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A Nuanced Relationship

Pradip Kumar Datta

By Tithi Bhattacharya
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 272, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 10 October 2005

It had been a while since I last read a book of cultural history of India that forefronts the importance of class. This is one of the reasons why I found Tithi Bhattacharya’s book refreshing. The chief merit of this book is its rich and insightful discussion of how class and institutional frameworks of the greater part of the nineteenth century mould questions of education, reading and print. The book covers the period between 1848 and 1885. The first date marks the collapse of the Union Bank (symbolically the end of the phase of ‘native’ enterprise) setting the context for the turn to cultural achievement as the distinctive mark of the bhadralok.   In her introduction Bhattacharya indicates that she will depart from histories of the bhadralok that derive their definition from the self-definition of the bhadralok. Thankfully for us she takes her prescriptions less seriously than the self-representations of the bhadralok. But she uses bhadralok self-definitions to heterogenize and socially locate them. This allows her to generate fresh insights into what could have been otherwise a staid and obvious historical narrative. Her point of departure is taken from Sumit Sarkar’s distinction between the cultural and material worlds and between the upper and lower reaches of the bhadralok and she devotes the first two chapters to its specification. Bhattacharya begins with an early description of the nineteenth century of the bhadralok given in Bhabani Bandopadhyay’s well-known Kalikata Kamalalaya as consisting of three tiers.   She goes on to recount how the top level of this class, that is, the merchants (dewans and banias who dominated early nineteenth century society) were produced through the requirements of the agency houses and, in a more original register, how they reproduced themselves as a distinctively “Indian” class through its mapping of urban space on rural grids in addition to their well-recorded pursuits of conspicuous cultural consumption. From here Bhattacharya transits to the real “substance’ of her thesis, that is, to the other two tiers of the bhadralok consisting firstly of the professional classes with rural landholdings, a class that increased in power and influence as the colonial authorities progressively admitted Indians at the upper levels of the administration. The other sector of the bhadralok consists of the clerical “kerani” class.   Bhattacharya takes on board the unifying self-definition and practice of education as the one that constitutes the core of the bhadralok identity. In a perceptive ...

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