Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


Professor Rosinka Chaudhuri

Senior Visiting Research Fellow: 2022-23

Rosinka Chaudhuri is Director and Professor of Cultural Studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). She was inaugural Mellon Professor of the Global South at Oxford University, 2017-18, and has held visiting positions at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, King’s College, London, Delhi University, Cambridge University and Columbia University.

Her books include Gentlemen Poets in Colonial Bengal: Emergent Nationalism and the Orientalist Project (Seagull: 2002), Freedom and Beef-Steaks: Colonial Calcutta Culture (Orient Blackswan: 2012) and The Literary Thing: History, Poetry and the Making of a Modern Cultural Sphere (Oxford University Press: 2013, Peter Lang: 2014). She is in the process of completing a book tentatively titled Young Bengal and the Making of the Modern Indian, forthcoming in 2024.

She has edited: Derozio, Poet of India: A Definitive Edition (Oxford University Press, 2008), The Indian Postcolonial (with Elleke Boehmer, Routledge UK, 2010), A History of Indian Poetry in English (Cambridge University Press, 2016), An Acre of Green Grass and Other English Writings of Buddhadeva Bose (Oxford University Press, 2018), and a series titled Social Science Across Disciplines (co-edited with Partha Chatterjee, Oxford University Press, 2019). Most recently, she has edited, annotated and introduced George Orwell’s Burmese Days for Oxford World’s Classics (2021).

Many articles, reviews and book chapters have been published worldwide, while her translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s letters, Letters from a Young Poet (1887-94) (Penguin Modern Classics, 2014) received an Honorable Mention at the A.K. Ramanujan Prize for Translation (S. Asia) 2016.

Project at IAS

Colonial as well as post-colonial history writing, when speaking of the shaping of modern India, typically presents the nineteenth century in a linear, teleological and developmental narrative of social and political reform guided by the work of great men. These narratives curiously and consistently elide the chaotic and eventful decades of the 1830s-40s as they unfolded in Calcutta, the capital of the British Empire in India, decades that elude being straitjacketed into a progressivist narrative of achievement and success. In the messy politics of debate, disruption and scandal that characterise these decades, many things changed, not least the grammar and rhetoric of being a modern Indian. Yet the historiography behaves as if nothing happened in those years that needs attention.

My work at the IAS aims to supplement research already in place towards a book that will show that these missing decades are critical to any understanding of the culture of politics and social reform in modern India. This was a period when the activities and achievements of a heterogenous group of people inaugurated a political and social revolution unlike anything that had been seen before. English traders and independent merchants and mixed-race educationalists and editors, often called ‘interlopers’ as they stood outside and against the official machinery of empire, as well as a small group of progressive Indians came together at this time in multiple forums of civic protest. Prominent among them were the radical students of the Hindu College, later called Young Bengal, who were integral to the creation of a cache of ideals, values, and activities that stood as a fountainhead of the social and political existence of modern Indians. I argue that this urban generation of the 1830s and 40s thought and spoke in terms that still structure the social and political discourse of modern India today.Young Bengal were coterminous with Young Italy and Young Ireland, yet its members have been represented by historians (largely, it seems, out of a sense of embarrassment) as being too elite, too English-speaking, too profligate, and too extreme in their actions to merit serious consideration. The consensus among scholars has been that Young Bengal had no substantive impact on broader political formations or actions in this period; that they failed in their objectives. Yet my research shows that Young Bengal brought about serious changes, not just in the social arena, but in terms of political intervention as well. These were men who are known to have paid five the times the price for Paine’s Rights of Man to an American bookseller in Calcutta in 1831[1]; for whom the most popular lines of British poetry were Burns’ ‘That Man to Man the world o’er / Shall brothers be for a’ that’[2]; men who, inspired by the radical republican ideals of the French revolution and the Scottish Enlightenment, attempted to effect change based on a principle of equality. They debated and argued, set up societies and made speeches, petitioned and called meetings. To say that all of this activity – that included politics and reform, litigation and entrepreneurship, literature and drama, emancipation and rights – had no impact upon the making of the cultural fabric in the public sphere is to wilfully obscure a very large contribution to the making of modern India.

No discussion of the social and political thought of nineteenth-century India is complete without an understanding of British philosophy, politics, history and literary culture as it impacted on the colonial sphere, or indeed, as the colonial sphere impacted on these in the metropole. The faculty from these disciplines at UCL/IAS will be helpful in giving direction to the project by allowing interlocuters to direct it to texts and/or thinkers that would enrich its theoretical base in a manner not available to me working within the Indian system locally.

Through the story of Young Bengal, I also wish to interrogate our understanding of failing. What do we understand failure to be? Without question, Young Bengal is deemed to have failed in more ways than one: in achieving lasting political goals, in deflecting scandal, in sustaining their ideas and aspirations in lasting institutions. Yet if it is only by failing that we can produce viable work, if it is indeed failure that creates actual alternative spaces of resistance, whether in our creative or our political life, then the history of Young Bengal needs to be written, if for no other reason than to teach us to find dignity, legitimacy, and a vocabulary for self-appraisal in that failure. My project will be to understand how.

[1] ‘Such was the notoriety of the Hindoo College that the fame of its infidelity reached even America, and an enterprising publisher “issued a cheap octavo edition of a thousand copies and shipped the whole to the Calcutta market. These were all bought at once at two shillings a copy; and such was the continued demand for the worst of the treatises that eight rupees (sixteen shillings) were vainly offered for it.”’ Thomas Edwards, Henry Derozio: The Eurasian Poet, Teacher, and Journalist (Calcutta: W. Newman & co., 1884) 34.

[2] Alexander Duff, India and India Missions, Edinburgh, 1839.