When Robert Burns ignited Bengal

  • Ayesha Banerjee, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
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  • Updated: Jun 18, 2013 16:02 IST

Nigel Leask is the head of the School of Critical Studies and Regius professor of English language and literature, University of Glasgow, and poetry is the great love of his life. He has a special corner in his heart for Tagore, Neruda, Lorca, and Octavio Paz… and now wants India to know more about the Scottish poet Robert Burns (he of the Auld lang syne or old days fame) and his love for Scotland.

Why Burns? That’s because his poetry was popular with Bengali students in the early days of Hindu College, Calcutta. The Scottish missionary to India, Alexander Duff, remembers students in Henry Derozio’s (poet and assistant headmaster of Kolkata’s Hindu Collge) discussion group reciting Burns’s poetry and singing his democratic anthem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’. Two of Burns’s sons served for many years in the Company army, and one of them, James Glencairn Burns, was later appointed judge and collector of Cachar (in Assam), and became an expert in Hindi, instructing company cadets in the language on his return to England in 1839. Burns’s songs pervaded 19th century British India, and were well known to many Indians: Rabindranath Tagore adapted at least three of them, most famously ‘Phule Phule, dhole dhole’ which is based on ‘Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonny Doon’, set to a Bengali version of the original melody.

On a recent visit, Leask delivered lectures at Delhi and Calcutta universities on Robert Burns and the Scottish colonial experience, underlining the distinctive nature of Scottish involvement in India, especially in 18th- and 19th-century Bengal. He remembers being impressed with the questions raised by staff and students. “I wanted to propose that Burns, while on the one hand propping up a sense of Scottish identity in the cultural hierarchies of the British Empire, also inspired Bengali and other intellectuals and writers to value their own native language and cultural traditions, thereby indirectly promoting national self-determination which eventually led to independence. I also lectured on 18th-century readings of Adam Smith at the Centre for the Study of Social Sciences (CSSS), Kolkata, which was a tremendous experience,” he says .

While talking with Calcutta University on joint PhDs and with the CSSS on closer links, Leask says he “explored a number of areas where there are common interests between Glasgow’s College of Arts and Calcutta University.”

Taks with Rosinka Chaudhuri at the CSSS who has pioneered the study of 19th century Anglophone poetry in Bengal in a series of books and articles were also very productive, he adds. A lot of work, including sorting out the practical details, would be done soon. 

The School of Critical Studies has recently been working on building up specialism in Anglophone poetry in colonial India. Glasgow’s English department, known for its strengths in Romantic and Victorian poetry, aims to be an international centre for the study of 19th century Anglophone poetry in India with the recent appointment of Mary Ellis Gibson, who has published ‘Indian Angles: English Verse in Colonial India from Jones to Tagore’ (2011) and ‘Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780-1913’ (2011). “We are interested in British poets like John Leyden and DL Richardson, as well as Indian poets like Henry Derozio and Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Although our focus is on the Anglophone material, there is also a fascinating story to tell about the eventual decision of many of the latter group to write in Bengali rather than English. The aim of this exercise is to understand better the nature of the complex, often entangled, cultural encounter that was taking place under the banner of 19th-century British colonialism in India,” says Leask.

About critics who have been dismissive of colonial poetry as derivative and second hand, Leask stresses that such judgements tend to ignore the colonial and cross-cultural contexts that give a new meaning to familiar poetic metaphors and subject matter. Many Indian poets learnt about what is called ‘Bardic nationalism’ from the patriotic poems of Scottish writers like Robert Burns and Walter Scott, or Irishmen like Thomas Moore, but this led many to reinvigorate their own native language and culture. “British poets were also deeply influenced by Indian, Persian and Arabic poets in this period as well, so there was always a two-way influence,” he adds.

Leask’s India connect is strong because his father was born in Utakamand, of Scottish parents working in Madras, and spoke Tamil before he could speak English. He served as a young officer in the Gurkhas during World War 2  in Burma and the NW Frontier, and was traumatised by the awful scenes he saw in the Punjab during Partition. “He always loved India and as children we grew up in Glasgow hearing his own tales from the Raj,” says Leask.

‘No prospects of poetry declining in the globalised world’

Favourite poets: Shakespeare (of course!), Marvell, Milton, Pope, Burns, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Browning and a host of others in the 20th and 21st century, including foreign poets like Tagore, Neruda, Lorca, and Octavio Paz   --- Lord Byron

Scene in the city: There is a very lively poetry scene in Glasgow, and in Scotland generally, and our creative writing programme is very popular with students both home and international - its actually co-directed by a wonderful Jamaican poet called Kei Miller. So no sign of poetry waning here! As to the students, well the good thing about
literature is that the teacher always learns from the pupil

The best quote: Shelley famously described poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of mankind’ and I think that still holds true, to the extent that they give new depth and meaning to our everyday language and to our identities as citizens of particular nations. Yet poetry is also profoundly cosmopolitan, having the power to cross linguistic and national borders, and it is that power of translation that makes it a force for mutual understanding in our divided and conflictual world. For this reason it will always be central to university education, even if it doesn’t offer fast financial rewards like many more vocational subjects. New electronic media have paradoxically restored the oral quality to poetry, brought it more nearly back to its original identity with song, a fact appreciated by great poet/songwriters of the caliber of Burns and Tagore. So I’m glad to say that I don’t see any prospect of poetry declining in the post-modern, globalised world!


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