In the summer of 1998, the year I finished school, when we left Kolkata, my parents were very clear. Polluted with the most vicious kind of politics in everyday life, and especially, in its once famed colleges, it was no place for me to get a higher education. It was no longer, said my father, the right sort of place for people like us, for bhadraloks.
What my parents saw around us was what political scientists call a party-state, the proliferation of petty party politics at every tier of social life, from birth to death. Fiercely apolitical themselves, they were only too aware of countless young lives wasted in the drudgery of politics in our beloved home state with its once-proud capital Kolkata.
What they objected to most is not just the lack of jobs or the overall missing sense of economic progress but something, to them at least, more vital. They were saddened by the disappearing sense of enterprise and innovation which many like them thought of as the hallmark of the bhadraloks. The word bhadralok has no parallel in the rest of India. Simply, it means ‘the polite people’ or the genteel folk. One of the primary qualities to win this label is a high-quality education. Though it is by no means the definitive criterion. Manners, not merely degrees, maketh man, as far as bhadraloks go.
But not just manners, as I shall show in this essay, the bhadraloks built their reputation for having a certain evolved sense of the world. And ability to take the best of western education (and equitable values) and apply them innovatively in their own context. Whether in business, the arts, or society, the bhadralok was an entrepreneur.
The bhadralok are once again in the news in the middle of a fierce election in Bengal. There are many an opinion about who these bhadralok are, and what they think or do—after all they are said to be the greatest, to use a social media term, influencers, in the state, or at least the city of Kolkata. But a large part of the opinion seems to be coming from people who are not from Bengal, and indeed are not Bengalis.
Therefore, it is important to consider bhadralok history to understand its importance in modern India, and its future possible relevance. It was a bhadralok pioneer, Madhusudan Gupta, a trained Ayurvedic vaid (or as the Bengalis would say, baidya) who broke traditional taboos on touching dead bodies and became the first Indian to successfully dissect a human dead body in 1836. It was a bhadralok, S. C. Chuckerbutty, who was the first to push the boundaries and enter the Indian Medical Service.
Another bhadralok, Radhanath Sikdar, a brilliant mathematician and surveyor, was the man who first accurately measured the height of the mountain that to which the British geographer George Everest’s name was assigned by the colonial government.
Others like Dwarkananth Tagore, Mutty Lal Seal, and Ramdulal Sarkar were business barons who spotted the first opportunities in steam ships and railways, coal trading and banks, and many of them, like Tagore, spent significant parts of their fortune supporting innovation. Tagore, for instance, funded early medical students like Chuckerbutty, and donated extensive premises rent-free to train Indians in flax-culture when it became lucrative. Ramdulal Sarkar, for instance, was a pioneer in trading with American trading houses (from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Salem) at a time when the norm was to trade with England, and Europe.
The contributions of eminent bhadraloks like Rammohun Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose, Rashbihari Bose, Chittaranjan Das, and later, the Rays, from Upendrakishore to Satyajit, are too numerous, and well-known, to need recounting here.
But it should be remembered that if some of the bhadralok were influenced by Communism, like M. N. Roy, there were others like Aurobindo Ghosh and Barindra Ghosh who created the Anushilan Samiti, the revolutionary nationalist movement. Even in this, the bhadraloks embraced the world– Roy was the founder not only of the Communist Party of India, but also of the Mexican Communist Party, while Aurobindo Ghosh would, in time, transcend to a life of spirituality, creating a global ashram in Puducherry (Pondicherry) with the French woman Mirra Alfassa or The Mother, as she came to be known.
Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was a quintessential bhadralok, India’s first industries minister in the government led by the Congressman Jawaharlal Nehru, and, like Nehru, a product of British legal education. If the stiff upper-lipped bhadralok Jyoti Basu presided over Communist rule in Bengal, prominent bhadraloks played a pioneering role in building the Indian armed forces—Operation Polo, in 1948, to liberate Hyderabad was led by General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri (a product of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst), and Subroto Mukherjee, perhaps the greatest military pilot India has ever produced, was the first Indian commander-in-chief of the Indian Air Force. Mukerjee was among the first Indians to graduate from the Royal Air Force College Cranwell, and Chaudhuri rebuilt the Indian Army after the debacle against the Chinese in 1962 and the resignation of the abysmal P. N. Thapar.
The guiding spirit of the bhadraloks through their history has been a pioneering entrepreneurial spirit, a relentless sense of innovation. This is what has gone missing in the bhadraloks of today. How many breakthrough ideas or products have names of bhadraloks attached to them these days? Few.
Therein lies the opportunity, to remind bhadraloks of today of their illustrious legacy, and craft a revival.
Views are personal. The author is a historian and a columnist. He is a multiple award-winning author of nine books.