extensively for the famous contemporary juvenile periodicals Sathi, Sakha o Sathi, and Mukul. At the age of fifty, in 1913, he himself took the onus of publishing a children’s periodical of his own and the outcome was Sandesh that was to become the most popular children’s magazine in the coming years.
  4. The excerpts from Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri’s popular science articles like “SheyalerGolpo” and others that have been taken for analysis in this paper, have been translated by myself.
  5. Napit is the Bengali equivalent of English barber. Napit refers to a traditional Hindu caste occupationally engaged in haircutting. In the traditional Bengali society, the napits are known for their cunningness and penchant for cracking humourous jokes.

6.         The episode is described in Indralokagamana Parva of the Mahabharata (Book 3: Vana Parva, Section XLII). See The Mahabharata of Vyasa by Kisari Mohan Ganguly ( p. 96).

References :

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. Zed Books, 1986.

—-The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Oxford UP, 1995.

—. Our Modernity. SEPHIS, 1997.

Gaonkar, DilipParameshwar, editor. Alternative Modernities. Duke University Press, 2001.

Haskar. A.N.D., translator. Raghuvamsam: The Line of Raghu. By Kalidasa, Penguin Books, 2016.

Jana, Sunil, editor. UpendrakishoreSamagra. By Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri, Dey’s Publishing, 2007.

Kopf, David. The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind. Princeton University Press, 1979.

Sengoopta, Chandak. The Rays before Satyajit: Creativity and Modernity in Colonial India. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Taylor, Charles. “Two Theories of Modernity.” Alternative Modernities, edited by Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, Duke University Press, 2001, pp. 172-196.

Williams, George M. Handbook of Hindu Mythology. ABC-CLIO, 2003.

About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.