England honours Raja Ram Mohun Roy

Followers of Raja Ram Mohun Roy, the great Indian social reformer, prepare to celebrate his 173rd death anniversary in Bristol.

india Updated: Sep 25, 2006 15:59 IST

Unbeknownst to many in India, followers of Raja Ram Mohun Roy, the great Indian social reformer, are quietly preparing to celebrate his 173rd death anniversary in this British city on September 27.

Raja Rammohun Roy was born in a Brahmin family of Radhanagar village in the Hooghly district of West Bengal on May 22, 1772. He died here on September 27, 1833.

As the anniversary approaches, many hope that there would be a similar revival of interest in Rammohun Roy's chequered life as the Sanjay Dutt-starrer Bollywood film "Lage Raho Munnabhai" has done in Mahatma Gandhi's case.

Rammohun Roy came to England in 1831. However, 10 days after arriving in Bristol, he fell ill with meningitis and died on September 27, 1833.

His remains lie buried in the sylvan Arnos Vale cemetery on the outskirts of the city. The tomb is covered by a canopy ('chhatri'), which has become a prominent symbol of the cemetery.

He was initially buried in the grounds of Beech House, where he lived, but 10 years after his death, his friend Dwarkanath Tagore had him re-interred in Arnos Vale. According to Indian records, he was born in 1772, but his epitaph notes the year of birth as 1774.

His epitaph at the cemetery reads: "Beneath this stone rest the remains of Raja Rammohun Roy Bahadur, a conscientious and steadfast believer in the unity of Godhead, he consecrated his life with entire devotion to the worship of the Devine Spirit alone.

"To great natural talents, he united through mastery of many languages and distinguished himself as one of the greatest scholars of his day. His unwearied labour to promote the social, moral and physical condition of the people of India, his earnest endeavours to suppress idolatry and the rite of suttie and his constant zealous advocacy of whatever tended to advance the glory of God and the welfare of man live in the grateful remembrance of his countrymen."

On September 27, Indian Deputy High Commissioner Ranjan Mathai will lead Rammohun Roy's followers who meet every year at the tomb to mark the death anniversary. The event will also be attended by Lord Mayor Peter Abraham, among others.

Acknowledging Rammohun Roy's contribution to modern India, a statue of his was installed in 1997 - the 50th year of India's Independence - at a prominent location in the Bristol city centre. The statue was built by the prominent Kolkata-based sculptor, Niranjan Pradhan.

The statue was inspired by Rammohun Roy´s portrait by Henry Briggs and which hangs in the art gallery in Bristol. The statue is 8.5 feet (1.5 metres) high, made of bronze and weighs approximately 900 kg. It cost 13,000 pounds.

However, installing the statue generated much controversy over the years, with some local residents questioning why a non-Bristolian should be accorded such a privilege.

It upset people who consider that the move was simply a symbolic act by politically correct councillors who felt guilty about the British Raj and who wanted to win over the small minority of Asian voters in Bristol.

George Croft of Mangotsfield wrote in the Bristol Evening Post, a prominent local daily: "The Raja means nothing at all to the majority of Bristolians; he did nothing for the city and his statue has no place in its present location.

"For those who wish to honour his memory properly, the best place for the statue would be at the cemetery itself, rather than in such a prominent place."

Some Bristol residents would like the statue to be replaced by one of actor Cary Grant or technocrat Isambard Kingdom Brunel who had closer links with Bristol.

However, a member of the committee that recommended that Rammohun Roy´s statue be installed refuted the reasons and asked Croft to "read more about the Raja and his life's work for India and Britain".

"He was an international figure, a builder of bridges between races and religions, an educational and social reformer, a fighter for women´s rights and a man of courage. Bristol was surely right to honour such a man in this city where he died."

Joel Lewis of Horfield was angered by Croft´s suggestion that the statue be moved to the Asian-dominated areas of Easton or Eastville where the Asian community could honour him.

Lewis asked: "Does Croft think that only the Asian community can really appreciate Roy´s achievements? I find that incredibly patronising. Can only Black people appreciate the achievements of Martin Luther King? The suggestion to move the statue on these grounds smacks of cultural segregation."

The Sep 27 event is being coordinated by Carla Contractor, local historian and trustee of Arnos Vale, who has close links with Mumbai, India, and has conducted research on Rammohun Roy's life.

Contractor told the local media: "The Raja is widely regarded as the founder of modern India and his importance as a social reformer cannot be overstated.

"The annual pilgrimage attracts scores of people with the common aim of celebrating and remembering the life and work of this truly great and inspirational man."

Awaz Utaoh, a local charity organisation, is closely involved in the Sep 27 event, including providing lunch for the people attending the event. The organisation's members have also been researching the life and times of Rammohun Roy.

Simi Chowdhary, director of Awaz Utaoh, said: "One of the Raja's achievements was to abolish the practice of sati. His teachings have been an inspiration to all women from all faiths. A group of women from our organisation has been researching his work, and helping raise awareness within the Asian community."

As the death anniversary approaches, many people here wonder if it would need a multi-star cast Bollywood film to highlight Rammohun Roy's contribution to modern India where his death anniversary is once again likely to pass unnoticed.

First Published: Sep 25, 2006 14:23 IST