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From Aristocracy to Artefact: Introduction to Kolkata’s Bhadralok Culture

The bhadraloks built their reputation for having a certain evolved sense of the world

-Hindol Sengupta/ fortuneindia.com

Bhadralok Culture

The existence of aristocratic strata within Kolkata’s cultural milieu highlights a legacy characterised by influence and refinement or so it seems. The Bhadralok culture may have sprung up in the 19th century and established a great influence on the culture, politics and arts of the region, but it is now deemed as a relic that is no longer in need. We start with the humble beginnings of “Bhadralok” under the colonial regime and move on to fascinating titbits around them.

Beginning and Traits of Bhadralok Class in Calcutta

During the colonial era, an interesting development occurred, a new category of class was initiated called the bhadralok, or ‘people of commodities’. Including landowners and former Mughal administrators who established themselves in Calcutta, these once-elite individuals developed close relationships with the East India Company’s management. As they entered the city, their manner of life drastically changed as they adopted new professions that catered to the British, such as moneylenders and interpreters. They eagerly absorbed Western knowledge, assimilating European traditions and philosophical viewpoints, and embellishing Calcutta with the glamour of intellectualism and cosmopolitanism. Speaking about the main characteristics of a Bhadralok, they took up professions such as law, education and even opportunities provided by the British Raj. They did not undertake tasks of manual labour, as that would muddy their reputation, some exemplary names with Bhadralok were Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekanand, Rabindranath Tagore, and even Satyajit Ray. All men of great “character”who were deemed as renaissance men in their time.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy - Wikipedia
Raja Ram Mohan Roy| courtesy: Wikipedia

What is Bhadralok?

The term Bhadralok, according to the Bangla Academy dictionary means a “gentleman”, “someone kind and honest”. It wasn’t about being born into a specific class, but about earning respect and trust. Being wealthy didn’t automatically make one a Bhadralok; it was more about being well-mannered and reliable. Being a Bhadralok didn’t depend on caste or social status either. It was mainly about being cultured and trustworthy, qualities valued in society. The Bhadralok community took great pride in patronising Hindu temples or even the known processions during Durga Puja. Speaking of patronage during Durga Puja, the Bhadralok culture which was diminishing made a comeback at a South Kolkata Pandal around 5 years ago. The genteel intellectual elite rose again, with their culture, artefacts and aesthetics were embellished throughout the pandal. In this pandal, artisans have brought back an era when the Bhadralok held sway. They’ve meticulously recreated every detail, from grand white columns and checkered flooring to crystal chandeliers. Inside, you’ll find iconic items from the past like elegant chairs, ornate mirrors, regal hookahs, antique clocks, and gramophones, each vying for your attention.

The Bhadralok community and genteel intellectual elite man clad in white kurtas and black jutties with a shawl wrapped around their shoulder imparting intellectual wisdom to anyone who wishes to lend their ears. Post independence, there was a demise in the Bhadralok culture and it reminds one of Nirad Chaudhuri’s prophetic words about the demise of the genteel Bengali: “We do not know how the end will come, whether through a cataclysmic holocaust or a slow putrid decay.”

Bhadralok Archives - Dhara
Bhadralok Archives Dhara | Courtesy: Dhara

Bhadraloks were people who had an entrepreneurial spirit and the zest of innovation, they were creative individuals such as Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore who were trailblazers in their own accord. Bhadralok were known to impact the musical realm, the arts and even the architecture of Bengal. They were nationalistic in their thinking, who put nation first and built a unique Bengali idealogy and changed the diaspora of Bengal.

Pioneers within the Bhadralok Community

Madhusudan Gupta, an Ayurvedic vaid, or baidya, was one of the Bhadralok’s leading figures. He broke with custom by handling cadavers and became the first Indian to successfully perform a human dissection in 1836. His ground-breaking research questioned accepted wisdom and paved the way for developments in medical science. A crucial turning point in the medical history of colonial India was reached when S. C. Chuckerbutty, another well-known Bhadralok, became the first Indian to enter the Indian Medical Service. Radhanath Sikdar, a gifted mathematician and surveyor who was also a bhadralok, was the one who took the initial precise measurements of the peak that the British administration named George Everest.

Madhusudan Gupta - Wikipedia
Madhusudan Gupta | Courtesy: Wikipedia

Some business barons, such as Dwarkananth Tagore, Mutty Lal Seal, and Ramdulal Sarkar, saw the early prospects in steamships, railroads, coal dealing, and banking. Like Tagore, many of these individuals invested a sizable portion of their wealth in fostering innovation. For example, Tagore provided funding to pioneering medical students like as Chuckerbutty and gave large, rent-free land to train Native Americans in the profitable field of flax cultivation. For example, at a time when trading with England and Europe was the standard, Ramdulal Sarkar was a pioneer in trading with American trading firms (from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Salem).

The Bengal Renaissance and Bhadralok

It is believed that with the advent of western education amongst the “elite” of Bengal, led to the creation of Bhadralok and laid the foundation for the Bengal renaissance. It began in the late 18th to mid-20th century, the region experienced a socio-political awakening across various domains, spearheaded by the Bhadralok, who emerged as the proponents of modernity distinct from both the Zamindars and the Chhotolok. They led the discourse on liberalism, progressivism, and anti-colonialism, defying British attempts to cultivate a compliant colonial class. Despite later perceptions of intellectual aloofness, the Bhadralok’s legacy remains integral to modern, independent India, shaping its foundational ideologies of liberalism and progressivism.

Journal of Bengali Studies: Call for Papers
Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray, the quintessential bhadraloks, in conversation in 1991 | Courtesy: https://bengalistudies.blogspot.com/

Bhadralok’s in Independent India and Today

A particular image of the bhadralok emerged in the post-Independence era of the 1970s: wearing a jhola, speaking up politically, enjoying a wide range of interests from sports to international movies, and leaning towards socialist beliefs. This person represents a contradictory fusion, upholding a sharp division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture while promoting Marxism and working-class emancipation. It’s interesting to note that the idea of the bhadralok is mainly perceived as a thing of the past these days, frequently considered as an artefact that has to be uncovered from colonial archives.

Feature image: Bengali Bhadralok Couple From Babu & Bibi Series by Lalu Prasad Shaw| Courtesy: Architecture Digest



Bengali Babus of the 19th Century

The formation of the bhadralok métisse culture : the role played by the Hindu College and the Sanskrit College between 1813 and 1854.
Modern Asian Studies 52, 2 (2018) pp. 683–715. CambridgeUniversity Press 2017

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