Sociology and cultural criticism in Kolkata

This work seeks to compare the cultural productions of two socio-economic groups of Bengalis in nineteenth century Kolkata. It is a study of the major types of representation in Bengali, in the print (published literature) and audio-visual (songs, dramatic performances, paintings, etc.) media—as they reflect the patterns of behavior and attitudes acquired from the past by the respective socio-economic groups, and as well as their responses to the social trends of the period.

Sociology and cultural criticism

Until comparatively recent times, there had been a marked tendency to see the two disciplines as to some degree antithetical. But this breach is now showing real signs of being closed. The old assumptions that culture can be explained solely in terms of commercial or economic structures on the one hand, or explicated only by the rules of aesthetic analysis on the other, have given way to a pluralistic approach such as to be found in the studies carried out by the Centre for Contemporary Studies at Birmingham (founded in 1964 by Richard Hoggart as a research grouping within the English Department of the University), or in the numerous products of inter-disciplinary research like E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class (1963); John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972); and Raymond Williams' articles.

Culture in a colonial society in Kolkata

The theories regarding development of culture in a colonial society, in the context of nineteenth century Kolkata, can be roughly divided into four streams. First, the Euro-centric view of the nineteenth century which held that a single standard of rationality could be used for evaluating human institutions, and since contemporary West European society was said to have achieved the highest expression of a rational thought, people of the European colonies could achieve a higher quality of civilization in the manner of Europeans by imbibing what the Western intelligentsia valued as rational. According to this view, all the existing forms of culture in the-colonies were to be evaluated in terms of their similarity or dissimilarity to the culture of Europe. The main nineteenth century proponents of this Euro-centric view in the Indian context were James Mill (in his History of British India) and Thomas Babington Macaulay (in his 1835 Minute where he asserted: 'a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia'). The education system which influenced the nineteenth century Bengali elite was in a large measure formulated on the basis of this theory.

The second stream could be described as Orientalist which stressed the study of the ancient classics, religion and linguistics of the colonial societies, and envisaged a development of culture in those societies on those traditional lines. In the Indian context, the main representatives of this line of thought were Warren Hastings, William Jones and H. H. Wilson among others, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Culture, in their view, was to be studied in its linguistic and religious aspects, detached from questions of its social evolution. The stress was on spiritual as against material reflection in cultural productions.

Euro-centric and Orientalist evaluations of culture

It should be pointed out that both the nineteenth century Euro-centric and Orientalist evaluations of culture in India although apparently pursuing opposite ends were primarily oriented towards the indigenous elite. The former encouraged 'acculturation' of the higher occupational groups who could afford English education, and thus create a culture incorporating the values of the West. The latter encouraged 'conservation' of the products of a traditional courtly culture, Sanskrit and Persian classics, temples, mosques and monuments, the preserves of the old indigenous elite. Neither placed any value on the social worth of the contemporary lower orders and their cultural output. Traditional folk culture, or the new urban folk culture developing in nineteenth century Kolkata, was out of the purview of theoreticians of both the schools. If at all, the different forms of folk culture prevalent in Kolkata in those days were objects of derision in the eyes of these theoreticians.

Rabindranath Tagore field the ancient Upanishads in the culture of Kolkata

Over the years, both these schools lost their sharp edges and blended to evolve a liberal approach towards the interpretation of cultural developments in India. Ram Mohan Roy's attempts in the early nineteenth century to discover common areas of agreement between contemporary Western thought and the ancient Upanishads were extended in the cultural field by Rabindranath Tagore in the early twentieth century. Expressing the liberal spirit of harmonizing elements from both Occidental and Oriental cultures, Tagore said: 'We congratulate ourselves on the fact, and consider it a sign of our being live in soul, that European thoughts and literary forms found immediate hospitality in Bengali literature from the very beginning of their contact with our mind. It ushered in a great revolution in the realm of our literary expression. And yet, we may go too far if we altogether reject tradition in the cultivation of the arts, and it is an incomplete statement of truth to say that habits have the sole effect of deadening our mind.'


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