Purdue News

April 1, 2005

Professor's study reclassifies traditional gentleman class in India

Tithi Bhattacharya

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The image of India's popular middle class established under colonial rule in the mid-1800s is still rippling through current Indian society, says a Purdue University Indian history expert.

The "bhadralok" (pronounced BHAD-ra-lock), which means gentleman or polite man, makes up less than 2 percent of the Indian population. It is a social group that originated in Bengal (now composed of the state of West Bengal in India and Bangladesh) during the period of British rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. Myths about the group's intellectual prowess, however, are still so dominant that even today people from Bengal are considered to be more educated and cultured than the rest of India, says Tithi Bhattacharya (pronounced TITH-ee BAT-a-char-ee-uh), an assistant professor of South Asian history.

"Yes, a small part of the bhadralok does think of itself as the gatekeeper of Indian culture," says Bhattacharya, who researched how this gentleman class was created in the 19th century. She focuses on the northeastern part of India, which is Bengal.

"It is a very small group, but its influence is still significant. Even today, prominent people in West Bengal still see themselves as bhadralok. People think that this group is limited to doctors, lawyers, heads of government departments, magistrates, poets and novelists. Little attention is given to the other group of the bhadralok – orderlies or bookkeepers."

Bhattacharya's analysis is published in "The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal." The book ($29.95), released by Oxford Press in February, focuses on the formation of this group from 1848-1885.

The Bengali bhadralok in India is the result of British colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1835 the British replaced the traditional Indian education system with a Western one to educate a class of men who could serve as interpreters and work in the new government.

"The British wanted a group of men who were Indian in blood and color, but English in education, taste and morals," she says. "As a result, India saw the rise of a very English-oriented middle class that had access to the best schools and colleges, at least in the form of Western education."

Eventually, members of this Western-educated class were responsible for leading the nationalist movement against the British at the end of the 19th century. India's true upper-class, which is above the bhadralok and is composed of princes, leading industrialists and landowners, kept its distance from the movement and Western education, Bhattacharya says.

Bhattacharya reviewed 19th century registers, documents and digests kept by the British, and she also spent more than a year in India where she studied stories, magazines and other materials produced by members of the bhadralok. She identified how the forgotten lower part of the bhadralok group differs from its better-known upper crust.

"The two segments of the bhadralok are united because they think of themselves as a cultured group above the peasantry and working class," she says. "Members of the bhadralok middle class also share values in terms of politeness and social morals. But there are great differences when it comes to education. Both segments of people in this group had access to English education, but for the members of the lower bhadralok section, this education was limited to simply the ability to read and write in English, which earned them lowly paid jobs in the colonial administration. For example, few of the lower class would have studied the classics, such as those written by William Shakespeare and John Milton, which was a common staple for the upper layer. This difference is simply one of the many that perpetuates the unspoken separation between these two bhadralok classes.

"Historically, education is open to anyone in India, but only the truly wealthy can afford the best education. This distinction is rooted in colonialism, when the British authorities wanted to educate Indians in Western ways at a minimal cost."

Her book also looks at the informal networks of education that build the circle of the powerful in any given society.

"The bhadralok led and developed reading clubs, various community organizations and secured these networks further by marrying into each other's families. It was truly an 'old boy's network,'" she says. "This study traces the history of the connection between social power and education – as well as the social power of education – something that is certainly relevant for the world of today."

Bhattacharya is now looking at how the Bengali middle class in the early 20th century perceived the occult and religion. She also will look at the reason that the traditional Indian ghost story was replaced in the 1920s by the modern gothic, which is based more on Western ideas and morals.

Bhattacharya is from the Indian state of West Bengal, and she completed her doctorate in 2000 at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. She did her postdoctoral work in 2001-2002 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She joined Purdue's Department of History in 2002.

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purude.edu

Source: Tithi Bhattacharya, (765) 494-4144, tbhattacharya@cla.purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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