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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 9 - 10, February 25 & March 4, 2023

Bicentennial Tribute To Rajendra Lal Mitra : The Renaissance Man | Jayanta Kumar Ghosal

Saturday 25 February 2023


Bicentennial Tribute To Rajendra Lal Mitra : The Renaissance Man

Jayanta Kumar Ghosal *

English education and the spread of modern western thoughts and ideas in the first half of the 19th century made great impact on the Bengalees, ushering in age of reasoning, rationalism and liberalism in thought and action. Mere tradition and faith were no more acceptable to the English learned modern western educated Bengalees. Side by side a sense of nationalism also developed in the young Bengalee minds. They realised that the pride of a nation can’t sustain without proper knowledge of its past achievements.

The Asiatic Society, Calcutta, founded in 1784, played an important role for studies of ancient Indian history and Culture where European archaeologists and explorers made significant contributions. Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-1891) who joined the Asiatic Society in 1846 was among the new urban elite Indians who had an independent and thoroughly educated mind. This helped him to receive and cultivate knowledge at the Asiatic Society and successfully transmitting it to Indian academic world. He was the first Indian President of the Society.

Rajendra Lal Mitra belonged to the age which witnessed great resurgence in Bengal and he himself was the product of the age. As a renaissance personality he made his presence felt in various fields of human activities. History, Art, antiquities, political and social problems, education, language, literature, literary criticism, cartography, physical and applied sciences and industry – were the fields cultivated by Rajendra Lal. He was the editor or helped in editing many periodicals which helped in spreading modern knowledge. He himself edited ‘Vividartha Sangraha’ and ‘Rahasya Sandarva’ – two Bengali periodicals which helped in shaping young Bengali minds.

Similarly his intimate association with the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, School Book Society and the like left much impetus upon society. He stood firmly by the side of Dr. Mahendra Lal Sarkar at the time of setting up Indian Association For Cultivation of Science. Rajendra Lal was the pioneer of photography culture in India. In 1886, he was elected the president of the reception committee for the second session of the Indian National Congress held in Calcutta. He received international recognition for his academic brilliance being elected as honorary member or corresponding member or fellow of various learned societies of West.

Rajendra Lal pioneered indological studies as the first Indian to challenge the sanctify of tradition and established the need for scientific objectivity and thus helped Indian historical scholarship and historiography to achieve international recognition. His close association with Asiatic Society Calcutta from 1846 to his death in 1891 gave new orientation in society’s scholastic activities. The friendly environment of the society and the liberal education and the power he gained from new ideas obtained from his training in several branches of learning and mastery of Western and oriental languages cleared the obstacles on his path.

Historians of eminence describe him as one of the architects of cultural renaissance of Bengal as he proved his excellence in various fields of arts, science, history, indology, archaeology, sociology, religion, journalism, geography and in other fields of technical science. He was the to first prepare maps of our country in regional languages. Simultaneously his analysis of Sanskrit texts and manuscripts published in journals of Asiatic Society and other learned societies, threw new light of understanding the rich cultural heritage of ancient India. His famous essay ‘Beef in ancient India’, first published in Asiatic Society journal in 1872 and later included in his book ‘Indo-Aryans’ in 1881 still remains significant.

He, in his time, realised the necessity of changing the young minds of the country advocating adoption of independent occupations particularly in manufacturing and commercial enterprises. Rajendra Lal’s scientific contributions are in no way inferior to his works in the field of arts and literature. A. W. Crofts, the then President of Asiatic Society, in the first meeting held after Rajendra Lal’s death, rightly said “ ... for wherever learning is cultivated, there the name of Rajendra Lal Mitra is held in honour....”

The presidential address given in the 25th annual meeting of the British Indian Association by Rajendra Lal is still relevant “No Political Association would prosper whose members did not identify their interests with those of their countrymen. Self would be subordinated to the community and the good of the community should be the good of the individual. Those, who sought their own individual interests only, were not good citizens. They should be denounced as enemies of the community. They could never help the amelioration of their countries cause.”

* (Author: Jayanta Kumar Ghosal is a literacy activist)

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