WHEN ROBERT BURNS IG­NITED BEN­GAL

The poet and his ten­der feel­ings for his na­tive Scot­land taught Ben­galis a thing or two about pa­tri­o­tism. Nigel Leask, head of the School of Crit­i­cal Stud­ies and Regius pro­fes­sor of English lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture, |Univer­sity of Glas­gow, talks to Aye­sha

Hindustan Times (Delhi) - HT Education - - Front Page -

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 self­de­ter­mi­na­tion 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 cross­cul­tural 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.

head of the School of Crit­i­cal Stud­ies and Regius pro­fes­sor of English lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture, Univer­sity of Glas­gow

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