Presidency College (now Presidency University) is celebrating its bicentennial this year. Well-known historian and former vice-chancellor of Visva Bharati, and an alumnus of the college, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, speaks to KumKum Dasgupta about his alma mater, the festivities and why the college must look beyond just celebrating its past.
KumKum Dasgupta (KD): Presidency College is celebrating its 200th year. What are your thoughts on the occasion?
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (SB): I am happy that the college is receiving public and media attention and the reason is not a scandal, power conflict or a gherao. The organisers must be congratulated. It is a good idea to use this occasion to provide opportunities for academic interactions between students and eminent scholars from other countries.
However, I recall that when I was a student, it celebrated its centenary (1955). President Rajendra Prasad, an alumnus, inaugurated the programme. The foundation day was then supposed to be on June 15, 1855. In 1955, the college faculty, who were then the organisers of the celebrations, believed that Presidency College was separate from Hindu College, which was officially closed on April 15, 1855.
Hindu College was a private institution controlled by a Committee of Management but Presidency College was a government college. Moreover, the location changed because the present building of the college came into existence much later in 1874.
However, since the 200th anniversary now being observed at Presidency College assumes that there is no discontinuity between Hindu College and Presidency College, I think it is inappropriate to make a fuss about the historical details now forgotten, for the prevailing mood is to celebrate.
KD: What are your views on the newspaper advertisements about ‘alumni’ like Swami Vivekananda, Jagadish Chandra Bose or Subhas Chandra Bose?
SB: As far as I know, JC Bose was not a student of the college, he studied in St Xavier’s College. Again, it will be incorrect to identify Subhas Chandra Bose as a graduate of the college; almost everyone knows that he was expelled from the college and he eventually took his degree as a student of Scottish Church College.
Once again, I recall that Vivekananda’s brother Bhupendranath Dutta states that Vivekananda started his college studies in this college but eventually he appeared in the FA and BA examinations as a student of the General Assembly’s Institution (now Scottish Church College). The advertisements contradict these facts.
In any event, it is odd for an institution like Presidency College to advertise itself in the manner you have pointed out.
KD: As a former student of Presidency College, how do you feel about the celebrations?
SB: I will share with you a thought that crosses my mind. In Sanskrit literature, we come across a peculiar word - ‘goshthi-sukham’, which presumably means the pleasure of being together with kinsmen. Our middle classes revel in the pleasure of being with their own kind. It will be cruel to deny the middle classes and the literati this pleasure in celebrations of this kind. And yet they may find it useful sometimes to get out of that cast of mind. The old alumni, understandably in a celebratory mood now, might look at the college as one remembers it and Bengal as it was and ask themselves, what did their generation inherit and what did they leave behind? Does the present state of Bengal allow us to congratulate that generation on their contribution to the advancement of Bengal? That is a frequently unasked question.
KD: Presidency College celebrations are a part of many utsavs, anniversaries, memorial celebrations etc. that take place in West Bengal nowadays. So what is special about the college?
SB: Presidency College is special to the extent it plays a role in shaping the mind in this country. It had indeed played a historically important role. While Bengal is falling behind in terms of development, access to health care, primary education and various indices of quality of life, we are getting celebrations commemorating achievements of the past. To turn a blind eye to that fact is to join the carnival of the sightless. But I am sure that the mind of Presidency College will remain alert to that reality and not remain complacent with ‘goshti-sukh’ of the moment.