Asiatic Societies of Bengal and Bombay

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ASIATIC SOCIETIES OF BENGAL AND BOMBAY Despite frequent disclaimers in their archives, the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Asiatic Society of Bombay had close and valuable links with the government, particularly at their inception and in the early decades of their growth. High officials of the East India Company (EIC), including successive governors-general in Calcutta (Kolkata) and governors of Bombay (Mumbai), were associated with those two societies as president or patrons, and the government, directly or indirectly, helped them with funds and space to house their books and antiquities.

The question of such association is important to the debate over whether the objectives of these societies was to understand India with a view to better administer an alien people with a rich past or whether the societies were purely learned bodies in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

The Asiatic Society of Bengal

The intellectually oriented among the early elites of the EIC in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were motivated both by a genuine academic interest in India's past as well as the practical value of such knowledge in their administration. The Asiatic Society of Bengal's famous founder, Sir William Jones (1746–1794), who had arrived in India to take over as judge only a few months earlier, admitted that he wanted to study ancient Hindu law to help him in his work. At the same time, he told the gathering of thirty at the society's inaugural event on 15 January 1784 that the society's object of inquiry would be "Man and Nature . . . whatever is performed by one or produced by the other." The society's focus would be Asia, not Europe. The company's governor-general, Warren Hastings, was elected patron, while Jones became its first president, a position he held until his death a decade later.

Among the fine scholars who presented research papers at the society's first meetings were the leading lights of Indology: William Jones, Henry Thomas Colebrooke, H. H. Wilson, William Carey, and James Prinsep. They translated the most important texts from Sanskrit and several from Persian, commenting on them and devising systems of transliteration, as well as deciphering scripts. Their combined labors would not only introduce India's rich heritage to the West but to subsequent generations of English-educated Indians who lacked proficiency in Sanskrit. Such knowledge of India's past has had an impact on the Indian Renaissance and on the growth of a new spirit of nationalism.

The society's extensive early research was published from 1788 to 1839 in twenty volumes of Asiatick Researches. In 1832 the Journal of the Asiatic Society ofBengal began publication; it was integrated in 1904 with Proceedings of the Asiatic Society, begun in 1869. Renamed the Journal of the Asiatic Society in 1953, the journal continues to be published. Additionally, the society published between 1905 and 1933 a serial called Memoirs, which included archaeological and geological surveys, census reports, and treatises on law and revenue systems.

In 1808 the society moved into its own building, constructed on a plot gifted by the government. In the same year, the government also gave the society the invaluable Tipu Sultan Library collection, seized after the fall of Seringapatnam. That famous collection includes an illuminated manuscript of the Qurʾan and of the Padshanamah, bearing the autograph of Shah Jahan. The society also received Surveyor-General Colonel Colin Mackenzie's large personal library, a collection principally on South India, as well as N. Wallich's botanical library and the entire library of the government's Fort William College. Over the years, gifts to the society from all over the world have included about five thousand various journals (only about one hundred are subscribed), comprising over 110,000 volumes. Donations of personal libraries such as of Nirmal Chandra Chunder, Prafulla Chandra Sarkar, Nirmal Kumar Bose, C. R. Cama, and Jnananjan Niyogi form but a part of what is probably the best collection in Asia on premodern India as well as India in the British era.

In 1833, 1843, 1856, 1884, 1910, and 1934, the society published catalogs of its collections. Since independence, several catalogs have been added: Arabic-Persian materials by Muliar Rahman in 1958; Hindi books by G. N. Bhattacharji in 1967; and Bengali books by S. Chaudhuri in 1968. Plans have been underway for a comprehensive catalog of all books, manuscripts, inscriptions, coins, drawings and antique objects in the library and museum.

The tradition of governmental assistance to the society continued after India's independence. In 1961 the governments of India and of West Bengal financed the construction of a new building for the society, which, on its completion in February 1965, was inaugurated by President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. In 1984, at the time of the society's bicentennial, the Indian Parliament designated it as an Institution of National Importance, making the central government responsible for the full funding of its operations. One of the last acts of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was to participate in the celebration and to announce a special grant of fifty million rupees. Both central and state governments nominate representatives to the society's executive body.

The Asiatic Society of Bombay

The Asiatic Society of Bombay was first established in 1804 as the Literary Society of Bombay by Sir James Mackintosh, the recorder of Bombay, at the official residence of Governor Jonathan Duncan. Among those present at the event were historian William Erskine, Sir Charles Forbes, the much-acclaimed artist Henry Salt, and Viscount Valentina, whose journals of travels in the East with sixty engravings by Salt, would be published in 1809. The inspiration for founding the Bombay society may have been provided by the older Asiatic Society of Bengal, since two attendees at the Bombay conclave, Duncan and Erskine, were among the founders and active participants of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Mackintosh defined the Bombay society's objective as "promoting useful knowledge particularly such as is more immediately connected with India."

In 1829 the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain (established in London in 1823) invited the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Literary Society of Bombay, and the Literary Society of Madras (established in 1812) to join it, assuring them that their administrative and fiscal independence would be respected; the societies in Bombay and Madras agreed. Known thereafter as the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, the organization moved into the northern wing of the magnificent new town hall between 1830 and 1833.

The first phase of the society's history ended in 1840, when the membership, thus far restricted to Europeans, was opened to Indians. In that year, Sir Maneckji Cursetji, a Parsi philanthropist from Bombay, joined the Royal Asiatic Society during a visit to London, which entitled him to use the facilities of its branches anywhere in the world. Having admitted Cursetji, the Bombay Branch was obliged, reluctantly, to open its doors to other Indians. Scores of educated, affluent Indians, fluent in English, applied for membership. Several prominent citizens, among them Jagannath Shankarshet, Premchand Roychand, and Sir Jamsetji Jeejibhoy, joined the society. Scholarly works by Englishmen were complemented by the research of brilliant Indian scholars like Pandit Bhagwanlal Indraji and Bhau Daji Lad. The third phase of the society's development, from about 1885 until India's independence in 1947, was dominated by Indian scholars like Kashinath Trimbak Telang, the first Indian serve as president of the Bombay Branch, a judge of the High Court and vice-chancellor of Bombay University. Equally important was the research of society members Sir Ramakrishna Bhandarkar, Jivanji Mody, and K. R. Cama.

Although scholarly papers read at the society's meetings were published periodically as Transactions, the society started a journal in 1841, which with changes of name continues to be published annually as the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay. The society's valuable collection includes a 1350 a.d. manuscript of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (Benito Mussolini offered one million pounds sterling for it and was refused), an illustrated Shahnama, Kalpasutra, Aranyaka Parvan and many other valuable rare volumes; fifteen thousand coins, including gold coins of Samudra Gupta and Akbar; fifteen hundred maps and charts; and several thousand manuscripts in Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian.

In 1947, with the advent of independence, the Bombay Branch dropped its royal links, becoming simply the Asiatic Society of Bombay. In 1954 the society agreed to the government's proposal to designate it one of the four "central" libraries under the Delivery of Books Act with responsibility to receive, catalog, and preserve books published in all Indian languages anywhere in India. The society regained its independence after four decades of fiscal dependence on government through a court-ordered separation of the Central Library effective 1 July 1994. Arguably the greatest achievement of the society during the fourth phase of its history was the publication of Mahamahopadhyaya P. V. Kane's multivolume History of Dharmashastra, which brought him the highest honor in India, the Bharata Ratna (jewel of India).

In the decade beginning 1989, when the undersigned was president of the society, it launched a massive fund-raising campaign to implement initiatives to prepare the society for its bicentennial. Nearly 60 million rupees were collected, including 20 million from the central government—the bulk of the balance coming from Bombay's philanthropists: foundations and trusts, corporations, and individuals. The reserve fund was reconstituted and a corpus fund created, enabling the society to fund a number of fellowships, endowed lectures, and research projects. Among the new facilities created were microfilming and conservation laboratories and renovation of the society's famed Durbar Hall, adorning it with oil portraits of some of the greatest scholar-members of the society. Bharat Ratna Mahamahopadhyaya, in whose name the society had already established a center for research in 1972, was singled out for a bronze bust in the vestibule.

D. R. SarDesai


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