Animesh Chatterjee – Eating Electricity and Delivering India

This post was originally published as a guest post on the Electrifying the Country House project blog site. The original post, and the ECH Blog can be accessed here.


Several Bengali writers of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used satire as their literary response to the social and political complexities of colonial modernity and anti-colonial Indian traditionalism. Satirical texts, and especially drama, ridiculed subjects as disparate as religious reformers and reforms, state and civil institutions, technological modernity, and scientific theories, usually from the ideological viewpoint of the emerging Bengali upper-caste middle-class. The introduction of urban and domestic electrification, and the emergence of electricity as a scientific phenomenon in colonial India from the 1890s onwards resulted in Bengali writers integrating and exploring electricity in their fictional and satirical works. Bengali satirists added their own interpretations of electrification, as well as their hopes and fears for its influence on the Indian individual, family and society. For several satirists, the outcomes of electrification were not restricted to the physical effects of lighting and shocks; the Western origins of electrical technologies were considered dangerous to Indian cultural values, lifestyles and outlook. This is particularly evident in Amrita Lal Bose’s drama, The Babu: A Bengali Society Farce, originally written and performed in the 1890s at the Star Theatre in Calcutta, and translated into English in 1911. The Babu was not the first drama to satirically engage at length with the Bengali middle-class replicating British language, manners, attitudes and practices; however, it offers a number of ideas and associations that indicate the complexities of Western technological modernity from within the subjectivities of the contemporary Bengali intelligentsia.

the-babu

The third scene of the first act opens in the common room of the Brahmo Samaj, an upper-caste Hindu socio-religious reform institution. The Hindu religious reformer Sajanikanta, and the Western-educated scientist Asaniprakas are seen debating the nature of God. While Sajanikanta terms God as the ‘creator’ of beings, Asaniprakas rubbishes all of God’s creations as merely results of evolution by ‘physical change’.[1] When interrupted by news of the Brahmo Samaj’s plans of remarrying a widow, Asaniprakas suggests how the Brahmo Samaj should use science to remove women’s pangs of widowhood. He asserts: “If I can produce children by means of electricity, I’ll produce them; otherwise farewell to progeny. But by science I can remove the pangs of widowhood.”[2] He adds: “I think I can make such a galvanic battery that if the patient holds its poles in her hands, the pangs of widowhood will at once be numbed.”[3]

Electricity is presented here as a preternatural force that could supplement natural processes with artificially enhanced ones. On a deeper level, electricity and electrical technologies are perceived as harbingers of radical changes that could disrupt traditional and long-established cultural values and schemes. A further aspect of Asaniprakas’s representation of electricity as an important aspect of the body’s and society’s operations is offered in references that amalgamate electricity as a socio-political tool with the wider contemporary Indian nationalist interests of autonomy and self-rule. Arguing against the Brahmo Samaj’s stance of delivering India through socio-religious reforms, Asaniprakas says: “If India is to be delivered, it won’t be by delivering lectures and remarrying widows. If we are to attain autonomy, rest assured it will be by the help of science alone.”[4] He says further: “Mark my words, if I live – and I’m bound to as I eat a quantity of electricity twice a day – I will by the force of electricity abolish the caste system, effect the remarriage of widows, teach women to ride horses, establish a Parliament in India, and many other deeds besides.”[5]

the-babu-dialogues

While there is virtually no technical detail in The Babu, the range of topics that it related to electricity demonstrated that electricity was not only viewed by writers in terms of scientific and technological development, but it also served several explanatory and metaphorical purposes. Asaniprakas’s overemphasis on science and technology to bring about social and political reforms parodies the contemporary Westernised Bengali ‘babu’ and his pretensions to rival the British in intellect and culture. Asaniprakas’s plans of using electricity to deliver India also hint at the contemporary ideological battle between anti-colonial nationalism and Western imperialism. Partha Chatterjee suggests that anti-colonial nationalism in India called for a separation between spiritual and material domains. According to anti-colonial traditionalists, nationalist sovereignty could be achieved by studying and replicating Western material culture and modernity in the outside world, while protecting Indian cultural values, spirituality and identity within the domestic sphere.[6] In The Babu, electricity is depicted as a dominant force of the material world capable of overpowering the spiritual and cultural domain sufficiently to change it.

The scene’s concerns about electricity relate to the wider issues of domestication of electricity in colonial India that my current research seeks to examine. My research will study how the acceptance or rejection of electricity in Indian domestic and urban spaces was closely linked to the paradoxes that characterised Indian middle-class identity. The research aims to trace the several interpretive positions or meanings that were adopted in relation to electrification, and how domestic spaces became contact zones for Western conceptions of technological modernity, Indian cultural values and nationalism, contestations of gender roles, and the shaping of social inequality and stratification.


Notes

[1] Nibaran Chandra Chatterjee, English Translation of “The Babu” (A Bengali Society Farce) by Babu Amrita Lal Bose [Calcutta: Sanyal & Co., 1911], p.22

[2] ibid, p. 24

[3] ibid, p. 24

[4] ibid, p. 26

[5] ibid, pp. 26-27

[6] Partha Chatterjee, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus [New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999]

Also see:

Partha Mitter, ‘Cartoons of the Raj’, History Today (September 1997), pp. 16-21

Stella Pratt-Smith, Transformations of Electricity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Science [Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2016]

Prabhat Kumar, ‘Colonialism, Modernity and Hindi Satire in the Late 19th Century’, Zeitschrift für Indologie und Südasienstudien (ZIS), 28 (2011), pp. 1-25

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