Built over the last six years, the Hindu College/Presidency College Archive holds valuable records of the oldest institution devoted to Western-style secular education in India. In the course of its more than two-centuries-old history, the college has produced an incredible number of famous public figures, ranging across internationally acclaimed scholars in the natural sciences and humanities, renowned artists and literati, major nationalist leaders, leading social reformers and so on. It has provided the blueprints for other important educational institutions, like the Bengal Engineering College, the University of Calcutta, and the Indian Statistical Institute. It has also played a pivotal role in shaping the pedagogy of a number of disciplines, since the college was the first in India to commence the academic practice of geology, biology and statistics.
Presidency University, as it exists today, was established as Hindu College in 1817 through a civic initiative headed by a group of Bengali elites, and transformed into the College of the Bengal Presidency (or Presidency College) in 1855. By the turn of the 20th century, it had expanded beyond the initial vision of its founders, no longer merely disseminating but also making significant additions to fields of modern knowledge. Its trajectory became inextricably intertwined with the larger history of the subcontinent’s encounter with colonialism and modernity. In the decades after independence, it remained one of India’s premier institutions of higher learning. Recognizing its rich heritage of academic excellence, Presidency College was upgraded to a university in 2010.
Several attempts have been made earlier by teachers and students to archive the college’s past, especially during important commemorative occasions, like the 100th year of Presidency College (in 1955), and the 175th and 200th year of Hindu College (in 1992 and 2017, respectively). In 2016, when the college buildings were being renovated, Swapan Chakravorty, the then Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore Distinguished Chair Professor in the Humanities, initiated the process of digitizing the institutional records recovered from the staff quarters, the arts library, accounts’ and students’ sections, and the antechamber of the erstwhile Principal’s room. A year later, he built a small museum on the institution’s history, housed within the campus. There, among other things, early instruments used in the science departments for lecture demonstrations and as laboratory apparatus were put on display. Around the same time, the present author curated a virtual exhibit on the college’s association with the freedom struggle for Google Arts and Culture (https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/exhibit/MAIijGlF-w6sJA). With regard to the latest archival project, Upal Chakrabarti, Assistant Professor of Sociology and one of the curators of this endeavour, highlights that it “develops on the crucial labours of the earlier generations, yet differs from them in being a more extensive effort of bringing together all kinds of historical material on the college, moving beyond just its in-house records, which had mostly already been compiled.” Sukanya Sarbadhikary, Assistant Professor of Sociology and another curator, emphasizes that what sets this archive apart from the earlier ones is the digitization drive, which subjects the documents to different kinds of classificatory imaginations and offers a guarantee of perpetuity.
Gauging the importance of the institution’s records, Dr Chakrabarti made a grant application to the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library to systematically survey, catalogue and digitize them. In mid-2019, he started work on the documents with the financial support of the British Library (https://eap.bl.uk/project/EAP1230). In late 2019, when Rochona Majumdar, Professor of South Asian languages and civilizations and cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago, and principal investigator of the project, visited Presidency University, Chakrabarti mentioned that he was carrying forward Prof. Swapan Chakravorty’s initiative, but that the grant secured from the British Library was running out. “It was at that time,” Prof. Majumdar recollects, “that the three current investigators, all of whom were former students of Presidency College, decided to apply for funding to the University of Chicago Center in New Delhi which supports collaborative work between scholars based in the University of Chicago and their counterparts in India.” This led to a project titled “Hindu/Presidency College: A Global History,” conceptualized and led by Prof. Majumdar, which has kept work on the archives running through three consecutive annual grants.
Several research assistants have contributed to this project. Prof. Majumdar fondly remembers how they would wait “like guerrilla fighters for brief windows when the West Bengal State Archives and the National Library opened and allowed them to conduct research there.” The team interviewed several former teachers and students of the college and collected rare printed material on the institution from other repositories like the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Library and the Uttarpara Jaykrishna Public Library. Likewise, a voluminous amount of institutional correspondences, establishment records, government proceedings, reports, memorandums, petitions, notices, orders, circulars, account books, minutes of meetings, photographs, seminar society records, college magazines, alumni publications, all sorts of memoirs, departmental records, student miscellanies and many more such documents pertaining to the quotidian life of the college were gathered. The entire collection is now being digitized as a database. The curators are still in the process of developing a suitable scheme of classification. According to Dr Chakrabarti, “for the time being, a provisional scheme has been prepared, which, very broadly, divides the material into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ writings, further classifying primary records into ‘official’ and ‘private’ sources. Within the official sources, we have ‘published’ and ‘unpublished’ records, the latter being mainly in-house records further subdivided into categories like ‘letters’, ‘account books’, ‘admission information’, ‘confidential reports’, ‘establishment registers’ etc. In the private sources, there are reports on the college from a variety of periodicals published in the 19th and 20th centuries, collected from a mixture of online and offline repositories, and memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, which are mostly published works.”
The archive is expected to expand in the coming days; but till the database or website is ready, it can be accessed in its digital form by any one at Presidency University. The physical collection, which is too brittle and vulnerable to be used by researchers, is being put together and preserved in one part of the CollegeStreetcampus.Prof.Majumdar believes that “the archive can act as a corrective for scholars as to which aspects of the institution are worth celebrating and which should be mended. For example, when it was established, the institution did not have as many women or minorities as teachers or students. The archive provides factual records of exclusions and prejudices. In the same way, it offers a record of the amazing feats of teachers and students under conditions of scarcity and turmoil. To summarize, while the archive is about the past, it must also serve as a check in not getting carried away by a desire to fabulate in the present.”
Dr Sarbadhikary echoes her colleague when she says that “this archive can change the way we know of the college’s past” since it “opens up new routes of interrogating the social context that produced elitism and the larger processes that generated greatness.” She points to how the records throw light on previously marginal characters. These include Nankuram, the laboratory assistant and proto-apprentice of scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose; Gokulnath Dhar, the librarian who worked with Prof. Surendra Chandra Majumdar of the History Department, to compile a first-of-its-kind register in 1927, with a prefatory history of the institution, and a list of students and their placements from 1857 to 1925; and Ram Iqbal Singh, the durwan who lost his life while valiantly defending the college during the riots of April 1925. There is also a need to speak of other absences, struggles and failures which have constituted the college’s much-acclaimed intellectual excellence but have been kept away from popular narratives. Prof. Majumdar mentions that besides continuing to build and organize the archive, the curators have invited a group of scholars to prepare essays based on its holdings for an edited volume that will deal with various aspects of the institution, particularly its innovative pedagogical practices.
Dr Chakrabarti believes that “this archive will be an invaluable resource for those working in a variety of fields, like histories of empire, education, governance, nationalism, social reform, science, politics, disciplinarity and other related areas. It will enable these subjects to be grounded in the micro-practices of institutionality, which will create space for more complex and granular interpretations of modern Indian social life.” Dr Sarbadhikary thinks of the importance of this archive in another way as well. Given that it is housed in Presidency University, one of the last vestiges of public education in a rapidly changing landscape of neoliberal knowledge production in India, the archive will act as a reminder about the ‘past’ lives of education in this country for ‘future’ generations of learners and thinkers.
Sandipan Mitra is a PhD Student with the Department of Sociology, Presidency University, and is part of the team working on the Hindu College/Presidency College Archive project.