Marxist concept of a pure feudal-capitalist division 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.

Marxist concept of a pure feudal-capitalist division in Kolkata

Besides, the conventional Marxist concept of a pure feudal-capitalist division, which often influenced the evaluation of cultural forms, did not quite apply to the social and economic situation prevailing in nineteenth century Kolkata. The tendency to identify the new elite as a bourgeoisie with 'progressive' social and cultural ideas compared to the backward-looking ideology of the rural-oriented feudal society (which encompassed the urban lower orders also to some extent, since in their songs and other forms of cultural manifestations they hit out at social reforms like widow remarriage and women's education) may not lead us to an objective evaluation of the tensions and contradictions that prevailed in the cultural field in nineteenth century Kolkata. The Bengali elite were not a class of independent industrial entrepreneurs. The patrons as well as the artistes of the elite culture were primarily employees in the tertiary sector of a colonial administrative set-up deputy magistrates, teachers, doctors, lawyers and descendants of a class of absentee landlords who were also products of a colonial polity. Even when they championed social reforms like widow remarriage and women's education or asserted political rights like a free press and a voice in the administration, they continued to share certain feudal ideas and habits like strict caste distinctions and religious rituals, as well as subservience to the colonial power.

Conventional Marxist sense in nineteenth century Kolkata

Similarly, there was no proletariat in the conventional Marxist sense in nineteenth century Kolkata. The industrial working class which emerged from the middle of the century was numerically small, and did not quite fit into the classic Marxist category of a class sharing the common belief that they had 'nothing to lose but their chains'. Fragmented by caste and linguistic differences, the first generation of the industrial working class in nineteenth century Kolkata was yet to come out with a distinct cultural output bearing the stamp of its class character.

The reformist zeal of the Bengali elite

The rest of the city's lower orders were a working class who had come from a feudal background, and still retained to some extent traces of the past the pre-capitalist artisans, manual laborers, domestic servants, professional street singers, etc. In the songs and cultural performances which they patronized and participated in, we often come across sentiments that appear to be largely conservative compared with the reformist zeal of the Bengali elite. The male-dominated folk cultural forms frequently came out against reforms like widow remarriage or education of women, perceiving them as threats to their religious tradition. At the same time, Kolkata's folk artistes who came from the lower orders had a better understanding of the human situation than the more sophisticated elite writers. They had learn the hard way to see through the illusions of property, wealth, power and ambition. Their songs and dramatic performances, their paintings and pantomimes therefore hit out more directly against the habits of both the nouveaux riches and the orthodox Hindus the Anglicized customs of the parvenu and the hypocrisy of the priests. Thus, in one sense, their cultural expressions could be interpreted as a more radical manifestation of social protest coming from the bottom, directed against both the new colonial influence and the old feudal customs, in a language that was more earthy and authentic than that cultivated by the educated gentry.


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