Makers of modern India: A tale of two graves in Britain

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Aug 14, 2016 08:17 IST
Rammohan Roy’s mausoleum in the Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol. Dwarkanath Tagore paid for Roy's Indian-style mausoleum. (HT photo)

Rammohan Roy and Dwarkanath Tagore were allies in social reform, early Indian journalism and much else in colonial Calcutta, but after both died in England in the 19th century, their lives are remembered differently: one is celebrated, while the other lies in a crumbling grave, neglected.

Roy (1772-1833) died in Bristol, while Tagore (1794-1846) passed away on a stormy August day in London. During their time in England, both were the toast of Victorian society, feted at elaborate dinners in elite company, which has been the subject of much recent research in academia.

 As the death anniversaries of the two makers of modern India are observed – Roy’s on September 27 and Tagore’s on August 1 – the difference in approach cannot be starker. The state in which the two lie in cemeteries also reflects a selective interpretation of history.

In fact, it was Tagore who paid for Roy's beautiful Indian-style mausoleum in the Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol. The local council, members of the Brahmo Samaj and others gather every year to pay their respects and celebrate his life every September.

Cut to the Kensal Green Cemetery in London, and you will find hardly anyone paying tribute to Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. His grave lies neglected, while Roy’s mausoleum is well-maintained and preserved.

The grave of Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, at the Kensal Green Cemetery in London, which lies neglected and gets few visitors. (Tony Mitra/ Flickr/ Wikimedia Commons)

“There is ambivalence among lovers of Rabindranath Tagore about his grandfather. This is because, it may be fair to say, Rabindranath distanced himself from him for moral and political reasons. Simply put, Dwarkanath was pro-British; this did not sit well with his grandson's nationalism,” said senior London-based journalist Ashis Ray.

Writer-historian Shrabani Basu added: "It is really tragic that Dwarkanath Tagore, one of Bengal's foremost business pioneers, lies in a crumbling grave in London.” 

“It is doubly tragic that the man who constructed the beautiful mausoleum for Rammohan Roy in Bristol, has himself been forgotten, with no one visiting or taking care of his grave."

Known as “Prince Dwarkanath”, Tagore was one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his time. He founded the first joint stock commercial bank in India, the Union Bank; he was also involved in charity work, was a partner in Carr, Tagore & Co, and had interests in tea, steam navigation, indigo and much else, besides providing the financial muscle for Roy’s social reform activities.

 A little known aspect is Tagore’s stake in some of India’s first print journals published from Calcutta and his support to Roy’s celebrated opposition to restrictions on the press imposed by the East India Company in the early 19th century.

Sumit Mitra, who has researched Tagore’s life, said he was the original internationalist in the Tagore family – not Rabindranath – and needs more recognition for helping modernise the country.

 “He was an early moderniser of India, but very little record has been kept of his work. During his lifetime there was hardly any major Indian voice in Western narratives, but he managed to achieved much in various fields,” Mitra said.

 “At a time when the West Bengal government is desperately trying to attract private investment in the state, it may do well to embrace Dwarkanath as a path-breaking example of Bengali entrepreneurship. It may not be inappropriate for the West Bengal government to take charge of caring for his grave as perhaps a symbol of its pro-business intentions,” Ray added.

 Bristol has several landmarks related to Roy, besides the popular mausoleum. His life-size statue was installed in the city centre in 1997, while a pedestrian path beside the house in Stapleton where he died has been named “Raja Rammohun Roy Walk”.

 A giant painting by Henry Briggs, for which Roy posed during his stay in Bristol in 1832, is in the city museum, which also houses a lock of his hair. A sum of 50,000 pounds was donated by Kolkata businessman Aditya Poddar for repair work on the mausoleum in 2007.

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