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Orientalist Mirrors


Mohan Rao

HEALTH AND SOCIETY IN BENGAL: A SELECTION FROM LATE 19TH CENTURY BENGALI PERIODICALS
Edited by Pradip Kumar Bose
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 293, Rs. 680.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 9 September 2006

From about the middle of the nineteenth century in Bengal arose fierce debates about our country, our sciences, our arts, indeed our manners, customs and ceremonies. British racism had hardened during this period; to the colonizers it was evident that Indian civilization had nothing to offer, not science, not arts, indeed nothing at all. As Macaulay perhaps typifying this attitude said in his notorious Minute on education, all the learning of the East was not worth one shelf in any library in Europe. The reaction among the colonized was a sense of deep shame and anguish, filled too with nationalistic incomprehension, anger and pride. Along with the Orientalists, some of them harked back to the glory of ancient “Hindu” sciences, to the arts, and indeed to their “Aryan” past, a civilization that was said to have been at its pinnacle of achievements in diverse fields.   “Women and motherhood” has of course been an extremely important trope in the construction of nations across the world. In the case of India what is also imbricated in this discourse is the troubled, indeed fraught, ideas of Indian womanhood that had informed a range of nationalist debates in the 19th century, from age of consent to sati. During this period Indian women had been objects of nationalist reformist agendas setting right what were conceived of as the aberrations of the recent past; practices such as widow immolation and child marriages were evidence to the British that they did indeed have a civilizing mission among the barbaric and traditional natives. Extremely contentious debates had arisen about the new or modern Indian woman to be brought into being in a new Indian nation; a woman who was to be distinguished both from the materialistic ungodly western woman and the common Indian woman, superstitious and sexually promiscuous.   Reflecting these concerns, and as a consequence of the development of the science of eugenics – and of comparative anatomy, anthropology and phrenology – in the West, concern was equally about the degeneration of the Indian “race”. It was self evident that there was such a thing as race; it was equally self-evident that Brahmins, indeed the dwijas, were repositories of the ancient knowledge of the Aryans, albeit tarnished now due to centuries of foreign conquest. How, then, was India to re-attain her past glory? What had caused the degeneration of the Indian race? Could Ayurveda be given a new lease of ...


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