Posts Tagged ‘colonialism’

Slumdog Millionaire

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on February 8th, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

There is a delicious irony in the commercial and critical success of Slumdog Millionaire.Upper India has been desperately seeking Oscar recognition for its Hindi movies.Here is a movie with Mumbai-based story, Indian  actors and Hindi dialogues which has won no less than ten Oscar nominations some of which will surely translate into awards. And yet Upper India is not happy.The movie itself has given rise to a new word: slumdog, while its criticism has brought forth an interesting phrase: poverty porn. That the present- day subjects of Her Majesty have made a movie about the former subjects has been duly noted. If the interest which the West is taking today in India’s underbelly had been taken two hundred years ago, there probably  would have been  no underbelly.

The issue however  is not so much  the West’s  current interest in Lower India as its perceived  betrayal of its former ally, the Upper India. To see this we will need to go back two centuries. The British could  build an Empire in India and run it with relative ease  because they were able to acquire legitimacy for it at the  very outet, thanks to the discovery of Indo-European linguistic commonality. This is a political correct phrase  from today’s self-consious lexicon. In its time the commonality was interpreted in purely racial terms. Indo-Eurpeanism provided the British with powerful means of “connexion and reconcilaition” not with all Indians , not with all Hindus but with upper-caste Hindus.

That the Kurds and Pathans spoke languages that were related to Sanskrit, Greek and Latin was not mentioned. That most Indian Muslims were converts was ignored. That there was no clear-cut ethnic division between upper and lower castes was glossed over.The legitimacy thesis went like this:Upper-caste Hindus and Europeans came from the same racial stock. Indo-Aryans had had their period of glory in the remote past; it was now the turn of their European brethren to rule and dominate. Needless to say the thesis were enthusiatically accepted by the upper-castes. Colonialism may have ended but the thesis was never laid to rest from the Indian side.

In the late 1950s when I was in high school, an older cousin , himself a school master, gave me a second-hand pocket-sized book. Published in the 1930s or so , it listed common Hindi words with their English equivalents. Thus huqqa was translated hubble-bubble; gulli-danda was  called Indian cricket, and so on. Much later it occurred to me that the book was probably compiled for the benefit of a native moonshee, so that he  could describe native social phenomena and activities  to the White Sahib in the latter’s  idiom. Those indeed were the days when Kalidas was India’s Shakespeare; Samudragupta was India’s Napolean; and Calicut was India’s Venice. 

For a short while after independence in 1947  conscious efforts were made to establish a national identity on all fronts.But in the globalization era, as Indian economy became more and more  servile, culture became more and more derivative. The west again became the frame of reference, except that  now it was USA  and not   Europe. That is how the  imitative term Bollywood was coined to denote Hindi cinema.( May be British-made English films can  more correctly be called Bollywood. Then Mumbai-made films can be said to constitute Mollywood.)

Hindi film indusry is   one of India’s most successful institutions. ( I am not competent to say anything about non-Hindi Indian films.) The success or otherwise of an institution can be guaged by asking how independent its vocabulary is. This can easily be seen from the case of other Indian successes such as highway-side Dhaabaas;Mumbai’s Dibba ( lunch-distribution) system; road-side bicycle and two-wheeler repair shops;  and the underworld.The  most obvious indicator of Hindi films’ autonomy is the  exclusively Indian designation : music director. It tells you how important  songs are in a Hindi film. (If the Slumdog gets only the musical Oscar it would amount to cheating.)

A Shantaram, Mahboob, K.Asif, Raj Kapoor or a Manmohan Desai would have  probably viewed the term Bollywood as  a personal insult. When  the globalization-era multiplex-going  Indian upper crust seeks an Oscar for a Hindi movie  it is to  legitimize its own denationalization. If a British film on Mumbai slums is multiply honoured,  it is a subtle indictment of the Indian non-slum.It is noteworthy that  in the movie the slum kid knows  about Benjamin Franklin’s image on a hundred- dollar bill but not  about Mahatma Gandhi’s on a  thousand- rupee note.Tha Anil Kapoor character  gives an insider tip to the slum kid. It is remarkable that he  instictlively recognizes the  deception, and succeeds by acting contrarily.

It is noteworthy  that the hero has a Muslim name while the girl  has a Hindu name. In a  Hindi film of the 1960s the  scrptwriter would have had to find a way of bumping off the girl because she had been violated.While the movie has been variously  faulted, nobody has raised any objetion to the boy -gets- the -girl ending. Times have changed for the better in some respects at least.

Slumdog Millionaire tells the  story of a  boy from Indian slums who makes it big.The story is no doubt fantastic. Yet the  fact that the scenario of a socially handicapped ,but otherwise brilliant, young person reaching  the top in today’s India is considered plausible is  a great tribute to it.



Science and domination: India before and after independence(1999)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 22nd, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment


Current Science, 76, 596-601 ( 1999)

Science and domination: India before and after independence


Rajesh Kochhar

The colonial overseas British empire was made possible by (modern) science in two ways. First, science provided the physical means of acquisition of territory and its control. Second, the development of the powerful intellectual system of modern science gave Europe a cultural and ethnic superiority which in turn provided legitimacy for the colonial rule. From 1869 till, say, 1914 the Indian upper class made conscientious efforts to cultivate pure science with a view to countering the ideological domination by the British. As a corollary, the role of science as a new means of production of wealth was largely ignored. Independent India’s attitude towards science has been fashioned by its colonial experience. Thus India has sought to utilize applied science in furthering its foreign policy objectives. Under the Indian auspices, modern science was Brahminized during the colonial period, and Kshatriya-ized after independence. The artisanization of modern science that gave Europe its strength never took place in India.

All knowledge systems have been used as tools of domination. What sets modern science apart is the fact that domination over nature and over culturally and ethnically different people has been inbuilt into its very advent and growth. When in the early decades of the 15th century, Europe, as represented by
Spain and Portugal, set out to explore the African coast with a view to reaching the spice-rich India without encountering the ‘belt of Islam’, it had no worthwhile scientific tradition of its own. The knowledge input for the early voyages came from the Jews who knew calendar-oriented theoretical astronomy and the Moors who knew the sea.

The profitability of these voyages transformed the European economy and mindset for all times to come. Prosperity no longer depended on the goodwill of the god or the king but on one’s ability to go to sea and come back alive. Industrial arts and sciences grew hand in hand with European maritime trade and colonialism till modern science itself was formalized in the early 19th century. Science-given prosperity created a Europe that could support, sustain, appreciate and flaunt science as an intellectual accomplishment1.

In the early days of maritime activity when scurvy and longitude took their toll, nature was viewed as an enemy to be subdued. The natives of the newly ‘discovered’ lands were brought back as a trophy to be displayed and a commodity to be marketed. The spirit of the times is well captured in the writings
of the English nobleman Francis Bacon (1561–1626) whose long-lasting
influence as a philosopher of science has overshadowed the memories of his career as a disgraced politician and judge. As a prophet of science Bacon held that nature should be made ‘to serve the business and conveniences of man’. More brazenly he declared2:

‘I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave’.

The imagery employed here is significant. May be, by talking of nature and her children, Bacon was trying to keep the European explorers physically away from the native women they would encounter when they ventured out. But, clearly, when Bacon mentions the enslavement of nature and of human beings in the same breadth, he is using one to justify and support the other, in the name of advancement of science.

Modern science gave Europe the physical means of subjugating and colonizing the rest of the world, and in the case of the old world the ideological justification for the exercise: any culture that could develop the powerful knowledge system of modern science was culturally and racially superior and therefore entitled to rule.

The extended exercises in ideological justification have since been named orientalism. Generalizing from Edward Said’s seminal, but area-specific, analysis3, we may define orientalism as an ideological and operational paradigm consciously created by the west to define and describe the east in such a manner as to facilitate and justify its control by the west4. Orientalization of the east began with giving absolute meanings to relative geographical terms east and west. Orientalism, however, was not a monolith. It took different forms in different parts of the east depending on the local characteristics and the nature of historical encounters with Europe.

In Hindi and other Indian languages the word for European is Firangi, derived from Frank. Now, of all the European countries why should France have come to represent the continent? The answer is very instructive. The word Firangi came to India with the Muslims for whom the Europeans were the same as the Christian crusaders, known collectively as Franks. This brings home two important points. First, the mutual relationship between the Europeans and the Muslims was fashioned by the memories of past confrontations. Second, in contrast, the relationship of the British with the (upper-caste) Hindus began without any preconceived notions and was cemented by the early discovery of Indo-European commonality. Orientalism in the Islamic world was confrontationist. On the other hand orientalism in India was persuasive and seductive. It took the form of Indo-Europeanism, and was nurtured by the Asiatic Society type of research carried out in India and Europe.

Brahminization of science

Paradoxical as it may seem, inherent in the British rule over India was the slow and increasingly reluctant preparation of the Indians to eventually overthrow the British rule. In December 1823, Rammohun Roy (1774–1833), the leader of the new, post-Plassey (1757), Calcutta-based Indian middle class, sent a memorandum to the governor-general advocating English education in preference to ‘the Sangscrit system of education’. More specifically he pleaded that for the sake of ‘the improvement of the native population’ it be given ‘a more liberal and enlightened system of instruction, embracing mathematics, nature philosophy, chemistry and anatomy, with other useful sciences … by employing a few gentlemen of talents and learning educated in Europe’. Roy’s memorandum remained unanswered5. Twelve years later, following Thomas Babington Macaulay’s (1800–59) minute, Sanskrit was abandoned and literary English education officially introduced for the natives.

In 1817 a Hindu College (which began as a school) was set up in Calcutta for ‘the tuition of the sons of respectable Hindoos’. It was left to a Scottish-born watchmaker and silversmith of Calcutta, David Hare (1775–1842), to seek to swell the ranks of respectable Hindus through the vehicle of education. At what later came to be known as Hare’s School, poor boys were given free tuition and later merit scholarships to join the Hindu College. Derisively called Boreahs by their well-heeled classmates, ‘these pupils invariably proved the most distinguished and … carried almost all the honours’, turning the college into ‘a mighty instrument for improving and elevating the Hindoos’6.

One such Boreah was Mahendralal Sircar (1833–1904), who transferred from the Hindu College to the medical college, the only place then where one could study any science. An M.D. turned-homeopath, he sought to induct modern science as a parameter in the collective consciousness of the Indian middle class. Through his sustained efforts7, an Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) was set up in 1876 at Calcutta as a companion organization to the political Indian Association, which became the precursor of the Indian National Congress. A discussion of the history of IACS is often coloured by the fact that 50 years later it became the venue for Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman’s (1888–1970) Nobel prize-winning experiments. It would be instructive to examine the ‘philosophy’ behind the establishment of IACS, especially because it has had a bearing on the pursuit of modern science by the Indian ever since.

The Aryan race theory, popularized by Max Muller and others, was accepted as the basic ideological framework by the Indian middle class for formulating its relationship with the British8. In March 1877, the influential Brahmo leader Keshub Chunder Sen (1838–84) in a public address exhorted Indians to be loyal to Queen Victoria, the Empress of India. He reminded his ‘educated countrymen’ that it was the ‘British government that came to your rescue, as God’s ambassador, when your country was sunk in ignorance and superstition and hopeless jejuneness, and has since lifted you to your present high position’. Sen continued: ‘India in her present fallen condition seems destined to sit at the feet of England for many long years to learn Western art and science … Thus while we learn modern science from England, England learns ancient wisdom from India.’ Sen went on to declare with flourish: ‘Gentlemen, in the advent of the English nation in India we see a re-union of parted cousins, the descendents of two different families of the ancient Aryan race.’9

In the far-off South Africa, in 1894 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), the general secretary of the newly established Natal Indian Congress addressed an open letter10 to the members of the legislature. A copy of this letter was circulated among the Natal-based Europeans, ‘whether you be a clergyman, editor, public man, merchant or lawyer,’ with a view to removing ‘the prevalent ignorance about the Indians in the Colony’, in the belief that ‘one half, or even three-fourths, of the hardships entailed upon the Indians in South Africa result from want of information about India’.

In the open letter, Gandhi dwelt at length on the question: ‘What are they [the Indians]?’. Calling it ‘the most important’ ‘head of the enquiry’, he requested the readers to ‘peruse it carefully’. At the outset Gandhi declared: ‘I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan’. ‘In support of the above’, he quoted
W. W. Hunter, ‘the learned author of the Indian Empire’: ‘This nobler race (meaning the early Aryans) belonged to the Aryan or Indo-Germanic stock, from which the Brahman, the Rajput, and the Englishman alike descended … when we first catch a sight of ancient England, we see an Aryan settlement, fishing in wattle canoes and working the mines of Cornwall.’

Gandhi then gave ‘copious extracts, which will show at once that the Indians were, and are, in no way inferior to their Anglo-Saxon brethren’. The extracts were taken from a variety of Europen authors such as Max Muller, ‘the German philosopher Schopenhauer’, H. S. Maine, Andrew Carnegie, Pincott,
Goethe, Bishop Heber, Thomas Munro, George Birdwood, C. Trevelyan, and Victor Hugo. Self-satisfied, Gandhi concluded: ‘Such is
India’. In his enthusiasm, Gandhi went for an overkill. He asserted that ‘The Institutes of Manu have always been noted for their justice and precision’, and, quoting H. S. Maine, called them ‘an ideal picture of that which, in the view of the Brahmins, ought to be the law’. By this ‘somewhat overdrawn or fanciful … but nonetheless faithful’ picture, Gandhi hoped ‘to induce you [the Europeans] to believe that India is not Africa, and that it is a civilized country in the truest sense of the term civilization italicized in original]’.

Even though this was written more than a year after Gandhi had been thrown out of the first class train compartment, intellectually he was still a product of the colonial historiography. Indeed his transformation from Mohandas Gandhi to Mahatma Gandhi came about when he conscientously jetisoned the baggage of Indo-Europeanism and strove to put modern European civilization on the defensive on moral and ethical grounds11.

As late as 1922, in an essay entitled ‘The acoustical knowledge of the ancient Hindus’, Raman wrote12: ‘It would form a fascinating chapter of history to try and trace the gradual development of musical instruments and musical knowledge, from the rhythmic chanting of the Rigveda in the ancient home of the Aryan race to the Indian music of the present day.’ This statement is made in passing and is not central to Raman’s essay. It shows that the Aryan commonality was accepted as a general well-established background information.

Sircar is the first Indian to make use of the Aryan theory. He might have learnt about it from the reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science of which he was a life member or from the Calcutta press, which wrote on the topic. In December 1869 he published an article in his own Calcutta Journal of Medicine (the issue is nominally dated August) entitled ‘On the desirability of a national institution for the cultivation of the Sciences by the Natives of India’. This important document, also published separately as a pamphlet, has been quoted selectively. It does not seem to have received the attention it deserves, although later documents pertaining to IACS have been much discussed and even reprinted recently.

Sircar’s diagnosis of the native condition would have met with Max Muller’s approval. Sircar wrote13: ‘The Hindu mind, thanks to this religion which has been swaying it for centuries without number, and thanks no less to its other surroundings, has lost much of its original Aryan vigor and energy.’ He had a remedy: ‘the only method … by which the people of India can be essentially improved, by which the Hindu mind can be developed to its full proportions is … by the cultivation of the Physical Sciences’.

In this enterprise, Sircar expected help from the British community, on grounds of noblesse oblige: ‘… thanks to the current of inherent generosity that flows through every British heart, some obstacle or other is being removed, that stood in the way of our being recognized as brethren, though now fallen and degraded’. ‘She [England] has become aware that her true glory should consist not in simply holding under subjugation the people of India, but in elevating them in the scale of nations, in taking them by the hand and reconciling them to their long-alienated brethren, her own children’.

The ‘fallen and degraded’ brethren had been receiving help. At the setting up of the Hindu College, three persons had played an influential role: an Indian (Rammohun Roy), a non-official European (David Hare) and a high-ranking British official (the chief justice of the Calcutta supreme court, Edward Hyde East (1764–1847)). The same pattern was repeated in the case of IACS, the trinity this time being Sircar; the Belgian Jesuit physics professor, Eugene Lafont (1837–1908); and the lieutenant-governor of Bengal, Richard Temple (1826–1902). It is a measure of the changing times that, unlike the chief justice three decades previously, the lieutenant-governor was a reluctant supporter, brought around by the native opinion.

In May 1875, Temple wrote to Sircar suggesting the setting up of what would be called a polytechnic today. He said14: ‘But science also may be made to add immeasureably to the national wealth and so to afford lucrative employment to numberless persons according to their qualifications and acquirements’. He then listed a large number of occupations for which training could be imparted, including those of land and geological surveyors, civil engineers, trained mechanics, foresters, engravers, wood and stone carvers. He then went on to say: ‘Moreover, by these means not only will many new industries be introduced into Bengal, but almost every one of the old established arts and manufacturers of the country may be rendered more useful and remunerative than at present.’

Today this prescription dated 1875 would be called a blueprint for the modernization of rural India. But at that time it did not meet with the native approval. Three months previously, the lieutenant-governor had sent a letter to the viceroy on the rising discontent in India. In this, Temple lamented15: ‘But this arises partly from our higher education being too much in the direction of law, public administration, and prose literature, where they may possibly imagine, however erroneously, that they may approach to competition with us’. Temple had a solution to offer: ‘But we shall do more and more to direct their thoughts towards practical science, where they must inevitably feel their utter inferiority to us’.

If Temple had had a means of addressing the vast Indian artisan castes that had been pauperized as a consequence of the industrial revolution in Europe, they would perhaps have accepted Temple’s offer of useful employment and the concommitant ‘utter inferiority to the Europeans’. But the Indian middle class was made up of castes traditionally not associated with manufacture. The British rule had in fact brought the Brahmins back on centre stage and elevated the status of the non-Brahmins in Bengal and elsewhere by giving them equal share in the inheritance of ancient learning. Thus, Babu Rajendralala Mitra (later the first Indian president of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta), a Kayasth by caste and a newly listed member of the Vedic club, could declare proudly16 (as reported in third person): ‘For three thousand years and upwards their [Mitra et al.’s] ancestors had cherished Sanskrit learning for its own sake, and need it be doubted that their descendents would not be equal to the sciences of the present day’. Temple’s practical science was not acceptable.

Mitra warned: ‘do not … attempt to make it [the proposed institute] self-supporting by producing remunerative art work in your laboratories. If you do, you will disappoint your pupils, and court signal failure’. Mitra could speak with some confidence on that subject. He had taken a prominent part in the founding of the Calcutta School of Industrial Arts …‘and he knew well that as often as he tried to produce remunerative work, he demoralized the pupils of the school’17. At the public meeting chaired by Temple, Eugene Lafont is recorded as having declared that ‘the other Association18 [pro-Temple] wanted … to transform the Hindus into a nation of mechanics, requiring forever European supervision, whereas Sircar’s object was to emancipate, in the long run, his countrymen from this humiliating bondage’. (In retrospect things have not turned out the way they were anticipated. Pure science which started as an emancipating activity became more and more derivative with the passage of time. On the other hand, if India had agreed to serve as mechanics under European supervision to begin with, it is very likely that it would have emerged as an independent industrial culture in course of time.)

IACS was instrumental in getting science included in the college curriculum, although pure scientific research by the Indians themselves began only with the return of Jagadis Chunder Bose (1858–1937) and Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861–1944) after education in the British universities. J. C. Bose’s case is particularly instructive. For about six years from 1894 to 1900, Bose, working at the Presidency College, Calcutta, studied the properties of short-length radio waves, carrying out numerous experimental innovations in the process. He persistently refused to patent his discoveries, and snubbed British capitalists who tried to convince him. Exasperated by his ‘quixotic’ approach toward money, two of his lady friends, the British-born Margaret Noble (better known as Sister Nivedita) and the American-born Mrs Sara Bull, on their own initiative, obtained an American patent in Bose’s name in 1904. Bose however remained unmoved and refused to encash the patent. The irony of the situation seems to have gone unnoticed. Here, we have a spiritualist (Nivedita) advocating the cause of patents and royalties, and a physics professor dismissing the idea. The reason must be sought in their backgrounds. Nivedita was a product of industrial Europe while Bose was a child of the orientalized East19.

Bose’s anti-patent position is sought to be explained in his authorized bio-
graphy20: ‘Simply stated, it is the position of the old rishis of India, of whom he is increasingly recognized by his countrymen as a renewed type, and whose best teaching was ever open to all willing to accept it’. Bose carried on his shoulders the full weight of his country’s defensiveness. Bose no doubt would have ‘made millions’ from his patents as P. C. Ray reminded a
Calcutta audience in 1916 in Bose’s presence21, but then Bose would have become a part of Europe’s machinery. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote to him, Bose was God’s instrument in the removal of India’s shame22. In December 1896, Anand Mohan Bose (incidentally, J. C. Bose’s brother-in-law) speaking at the 12th meeting of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta declared23: ‘we know the London Times has only the other day borne testimony to the fact that the year 1896 is an epoch-making year as regards the intellectual advance of India. We know that the grand researches of an Indian Professor in the field of invisible light [J. C. Bose] … have led to discoveries which have filled the mind of Lord Kelvin … with wonder and admiration. … We know of the discoveries which … have rewarded the genius and the patient toils of another countryman of ours [P. C. Ray] in the realm of Chemical Research. India has shown that she has not forgotten the traditions of her glorious past, … the Indian mind has awakened to the consciousness of the great destiny before it, and … has taken the first practical steps towards obtaining its recognition from the generous scholars of the West’. Although the western education had taught the natives about the equality of all human beings, the first tangible proof that the natives could indeed be the equals of the Europeans came from the western recognition won by Bose and Ray for their scientific work.

The early momentum generated by Bose, Ray and the freak mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920) did carry Indian pure science to its swan-song period of the 1920s and 30s, but no new momentum was ever imparted. The first world war robbed Europe of any claims to moral superiority. As a result, the need to cultivate science as a national symbol disappeared. As the nationalist movement gained momentum, science lost its place on the national agenda. As long as the Indian National Congress was a middle class organization, cultivation of science held a special appeal for its constituents. But when Gandhi with his civilizational posture moved centre stage and made Congress mass-based, the position of science, as exemplified by industrialization, became increasingly untenable.

This change is personified by P.C. Ray, the founder of modern chemical research and manufacture in India. Ray met Gandhi in Calcutta towards the end of 1901, and was ‘attracted to him from the very first by his magnetic personality and our common devotion to ascetism.’ As Ray proudly noted, he was ‘in a manner responsible for Mr. Gandhi’s first appearance on a Calcutta platform’24. When Gandhi first made ‘Charkha the symbol of the new movement,’ Ray was not impressed. ‘Being an industrialist on a humble scale, at first, I scoffed at the very idea of this primitive, uncouth instrument competing with machinery …’ Ray changed his opinion after his active part in the ‘relief operation in connection with the Khulna famine and the North Bengal Flood.’ ‘I could not fail to notice what an immense boon the Charkha would have proved to the starving people if it had not been abandoned nearly a century before’25.

Ray worked out the Charkha economy. If one eighth of India’s population of 320 million were to earn ‘only 2 pice a day’ from spinning, the total would amount to Rs 45,62,50,000 crores per year!’ Ray took pains to explain: ‘I need not be understood as saying all big scale industries should be smashed. … But surely you will agree with me that if the same result can be brought about by means much less harmful, surely that is preferable’26. If Gandhi had decreed that the nationalist movement would be financed only from the Charkha earnings, the dispossessed artisan classes would have been economically rehabilitated and socially enhanced. Hopefully after independence they would have been technologically upgraded. The Charkha however never became an economic vehicle. It remained a political symbol, merely a dirge to the dispossessed classes. The Indian leaders solemnly spun Charkha but raised political funds from the industrialists, without realizing the irony.

Science came back into focus with the political emergence of Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964). As president of the Congress, he declared in 1936: ‘I believe in the rapid industrialization of the country and only thus I think will the standard of the people rise substantially and poverty be combated’. In 1937, on the occasion of the silver jubilee of the Indian Science Congress he reaffirmed: ‘Even more than the present, the future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science and seek its help in the advancement of humanity’27.

The Congress did come to limited power in 1937 but resigned two years later. Nehru had to wait till independence in 1947 to implement his agenda of big science.

Kshatriya-ization of science

We can distinguish between three aspects in the development of modern science: intellectual aspect, production of wealth aspect, and the dominational aspect. The (non-white) non-west’s view of these developments in the west was blinkered. When science was being developed as a methodology and as an agency that was intellectually uplifting and quality-of-life enhancing, the non-west in general was not a party to the phenomenon. It is a measure of the success of orientalism that modern science was not seen as the latest stage in the continuum of human endeavour to comprehend natural phenomena but as western science set in opposition to the so-called eastern philosophy and way of life. This image of modern science was reinforced by its role as a producer of wealth. To the west, science was wealth; to the east an agency that destroyed traditional manufacture.

However, when the dominational aspects of science were being developed, the (non-white) non-west was fully aware of the process. It was in fact a participant. It contributed to the process by becoming its victim. Domination is a well-recognized old paradigm; modern science was merely an add-on. That is why of all the aspects of modern science, the dominational aspect has appealed the most to the formerly subjugated people of Asia and Africa, who have tended to decouple it from the other two aspects. Thus the most modern weapons, can be used to capture power in Afghanistan, but once the power has been obtained it is not used to bring in other aspects of modern science. Rather it is used to impose a highly outdated mindset.

Although India has been more confortable with science than other former (non-white) colonies, its collective attitude towards science has been rather ambivalent, a mixture of acceptance and rejection. Thus, Ganesha’s imbibing milk could be widely perceived as a proof of the victory of ‘our’ Ganesh over ‘their’ science. The irony is lost that the news of this victory over modern science was flashed across the world using the latest gadgets of telecommunication. Independent India, rather indulgently and uncritically, has sought to extend support to science across the board. But, as we have seen, for historical reasons there has been a latent and not-so-latent hostility towards production of wealth through science. The emphasis on the cultural, or Brahminical, aspects of science unsupported by a knowledge-based economy has harmed Indian science. Before the second world war, science was a baby India could feed. After the war, it soon grew into a giant, outside India’s feeding capabilities. Science can be enhanced only by those who harness it. Countries whose GDP does not depend on science cannot ‘make friends with science’.

Indian science has been a garden in which weeds outnumber flowering plants but both are nurtured without discrimination. In this regard, an examination of the global publication and citation data in science, engineering and medicine for the period 1981 to 1984 is revealing28. (Citation index with all its faults is still a convenient indicator.) The top seven ranks went to the world’s seven largest economies, the so-called G7 countries. USA published about 35% of the world’s science, with the 15-country European Union taken as an entity coming a close second with about 32% of all papers. India published 2.4% of papers ahead of Australia (2.1%) and the Netherlands (2.0%). The pecking order, however, gets drastically revised when we try to measure the quality of the average paper. This is done by defining a relative citation index (RCI), that is the number of citations divided by the total number of publications. India’s RCI stands at 0.27 as against Australia’s 0.97 and the Netherlands’ 1.10. (USA heads the list with 1.42.) Far more relevant for India is a comparison with China. Both have the same RCI, but China’s share of the publications is much smaller: 0.9% as against India’s 2.4%. Obviously then, in absolute numbers, India produces far more trivial papers than China does.

It is significant that India’s most notable success on the scientific front has been in what we may call the Kshatriya-ized science, that is in areas related to foreign policy, that is in the nuclear, missile and to a lesser extent, space programmes, which strictly speaking are no more than successful application of known technologies. But then, production of electricity is also a simple exercise in engineering where India’s performance has been highly unsatisfactory. (Partial success on the agricultural front also belongs to this category. Increase in food production has not been large enough to feed the whole country, but sufficient to obviate dependence on foreign countries.) These programmes give India a sense of general well-being, because they are seen as strengthening India’s efforts towards emergence as a sub-superpower. They tend to mask the failure concerning the intellectual and more importantly the production-of-wealth aspects of science.

Winning freedom through peaceful means has its limitations. It gives continuity even where a discontinuity is needed. The battle of Plassey constitutes a discontinuity. To counter its effects, another discontinuity was needed which did not take place. The post-Plassey British rule saw the annihilation of the traditional artisan classes. While in Europe, the industrial revolution artisanized the whole society, in India consistent with the composition and aspirations of the new middle class, science itself was Brahminized, that is, it was viewed as a cultural activity. After independence, consistent with the aspirations of a new nation, science has been successfully Kshatriya-ized. It still remains to be Mandalized, in the sense of creating a new technology-driven artisan class.


  1. Kochhar, R. K., Curr. Sci., 1992 63, 689; Kochhar, R. K., Curr. Sci., 1993, 64, 55.
  2. Farrington, B., Tempus Partus Masculus, quoted in Keller E. F., Reflections on Gender and Science, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1985. I thank Joanna Rankin for bringing this quotation to my notice. See also Bajaj, J. K., Science, Hegemony and Violence (ed. Nandy, A.), Oxford, New Delhi, 1990.
  3. Said, E. W., Orientalism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1978.
  4. Kochhar, R., History of Science in India 1993–96: A Status Report, INSA, New Delhi, 1997.
  5. Mohmood, S., A History of Indian Education in India (1781–1893), 1899 (Reprinted by Idarah-i Adabiyat-i, Delhi.
  6. Mittra, P. C., A Biological Sketch of David Hare, 1878 (Reprinted by Jignasa, Calcutta, 1979).
  7. Sircar, M. L., On the Desirability of a National Institution for the Cultivation of the Sciences by the Natives of India, Calcutta, 1869 (Reprinted in Indian J. Hist. Sci., 1994, 29; IACS, A Century: Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Calcutta, 1976.
  8. Thapar, R., Social Scientist, 1996, 24, 1–39.
  9. Sen, K. C., Lectures in India, Cassel, London, 1901, vol. 1.
  10. The open letter quotes a newspaper of 11 August and was publicly distributed on 19 December, 1894. It must therefore have been composed some time between these two dates, Gandhi, M. K., Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Publication Division, New Delhi, 1894, vol. 1, pp. 170–189.
  11. The first recorded expression of this awareness is found in Gandhi’s after-dinner speech on Christmas day, 1896: ‘I therefore deplored the [modern western] civilization of which the Natal whites were the fruit, and which they represented and championed’, Parel, A. J., in Gandhi and South Africa: Principles and Politics (eds Brown, J. M. and Prozesky, M.), St. Martin’s, New York, 1996, pp. 35–67.
  12. Raman, C. V., Sir Asutosh Mookerjee Silver Jubilee Volumes, Calcutta University, Calcutta, 1922, vol. II, pp. 179–185.
  13. Sircar, M. L., 1869, see ref. 7.
  14. Sircar, M. L., 1872–75, S-12, see ref. 7.
  15. IOLR MSS Eur C144/17 at the British Library, London.
  16. Sircar, M. L., 1872–75, S-25, see ref. 7.
  17. The school of industrial arts was set up in 1854, with Mitra serving as its
  18. honorary secretary and treasurer. At the turn of the century, under the leadership of Tagore and E. B. Havell, the school was transformed into an institution for fine arts, Ghosh, A., J. Asiatic Soc., 1994, 36, 74–92.
  19. The other association was the Indian League founded on 25 September 1875, preceding the (political) Indian Association by ten months. The League raised subscription for the polytechnic and refused to merge it with the funds collected for Sircar’s Association. It is not clear what happened to the League subscription. (See ref. 14, S-37). There does not seem to have been a firm ideological divide between the proponents and opponents of the polytechnic scheme. The science association does not seem to figure in the Mookerjee Magazine brought out during 1872–76 by Sambhu Chunder Mookerjee (1839–94) who was one of the chief spokesmen for the Indian League. Mookerjee’s biography also does not refer to the IACS. It however does reproduce a letter written by Sircar to Mookerjee in 1890, almost a quarter century after the establishment of IACS. In this letter, referring to Mookerjee’s ‘real affection’ for himself, Sircar asked him to use his ‘powerful pen’ ‘to plead on behalf of the only Institution in all India which has inaugurated real, independent, natural scientific education, the permanency of which means the regeneracy of this degenerate country’ (Skrine, F. H., An Indian Journalist: Being the Life, Letters and Correspondence of Dr Sambhu C. Mookerjee, Thacker, Spink and Co., Calcutta, 1895. Mookerjee was an influential journalist and a homeopath like Sircar. Unlike Sircar who had a regular MD, Mookerjee was a college drop-out and had an MD ‘from an American University’.
  21. Kochhar, R., Economic Times, 18 March 1998.
  22. Geddes, P., The Life and Work of Sir Jagadis C. Bose, Longman, Green and Co., London, 1920.
  23. Natesan, G. A. et al., Indian Scientists, Madras, 1929.
  24. Tagore, R., Collected Letters, Visva-
    bharati Press,
    Calcutta, 1957, vol. 6.
  25. Quoted in Ray, P. C., Autobiography of a Bengali Chemist, Orient, Calcutta, 1958, p. 126.
  26. Ray, P. C., Autobiography of a Bengali Chemist, Orient, Calcutta, 1958, p. 102.
  27. Ray, P. C., Autobiography of a Bengali Chemist, Orient, Calcutta, 1958, p. 296.
  28. Ray, P. C., Autobiography of a Bengali Chemist, Orient, Calcutta, 1958, p. 308.
  29. Sinha, J. N. in Science and Empire: Essays in Indian Context 1700–1947) (ed. Deepak Kumar), Anamika, New Delhi, 1991.
  30. May, R. M., Science, 1997, 275, 793.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS.  I thank the Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, for the award of a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship during 1996–1997 to work on a research project entitled ‘Modern science in India: A historical study in the national and global context’. A fellowship from the Charles Wallace Trust enabled me to consult source material in UK. Some of the arguments presented here were refined during a Fulbright visiting lecturership in USA. Earlier versions of this paper were read at a seminar on Dimensions of Science at Bangalore and at the National University of Singapore.






Rajesh Kochhar is in the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Koramangala, Bangalore 560 034, India.




Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 21st, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Acquaintance with  steam technology under colonial auspices led to the introduction, by  Cursetjee’s descendents , of steam machinery in textile  through  the establishment of Bombay Dyeing and Manufacturing Mills and Century Mills in Bombay. See  R. Kochhar (2005)  Shipbuilding in India: Wadia shipbuilders. In: Encyclopedia of the History of Non-Western science (Ed.:  H. Selin) Springer.

The Royal Society : Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 47(1), 33-47(1993)












 Modern science came to India in tow with the British, who needed it in the first place to cross the high seas. Once in India, the British put science to increasing use to further their commercial and political interests. The tasks before the British included: (i) learning about the land and the people; (ii) acquiring and protecting territory; (iii) reducing the distance between England and India by steam navigation; (iv) shrinking India, by telegraphs and railways; and (v) increasing revenue collection and maintaining law and order’.

 The British use of science brought Indians into contact with science. Just as the British needed science in India, they needed Indians also. India was a vast, thickly populated, culturally advanced country. Permanent white settlements were out of the question and, after the disastrous Portuguese experience, so was breeding a nation of half-castes. There was thus no option but to involve Indians themselves in running their country under British auspices. As the British grip on India tightened, as the British gained in self-assurance, and as the scientific content of the administration increased, the role assigned to the natives progressively increased, even if it remained peripheral throughout. In the beginning Indians were hired as informers to educate the foreigners about the lie of the land; they then became writers and calculators; and Finally graduated to being doctors and engineers.

 Ironically, inherent in the British rule was the preparation of Indians to eventually overthrow that rule. The physical conquest of an ancient fabled country was seen by the British as a proof of the superiority of their way of life and thinking. They therefore set out to impress their own values on the baboo class that they created from among the upper-class Hindus. In addition, in the process of empire building, the British discovered (not only for themselves but for Indians also) India’s glorious past. This restored the Indians’ long-lost sense of self-esteem which, coupled with their introduction to western thought and modern science, gave them the courage to look the empire in the eye and embark on self-assertion. Indians then set out to do science on their own initiative. This activity was seen as a part of India’s emerging nationalism, even though it made use of the infrastructure created by the Empire for its own use and depended on the Empire’s sense of noblesse oblige.

 To sum up,1 we can distinguish between three nested stages in the growth of modern science in India. First is the colonial-tool stage, in which the British used science to further their interests. Since the harnessing of science enriched India in the process of empire building, the country was added as a laboratory to world science. Second is the peripheral-tool stage, in which the natives were assigned the task of providing cheap labour to the state science machinery. And finally there is the Indian-response stage, in which Indians practised science for their own satisfaction.

 The Indian-response stage, which came into being by the beginning of this century, found reflection in the composition of the Royal Society of London. Thus the freak mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan was elected F.R.S. in 1918 and was followed by others. It has often been assumed that Ramanujan is the first Indian F.R.S. He certainly fits in with the present image of the Royal Society as a club of distinguished scientists. But the Royal Society was not always like that. Up to the middle of the 19th century, it was also a club of gentlemen ‘curious in natural history’, ‘well acquainted with mathematics and engineering’ or ‘conversant in various branches of experimental philosophy’. The honour of being the first Indian Fellow of the Royal Society goes to Ardaseer Cursetjee (1808-77), marine engineer at Bombay, who was elected on 27 May 1841 (figure 1). Cursetjee clearly belongs to the colonial-tool stage of the development of science in India, even though there is an element of unexpectedness2 in his personal achievements.





 It is no coincidence that Cursetjee was a Parsi. The Parsis (literally Persians) are followers of Zarathustra and related by tics of blood and culture to the Vedic Aryans. Facing persecution in Islamized Iran in the 8th century AD, they fled their homeland and came to the west coast of India as refugees3 To increase their chances of acceptance, they highlighted the aspects of their rituals which were akin to those of Hindus by virtue of their common heritage. The Parsis were offered asylum on condition that (i) they carried no weapons; (ii) they accepted the local language; (iii) their womenfolk adopted local dress; and (iv) they followed the Hindu custom of performing their weddings at night. The conditions were not very severe, and in any case the refugees had no choice. The Parsis accepted the conditions, and India accepted the Parsis. Ever since then the Parsis have remained out of controversy and on the right side of the rulers, developing in the process an uncanny sense of recognizing opportunities even before they decide to knock.

 Parsis were good friends of the Portuguese. When in 1665 the Portuguese fortified Bombay against the British, it was a Parsi who contracted to supply men and materials. And when soon thereafter Bombay changed hands, the Parsis, attracted by the religious neutrality of the British and the business they offered, shifted their residence and loyalty to the British.

 Neither the Portuguese House of Braganza nor the bridegroom Charles D could have known the strategic importance of the tiny island of Bombay transferred according to the 11th article of the treaty of marriage between Charles and Catherine. Unwittingly, the Portuguese had introduced the navy as a parameter in India’s geo-political equations.  The 8-mile x 3-mile island of Bombay received as a reluctant gift became the naval fortress from which the British set out to build their Empire4.

 Cursetjee came from a family which had a long history of service to the British in the vital department of ship-building. The founder of the dynasty was Lowji Nusservanji5 (1700 or 1710-1774), who was a carpenter at the Surat dockyard when in 1736 he was brought to Bombay to build a dockyard. The post of Master Builder would remain in the family for 150 years6.

 The extreme profitability of the East India trade raised demand for big sturdy commercial ships. This increase in the number of ships and in tonnage led to a scarcity of timber, and in 1772 the East India Company was forbidden to build any new ships in England until its tonnage was reduced to 45000 tons. The Company could however build its vessels in India or the colonies. In 1795, the Company abolished custom on timber, imported or local, to facilitate ship-building.

 Indian teak was a better building material than oak. It was equally strong if not stronger, and was in addition decay-resistant. Bombay workmanship was excellent7 and ships came out cheaper in Bombay than in Europe. The Bombay dockyards built ships for the Company, for the Royal Navy and ‘for such friendly powers as the Imam of Muscat’, as well as for private buyers.

 Captain Robert Cogan, who was appointed Comptroller of the Dockyard in 1833, wrote, ‘An 84 gun ship similar to the Calcutta [a 2nd rate line-of-battleship of 2298 tons built for British Navy in 1831] could be built at a cost of £21 026 less than in England … It is universally admitted that a Bombay teak built ship is 50% superior to vessels built in Europe’. Cogan also stated that merchant ships could be built at Bombay Dockyard at a cost of £12 a ton.8

 Shipbuilding brought great prestige to the family, which was chosen as ‘head of their caste’. The government not only presented the family with silver rules, shawls and titles, but jagirs also. (The three imams issued in Bombay all went to the Lowjee family.) The prestige and the contacts came in handy for oilier members of the clan to establish themselves in business; they bought ships and traded with Europe and China. A grandson of Lowjee was rich and farsighted enough to loan money to the Bombay government in 1802. Another branch became marine agents for the French government and in 1839 received a medal from King Louis Philippe for ‘the interest you have taken in favour of our traders in Bombay and the zeal and generous disinterestedness with which you have received His Majesty’s men-of-war which visited Bombay’3.

 Figure 2 shows the family tree of the master-building branches of Lowjee’s family and the dates when they were master-builders (MB): the information is taken from the book by Wadia6.



Text Box: Figure 2. Family tree of the master-building branches of Lowjee’s family and the dates when they were master-builders (MB)

Text Box: 1.	Lowjee Nuservanjee (d.1774) MB 1736-1774    2a. Maneckjee Lowjee				2b. Bomanjee Lowjee (1720-92)	(1722-90) MB 1774-92					MB 1774-90  3a. Framjee Maneckjee	Rustomjee Maneckjee	3b. Jamsetjee Bomanjee 	(1749-1804)					(1754-1821) 	MB 1792-1804					MB 1792-1821   5. Cursetjee Rustomjee	Dhunjbhoy Rustomjee	4. Nowrjojee Jamsetjee 	(1788-1863)					(1744-1860) 	MB 1844-57					MB 1821-44 	  Ardaseer Cursetjee RFS	7. Jamsetjee Dhunjibhoy	6. Jahangir Nowrojee 	(1808-77)		(1829-93)		(1821-66) 				MB 1866-84		MB 1857-66   Rustomjee Ardaseer 	(1828-93)


 In 1806 an American engineer, Robert Fulton, completed an inland steam-boat, Clermont, which was a practical as well as a Financial success. About the same time another American, John Cox Stevens, became the First to take a steam-boat to sea. By 1821, there were no less than 300 steamers at work in America.

 In England it was not until 1812 that steam navigation was successfully brought into practical use when Henry Ball started a 3.5 horse-power steam-boat, Comet, on the Clyde. The first sea-going steamer in Britain was the Rob Roy, a 90 ton, 30 horse-power vessel, that began commercial running between Glasgow and Belfast in 1815. Finally, in 1819 the British Navy acquired its first steamer.9

 In the meantime, the trading monopoly of the East India Company was ended in 1813, so that British traders and manufacturers were now free to trade with India. And in 1818, with the crushing of the Marathas, the last opposition to the British hegemony was vanquished10.

 At the same time steam engines started arriving in India. Curiously, the first use of a steam-vessel in India was for decorative purposes. In 1818 the Nawab of the rich north Indian state of Oudh (correctly, Avadh) at the instigation of the British declared his independence from the tottering emperor of Delhi and pronounced himself King. As if to mark the occasion and displaying a magpie-like fascination for novelties, Ghazi Haider-ud-Din got himself a steam-boat. Powered by an 8 horse-power engine that gave the 50 ft vessel a speed of 7-8 miles an hour, it was built at Calcutta, with design and engine brought from England. The Indian India was not yet ready for science. The steam-boat was no more than an expensive toy, meant to be shown off. When the Governor General, Lord Auckland, visited Lucknow the boat was decked up for his inspection! 11

 While the commercial interests looked forward to profits from steam navigation on the placid North Indian waters, the impetus came from the Government for reasons of warfare. The Burmese annexed Assam in 1821-22 and threatened Bengal. This led to the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26), and to the acquisition of steamers by the Bengal Government.

 In 1817 or 1818 an 8 HP engine with an iron boiler and suitable for a river boat was brought to Calcutta by a Company engineer. Left unused, it was purchased by the Government for fitting into a dredging boat (later named Pluto). When the Burmese war broke out, the boat was remodelled as a floating battery. “Though her speed was only 4 knots much benefit was derived from her in the passage of troops over creeks and estuaries of that coast’.6

 In June 1822 there arrived in Calcutta a pair of 16 HP engines with a copper boiler and other requisites for a fast vessel of about 110 tons, sent out in frame. The package was offered for Rs 65000 to the Government, who declined. The offer was taken up by a group of merchants who found the English oak frame to be unsuitable and substituted it with teak at an additional cost of Rs 10000. The ship, named Diana, was launched on 12 July 1824. In April 1824, it was purchased by the Government for Rs 80000 for the Burmese war.

 In 1822 a company was formed in England with the bold idea of establishing steam communication with India by what was known as the overland route. The 166 km-long Suez Canal connecting Alexandria and Suez would be dug in 1859-69. The Red Sea, because of its rocky coast, was dangerous for sailing ships, but steam ships could safely move in the middle. Accordingly, a steam vessel, Enterprise, left England on 16 August 1825 and reached the Diamond Harbour, Bengal, on 7 December 1825. This three-masted 500 ton tugger powered by two 60 HP engines with copper boiler covered the 13700 mile distance in 113 days. The venture was not a commercial success, but the Burmese War again came to the rescue. The Bengal Government bought the ship for £40000 so that the promoters did not lose any money in the venture.9

 The initial support that the Bengal Government extended, for its own reasons, was a great help in promoting the general cause of steam communication between England and India. It was, however, not Calcutta but Bombay that strongly canvassed for an overland steam route. Calcutta was the political and commercial capital of India while all Bombay had was the Company’s navy. An overland route would cut the distance to England by 1000 miles and be good for Bombay business, whose interests the local government always protected. Finally in 1829 two 80 HP engines were brought from London and Fitted to a ship built at Bombay by the Wadias. (The ship was very wisely named High Lindsay after the Company’s chairman.)6




 Ardaseer Cursetjee’12 was born on 6 October 1808.6,13 His father was at the time assistant builder; he rose to become the master builder in 1844. Cursetjee was, as he says,14 ‘brought up and educated in the Hon. Company’s service’. Following the family tradition, he joined the dockyard at the age of 14, and after six years of training was in 1828 placed in charge of the supplementary shipyard at Mazagaon, where ‘he designed and superintended the construction of several fine vessels’.

 Cursetjee was, however, more interested in steam machinery than ship-building. Fortunately, Cursetjee’s interest coincided with the Company’s need. He had come of age at the right time. No wonder then that the Company welcomed Cursetjee’s interest in steam machinery and readily agreed to his request ‘about the year 1831’ to transfer him to the charge of Capt. F. McGillvray, the Mint engineer, ‘for the purpose of devoting myself to the study of steam machinery, and the foundry business’. In spite of the transfer, Cursetjee continued to draw his salary from the dockyard. He soon showed his worth by building a one-HP engine and installing it at his premises for pumping water from a well ‘sufficient to supply a small I fountain’. This was the first engine built in India and was still working 10 years later.

 In August 1833, Cursetjee obtained from England a 10 HP marine engine and installed it in a vessel named Indus, both the engine and the vessel being paid for by his father. Indus was the second steamer built at Bombay, after High Lindsay, and was subsequently purchased by the Bombay Government.

 Cursetjee’s achievements did not go unnoticed. In October 1833 he was made Assistant Builder at Mazagaon, ‘the office being expressly established for him on the recommendation of the Superintendent of Marine Capt [John] Crawford’.

 The next engineering feat of Cursetjee was the installation of gas lighting. On 10 March 1834 he lighted his bungalow and gardens at Mazagaon, using gas. The Governor of Bombay, the Earl of Clare, visited Cursetjee’s residence and presented him with a dress of honour. Additionally, the Governor brought this to the notice of the Court of Directors. For his engineering activities, Cursetjee maintained a small private foundry at his residence, which no doubt was profitable also. He made ‘great many wrought-iron tanks for different ships, among which were several holding upwards of five thousand galons’. He ‘had a good deal to do with steam boats’, having assisted in building two of them at Bombay.

 Very soon, the newly established Elphinstone Institution requisitioned Cursetjee’s part-time services. The Institution had a British ‘Professor of mathematics, astronomy, and all branches of natural philosophy’ (Robert F. Orlebar), but there was none to teach practical sciences. Accordingly, Orlebar, ‘cognizant of his [Cursetjee’s] anxiety to improve the countrymen, as well as of his acquaintance with practical mechanics’ got the government’s permission so that Cursetjee could ‘assist him in instructing the natives, especially in mechanical and chemical science’. In 1837, Cursetjee was elected a non-resident member of the Royal Asiatic Society of England.

 The colonial government’s patronizing attitude towards Cursetjee was matched by his own self-consciousness. Cursetjee was the Empire’s show boy, a good example of how western education could uplift a native. For his part, Cursetjee used the same idiom for his countrymen as the British used for him. In his letters to the Company, he talks about ‘native workmen, under my instruction and superintendence’ and ‘this faithful native [who] has worked the boat upwards of Five years without a single accident or injury to the engine’.

 Cursetjee now decided, with the government’s permission, to spend a year in England ‘to perfect myself as much as possible in the construction and repair of marine steam engines’ … ‘it being my greatest ambition to instruct my countrymen in that useful art, and thereby raise my name in the estimation of the Indian Government, in respect to that science as my ancestors have for the last century in the art of ship-building’.

 His departure from Bombay took longer than planned. He applied to the Governor, the Earl of Clare, to allow him to accompany His Excellency to England. Apparently, Cursetjee’s assessment of the mutual relationship was not shared by His Excellency, who politely declined, and Cursetjee instead went to China to get over the snub.

 Next, in 1838, he was offered passage money of Rs 600 to travel by the Government steamer, but sudden illness prevented his departure. It was not until a year later, on 13 September 1839, that he left Bombay by the same vessel, S.S. Berenice, now paying 1000 rupees for the passage.

 Travelling by the overland route, lie visited the Alexandria dockyards. ‘He was offered a Government tout to visit the Egyptian Fleet and on reaching the First ship of the line, he was received on board with a military guard and band’. He landed at Blackwall on 3 December 1839.

 Since the Parsis were ordained to take food cooked by Parsis only and not to dine with non-Parsis at the same table, Cursetjee took along servants from his community. On reaching England he appealed ‘to the liberality of their Hon. Court to enable me to meet those various expenses of my residence in England, … which are indispensable to my respectability, and to obtain that information which, should God spare me, will, I trust, be amply repaid through my services to the Hon. Court, on my return to India.14

 He was accordingly given a subsistence allowance of £1 per day for a year in addition to his Bombay salary of Rs 79 a month, or £95 per annum.

 Cursetjee recorded his memoirs of his stay in England in a book14 published in 1840, which provides valuable information on his life and times. During his one-year stay, Cursetjee had a number of social engagements. The First person he visited was ‘that great friend of India, Sir Charles Forbes, Bart’. He was introduced to the Chairman and to the Secretary of the East India Company and to a number of other eminent persons including the President of the Royal Society, the Marquis of Northampton, who invited him to a Soiree. He ‘was fortunate enough to be present on the occasion of the marriage of Queen Victoria on 10 February 1840’, and was presented to the Queen at a Levee on I July 1840.

 Cursetjee was summoned to attend a committee of the House of Commons to give evidence on the opium question. He spoke against the opium policy of the East India Company. Cursetjee recorded with satisfaction that his evidence had the approval of Sir Charles Forbes.

 ‘During his stay in England he never took Ins meals cooked by non-Parsis and on this account on more than one occasion he refused invitations to dinner from his European friends’. Thus he declined invitations for dinner from the Deputy Chairman of the East India Company and from the President of the Board of Control. When Mr Walter, the proprietor of The Times, invited him to spend some days as his guest, Cursetjee took his servants along to cook his own food.6

 In matters of religion, Cursetjee was a traditionalist. He did not approve when lie met in London a young Parsi boy who was ‘talking without a cap [on]’. Ironically, the boy defied tradition even in his death. He died in 1851 and became the First Parsi whose body was subjected to a post-mortem.6

 Cursetjee’s comments on life in London make interesting reading. He found the Royal Mint to be much inferior to the Mint at Bombay. He considered the cab drivers to be ‘an imposing and insolent set of men’. ‘Another nuisance of London is the dirty state of roads compared with those of Bombay’. His impression of shopkeepers and tradesmen was also negative: 1 cannot help remarking that they have generally an unfair practice of speaking against one another in the same line of business which is the cause of great embarrassment to foreigners as they cannot have confidence in dealing with them.’

 He made full professional use of his stay in England. He made arrangements to work at the engineering shops of Messrs John & Samuel Seaward & Capel at Limehouse and visited the varunis Royal Dockyards of Great Britain and private foundries.

 An important aspect of Cursetjee’s stay was his interest in the activities of the Institution of Civil Engineers, whose meetings he regularly and punctually attended, having been elected an Associate on 24 March 1840. He even addressed communication to the Institution on the engines of the .steam tug Alice, along with a drawing of the engines on board the steam-boat Staadt Frankfort. He was elected a member of the Society of Arts on 6 May 1840. and in September was appointed a member of the mechanical section of the British Association.

 On 10 July 1840, The Times carried an advertisement for the post of ‘Chief Engineer and Inspector of Machinery in the Company’s steam factory and foundry’ at Bombay. The applicants were asked to ‘either give reference for testimonials of character, conduct, and qualifications or enclose certificates of competence in mathematics, accounts, drawing, theory and practical construction of the steam engines, manufacture and repairs of boilers and steam machinery in general, casting of metals, welding of iron, and modelling as applicable to marine steam engines and iron boat building’.

 Cursetjee applied for the post, getting favourable testimonials’ from all with whom, he had been professionally associated. Mr Seaward wrote after seven months of interaction with him, ‘He has been most assiduous in his attention to every branch of our business … We lately entrusted him to superintend the erecting of a ten-horse engine, and a quantity of machinery in our new boiler establishment, in which he exhibited great intelligence and information, and acquitted himself highly to our satisfaction’, adding that this would not have been possible ‘had he not devoted much time, study, labour, and attention to the business for many years before he came to this country’.

 Other testimonials were obtained from Peter Ewart, Inspector of Machinery at Her Majesty’s Dockyard, Woolwich; R. Taplin, Chief Engineer and R.J.S. Blake, Master Shipwright of the Dockyard at Portsmouth; and from R. Napier of Glasgow. Proceeding thoughtfully, Cursetjee also asked for a testimonial from Messrs Maudslay, Sons and Field, ‘as they are preparing the machinery intended for the Bombay Dockyard’, who while supporting his application added, ‘we also think, that with these qualifications, his being a native, would be of further advantage, as his abilities to instruct the native workmen, joined to his influence over them, would, we have no doubt, be greater than any European [sic]’.

 Cursetjee also got a testimonial from James Walker, the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers who suitably impressed the Company on Cursetjee’s behalf by saying, ‘[we] are now assisting in his certificate to become a fellow of the Royal Society, which I have reason to think would be signed by almost every gentlemen who knows him, including Capt Beaufort and Sir Edward Parry’.

 All the testimonials were with the Court of Directors within 20 days of the advertisement. On 19 August 1840 the Court of Directors 15 ‘Resolved by the Ballot unanimously that having considered the applications of the several candidates… and referring to the anxiety which the Court have repeatedly expressed to encourage the employment of Natives of India, and to the desirableness [sic] in every point of view of substituting as far as possible natives for European mechanics, an object more likely to be promoted under native than under European Instructions and Superintendence, Ardaseer Cursetjee whose testimonials are not inferior to those of any other candidate, be appointed …’. The post carried a salary of 600 rupees a month, more than seven times Cursetjee’s then salary as an assistant builder.

 The last act of Cursetjee in England was to ask for and get £40 from the Company so that he could take with him ‘a few diagrams of steam engines and a few small tools’. He left England in November 1840, going as advised via the Cape. He reached Bombay in the beginning of 1841 and took his new charge on I April 1841.

 As had been promised by James Walker, the Royal Society elected Cursetjee a Fellow on 27 May 1841. His certificate of nomination16 conveys the English perception about a native gentleman of science, and deserves to be reproduced in full:

Ardaseer Cursetjee Esquire Ship Builder of Bombay lately in England having undertaken the journey to this country at his own expense in order to prepare himself in the knowledge of the Steam Engine as applicable to Navigation and to acquaint himself with the arts and manufactures of Europe with the view of improving his own country and his countrymen, a Gentleman well versed in the theory and practice of Naval Architecture and devoted to scientific pursuits, having introduced Lighting by Gas into Bombay where he perfected a small Gas establishment aided exclusively by Native workmen; having also at his own charge built a Vessel of sixty Tons to which he adapted a Steam Engine sent out from this country, and manufactured and fitted every other part of the Machinery and navigated the vessel entirely with native workmen and Engine men, chiefly instructed and trained by himself; and having otherwise promoted Science and the useful arts in his own country to which he has just returned, having while in England obtained the appointment of principal Inspector of Steam Machinery to the East India Company,


being desirous of becoming a fellow of the Royal Society ….And we beg to recommend him from his peculiar situation, and (lie proofs he has given of his desire to extend natural knowledge in India. Dated this twenty seventh day of March 1841.


 It was signed from personal knowledge by James Walker, William Cubitt, John Macneil, James Home, Joshua Field, and Lt-Col William Henry Sykes. Those who signed from general knowledge include John Barrow, Capt. Francis Beaufort, and Edward Sabine. The list is indeed impressive. Walker was then the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers; Cubitt and Field held the post later. Sykes had been at Bombay and later became the Chairman of the East India Company. Of the general signatories Barrow was the secretary to the Admiralty, Beaufort the Hydrographer, and Sabine rose to become President of the Royal Society in 1861.

 Apparently, it was thought that the fact of Cursetjee’s having paid his own passage would make a good impression on the Fellows. The fact of the matter is that he called this expense unfortunate and used it as an argument for getting financial assistance from the Company during his stay in England.

 In terms of directions issued in 1839, Cursetjee would have been classified as ‘a distinguished engineer’ and as ‘one who is attached to science, and anxious to promote its progress’. Cursetjee’s fellowship of the Royal Society remained a strictly private honour. It did not advance his professional career in any way, nor did it impress his countrymen. The Bombay Times was critical of his appointment: ‘We doubt the competency of a native, however able or educated to take charge of such an establishment as the Bombay Steam Factory with a body of Englishmen to be directed, superintended and controlled’. In contrast, the Bombay Gazette welcomed the appointment: It is no small honour to the native community that the merits and abilities of this gentleman should have enabled him to carry off the prize from the multitude of competitors’.

 Cursetjee was the first native to be placed over Europeans. His staff consisted of ‘one chief assistant, four European foremen, one hundred European engineers and boiler makers, and about two hundred native artificers’. ‘No doubt his path was not one of roses for a long time, but his natural kindness soon made him a favourite with all those placed under him, as he meted out justice to all irrespective of colour and creed!’ It is mildly amusing to see the expression ‘colour and creed’ applied to a native officer in relation to his European staff.

 In 1843 a repair shop was added to the steam factory, and the workforce under Cursetjee was further augmented. The same year, when the Freemason’s Lodge was established in Bombay, Cursetjee joined it. In 1850, he was elected vice-President of the Bombay Mechanics Institute. On 16 February 1851 he launched an 80-ton steamer, the Lowjee Family, built by his son Rustomjee Ardaseer at Mazagaon Dock. It is significant that all the parts for it were fabricated at the foundry Cursetjee had at his residence.

 The same year he was struck by paralysis; but he recovered and in September 1851 he made another trip to England. He was allowed by the Court of Directors to visit various cities to see ‘improvements in machinery’, his great hobby being to introduce novelties into Bombay.

 He also visited America and selected various wood-cutting machines, which lie sent to Bombay. He was the First to introduce the sewing machine, winch had been patented by Elias Howe a few years previously, in 1846, and was foremost in introducing photography and electroplating into Bombay. Cursetjee returned to Bombay in 1852. He was elected a Justice of the Peace in 1855.

 Cursetjee retired on 1 August 1857. As a special case, the Court of Directors sanctioned him a pension of Rs 400 a month (that is, two thirds of his salary). He visited England for the third time in 1859.

 In 1861, he took up the appointment of superintending engineer of the Indus Flotilla Company, and took charge of the Company’s steam branch and workshops at Kotree in Sind. The Flotilla was at that time under the Indian Navy, which was disbanded in 1863. Consequently, the Flotilla was broken up.  Cursetjee resigned his post in 1863 and went to England, settling down at Richmond, where he died on 16 November 1877.

 Interestingly, at one time there were three generations of his family working at the dockyards.6 His Father was the Master Builder; he himself was the Inspector of Machinery, while his two sons were employed in the Builders’ Department as juniors, one of whom, Rustomjee Ardaseer, rose to become the Assistant Builder and retired in 1883.




 The British were very happy to patronize Cursetjee for ‘trying to improve his country and countrymen’, ‘for promoting Science and useful arts in his own country’ and ‘for the proofs he has given to extend natural knowledge in India’. Ironically, his own country was not impressed and ignored him completely.

 This is rather hard to explain. No doubt, it was too early for the Indians to appreciate his technical skills or he impressed by his Royal Society connection. But the fact remains that he came from a well-known and respected family, and held an unusually high position in the colonial government’s hierarchy. He even published his memoir’14 in 1840.

 For all this, Cursetjee may not have existed at all. It is not surprising that his obituary in a London-based technical journal ‘ went unnoticed. But even a two-volume history3 of this own community, published in 1884, let him down. It devotes 17 pages to his family and takes note of his two cousins who visited England at about the same time, but it makes no mention of Cursetjee.

 It was in his own lifetime that Indian efforts to respond to modern science started taking shape. But he did not become a role model for his countrymen. Cursetjee was at the time leading a retired life in far-off England. Moreover, the centre of the new scientific activity was the capital city of Calcutta, which took no deep interest in the colonial science at Bombay.

 It was not until 1955 that his life-sketch appeared in a book devoted exclusively to the Wadia master-builders and written by a clansman. Although now in its second edition, this privately published book has failed to bring posthumous recognition to him.17 History has been unkind to Cursetjee. This first modem engineer of India was denied any role in the growth of science in his country. As if this were not bad enough, even his name has been obliterated. His life throws interesting light on the use of science in the early days of colonial consolidation. And it sets the record straight on India’s association with the Royal Society.




 I thank Mr Nusli N. Wadia for presenting me with a copy of R.A. Wadia’s book; Professor Prem Krishna for his help; Mr P.D. Hingley for useful conversations; and Dr R.W. Home for helpful correspondence. I greatly appreciate help from the library staff of the Royal Society (especially Ms Sheila Edwards), Indian Institute of Astrophysics (Ms A. Vagiswari), Raman Research Institute (Mr A. Ratnakar), and India Office Library. Part of this work was done during a study tour of UK co-sponsored by the British Council Charles Wallis India Trust, and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics.




1.       R.K. Kochhar (1991) Economic & Political Weekly [Bombay]. Vol 26, No. 33 (17 Aug), 1927.

2.       R.W. Home (1991) in International Science and National Scientific Identity (eds: R.W. Home & S.G. Kohlstedt) Kluwer, p. 151.

3.       D.F. Karaka, C.S.I. (1884) History of Parsis, 2 Vols., London.

4.       James Douglas (1893), Bombay and Western India, 2 vols. London, laments ‘In the Diary of John Evelyn one of the most accomplished men of his day, and who was in the thick of politics, 1660-1705, that is during the reigns of Charles II, James II and William III, and which embraces every notable event of his time, there is no mention of Bombay, and yet this was the time during which were laid the foundations of our domination in Western India (Vol ii, p. 372), Evelyn was however fully aware of the profitability of the East India Company.  He notes in his Diary that (in 1657) he invested £250 in the stock of East India Company, which doubled by the issue of a bonus (in 1682).  He sold the entire stock for £750 to the newly founded Royal Society, of which he was an original member.  The Society continued to hold the stock till at least 1750.  See Cambridge History of India, Vol 5, p. 96; and the Record of the Royal Society of London, 4th ed. London, 1940.

5.       Lowarjee is a distortion of the common Parsi name Nowrojee.  Usservanji is his father’s personal name, the omitted family name being Wadia.  Incidentally, later master-builders continued to sign as Lowjee, even if the Government address them by their own name.

6.       R.A.Wadia (1955) The Bombay Dockyard and the Wadia Master-Builders, Bombay, 2nd ed. 1957.  All references here are to the 1983 reprint.

7.       A private protest against racism was subtly made by the Master-Builder, Jamsetjee Bomanji, who was the first one to be entrusted by the Lords of Admiralty with the building of men-of-war in India.  In the year 1800, Jamsetjee built a 1363-ton, 56-gun frigate Marquis Cornwallis, which was in 1804 purchased by the Royal Navy and Renamed Ackbar. Proud of his work and stung by the expression ‘Black fellow’ not infrequently used by the Europeans to refer to the Indians, Jamsetjee carved on the kelson of the ship: ‘This ship was built by a d-d Black Fellow A.D. 1800.  This protest was carved in such a manner as not to be noticeable.  The words were pointed out many yeas later by Jamsetjee himself to his friends when the ship returned to the docks.  On his retirement Jamsetjee was given a jagir with an annual income of Rs. 6000 (£600) (see note 6).

8.       C.R. Low, History of Indian Navy (1613-1863), 2 vols, London (1877).

9.       Martin Samuelson (1864)Q.J. Sci. 1, 235.

10.   The British Indian territory extended up to River Satlaj in the west.  Sind was annexed in 1843, and Punjab in 1849.

11.   William Carey, The Good Old Days of the Hon. John Company, 2 vols., Calcutta (1906).

12.   We shall use Cursetjee as his last name, even though it is his father’s name.  Incidentally, the spellings are anglicized: the phonetically correct way would be to write Ardshir Khurshid-ji.

13.   Proc. Instn. Civil Engnrs. (1878) 51,271. Curiously, this does not mention his being an F.R.S.

14.   Aradseer Cursetjee, Diary of an Overland Journey from Bombay to England and of a Year’s Residence in Great Britain, London (1840).

15.   I O L R L/MAR/C/58, p. 267.

16.   Royal Society Certificates IX.57.

17.   According to R.A. Wadia (note 6, p 340)’It was only in 1944 that Prof. A.V. Hill, the Secretary of the Royal Society, stated that the first Indian to achieve this great distinction [i.e. election to the Royal Society] was Ardaseer Cursetjee’.  Hill held a special meeting of the Royal Society on 3 January 1944 at the 31st session of the Indian Science Congress at Delhi, where he ‘obtained the signatures of some of the Fellows of the Society, who could not sign in the Charter Book of the Society in London’.  At the Science Congress, Hill presided over the section on physiology and participated in a symposium on ‘Science and its place in Indian education’.  This information is given in Proc. Of the 31st Indian Science Congress, which however does not say anything about Cursetjee.//
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