Learning the Language of Power: Calcutta Madrasah as a site of Encounter


Tuesday 18th November 2014

Nellist Room (Room 1.28), 19 Abercromby Square

Professor Nilanjana Gupta, Jadavpur University

Professor Gupta’s paper explored the history of the Calcutta Madrasah instituted by Warren Hastings, first Governor General of Bengal (1772-1785) in 1781. As the first institute of learning set up by the British, Professor Gupta discussed the site as representing a myriad of encounters. The history was said to be complex involving shifts of power between the East India Company, educated Muslim populations and the relative power of languages within the city and the court. Her paper was set in contrast to readings of this institution simply as part of anglicist and oriental debates.

Professor Gupta introduced the role of the Madrasah prior to the British project. These centres of learning, across India were important sites for knowledge transmission for both Hindu and Muslim scholars. Gupta highlighted that the role of oral methods of education within these institutions needed to be recognised. As with the training of classical Indian music and dance, these processes established primarily orally-transmitted methods of education through activity and imitation. From archival records from the old Madrasah syllabus, it was noted that aside from the study of scriptures, the teaching of law was focal. The institution acted as a judicial feeder integrated with Calcutta’s legal institutions.

Against this background, Gupta detailed Hasting’s minute of 1781 calling for the Company’s support in the establishment of a Madrasah. The minute requested provision for 40 scholars, ‘musselmen of credit and learning’ each to be provided with stipends. Gupta commented that there was a tendency to believe that Madrasahs were segregated but rather they were originally mixed with both Hindo and Muslim students. Through the establishment of the Madrasah and Asiatic Society in 1784, Gupta stated that the British institutionalised this separation.

Sir Charles D’Oyly ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’ , 1848

Sir Charles D’Oyly ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’ , 1848

The formalisation of education was instigated. Reforms outlined by Captain Irwin introduced public examinations which contributed to the establishment of a modern education system in Calcutta. The development of these structures under the British Government was noted. Enquiry commissions and reports scrutinised the Madrasah. Details from a report published in 1819, cited the ‘poverty of books’ and determined that ‘7000 rupees’ were required for a proper library. Other initiatives to introduce an Anglo-Arabic department failed. Such was the critique that in 1835 Macaulay stated, ‘I would abolish the Madrasah’.

The paper concluded with a discussion of the impact of the space and its continued presence in the city as Aliah University. Attention was draw to the successful graduate Abdul Latif. The following discussions considered the British understanding and interpretation of religion in Calcutta. The writings of William Jones provided a reference point which demonstrated Islam as more accessible for the British. The process of oral learning and visual narratives was reflected upon.


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