Rajendra Dutt 1818-1889

Clay models, Peabody Museum, Salem: Seated on (from left) Rajendra Dutt, Doorgaprasad Ghose, and Raj Kissen Mitter

রাজেন্দ্র দত্ত ১৮১৮-১৮৮৯

Banias of the 19th century belonged to the top class urban society of Bengal. Rajendra Dutta, the great grandson of Akrur Dutta was born in a traditional Bania family and brought up in an environment of Cultural Revolution constantly adjusting himself with his changing society. Rajendra dedicated his life for the good of his people. The good he did for them was prodigious, but lasted for only a while, then lost in nothingness. Little we know about Rajendra to understand why he preferred pursuing his mission single-handed rather than to building institutions for quicker attainments of his purpose. He went door to door with his medicine bag to treat patients, but did not build a good hospital of standing. Whatever he did did privately, keeping no records for his future biographers to track down.

Dutta Family of Wellington

Rajender Dutt, c1850. Opaque watercolor on ivory By unknown Indian artist. Courtesy: Peabody Museum, Salem

Akrur Dutta, the illustrious great grandfather of Rajendra, was the founder of one of the most respectable Calcutta families, the family of ‘Dutts’ of Wellington Square. The ‘Dutts’, however, did never mind being called ‘Duttas’ interchangeably. Akrur was born in 1720 in Sonatikri village in Hooghly. At the age of 20 he came to Calcutta, and start a career of ‘dadni’, a contract merchant. Soon he shifted to sloop business with the support of Pritiram Marh, the father-in-law of Rani Rashmoni. Akrur turned out to be the best sloop contractor in Bengal by 1780.

After Akrur, his eldest son, Rammahan took up the rein from 1809 to speed their business competing with the British interests. He ran his sloop business profitably for a decade and then wisely decided to move out to shipping business. Rammahan Dutta became an upright flourishing ship merchant of Calcutta. The Duttas stand apart from most of their contemporaries in that they continued to thrive long after the English Company had stopped to patronize them. Ultimately he also decided to retire from business because of being continuously harassed by the British antagonism.

Rajendra, born in Calcutta in 1818, inherited the business acumen of his great grandfather, the legendary solook merchant Akrur Dutta, and of his ship merchant grandfather, Rammahan. His father Parbaticharan Dutta died prematurely leaving Rajendra to the care of their uncle Durgacharan Dutta, the eldest son of Rammahan. Rajendra and his uncle Kalidas, the two highly resourceful young men, firmly established themselves as outstanding banias of the American ships during 1850s. See Shubra Chakrabarti

The relations amongst the ‘Dutt’ family members can be readily ascertained by glancing through the family-tree headed by Okrur Dutt, (anglicized form of Akrur Dutta’):

familyTree_AkrurDutt

The family has lived together with their property in common and with no division for generations, the eldest member guiding the direction of all affairs. In 1849, there were ‘two hundred of them living together …. Most of them are free from any prejudices of caste, and, scorning the native superstition’. See: Norton’s letter

Upbringing

Parbaticharan Dutta died prematurely when his son Rajendra was a mere child. He grew under the care of Durgacharan, the eldest among his uncles. The first thing Durgacharan did was to get Rajendra admitted to the Dhuramtala Academy of David Drummond, a celebrated teacher of logical mind. Rajendra then joined Hindu College, where Vivian Derozio was one of his teachers. There he grew up among few nonconformist friends, branded ‘Young Bengal’. Completing his studies at Hindu College, Rajendra pursued study of medicine in Calcutta Medical College as an external student.
He studied medicine for equipping himself to provide his people with medical service and support gratis. Even when he was in business, Rajendra zealously maintained the desire for mitigating sufferings of his people irrespective of their class and creed. ‘Rajababu’ or ‘Rajen Dutta’ became a household name synonymous with ‘friend in need’.

Maritime Merchant

Indiaman owned by Dudley Leavitt Pickman and partners_orgnl

Friendship of Salem owned by Dudley Leavitt Pickman and partners

After the collapse of agency houses, the Calcutta banias were in the decline. A few powerful merchants like Dwarkanath Tagore, Motilal Sheal, Rustamji took up partnership business with the British. But when the Union Bank and the Car-Tagore Company collapsed at short intervals in January 1848, the banias thought it unwise for them to stick to trading business any more, and ventured into real estate.

RajenDutt_Partner_Dudley_Leavitt_PickmanRev

Dudley Leavitt Pickman Partner of Rajendra Dutt

Duttas, however, were among the few exceptions who sought commercial prosperity by alternative means. Soon they plunged into trading with American enterprises, and that helped them sustain in business for few more years. It seems likely that young Duttas received inspiration from the great achievement of Radhanath Mullick of Pataldanga, an upright ship merchant who had set up the first Indian dry dock in Calcutta after breaking away from partnership with the English. Moreover, Duttas might be tipped off by Pramathanath, the successor of Ramdulal Day, who happened to be a relative to Rajendra’s wife.
In 1842, William Bullard, came to Calcutta for trading as a partner of Bullard and Lee and continued his business for about ten years. Before Bullard and Lee wound up, Bullard and his agent ‘Rajender’ became personal friends. Rajendra also had occasions to treat Bullard with homeopathy. In 1852, another American firm, Stone, Silsbee and Pickman of Salem entered business with Duttas.  Rajendra and his uncle Kalidas proved to be highly creditable businessmen who in no time “became the banias of a number of American shipping firms such as George Auckland and Co., Atkinson Tilton and Co., Richard Lewis, Norman Brothers and B.R. Wheelnight and Co. At the same time, Duttas themselves founded a shipping company in collaboration with one Linzy (variant ‘Lintzy’), an American entrepreneur, and called it Dutts-Linzy and Company. They also invested in other concerns such as the Ganges Pilot and Co., Hooghly Tug and Co., Serampore Spinning and Weaving Co., and Rishra Yarn Co.” See: MB Rahman

The Duttas, both Kalidas and Rajendra, were entrusted with the responsibility of purchasing goods to be sent to America. Instead of silk and cotton piece goods, indigo, linseed, saltpetre, hide and jute were now in demand in America, the prices of which fluctuated a great deal according to the seasons and the availability of these goods in local markets, allowing high business gain. By August 1857 the joint venture of Kalidas and Rajendra came to an end. There was nothing to suggest a family dispute, or any other possible reasons. Rajendra now entered into business with the American shipper Linzy on a commission basis, which allowed greater profits and greater control on the visiting ships than acting as their bania. See Shubra Chakrabarti

As it appears from available sources, Rajendra carried on his business till early 70s.
The most important factors behind the survival of the Duttas were their ability to diversify and to move into related areas of commerce; and also their aptitude to evolve a sociable personal relationship among business partners that helped mutual success and continuity. Charles Eliot Norton, representative of Boston House, may provide best instances in support of this view.

Living Style & Social Grace
As Reflected in Letters of His Friend Chales Norton

Charles Eliot Norton, by Samuel Worcester Rowse

Charles Eliot Norton, by Samuel Worcester Rowse

Rajendra Dutta, like most of his family members, was of sociable nature. He had many friends. Some of his good friends were picked from his American business partners. Quite a few of them turned later into acclaimed academics. (See Sirajul)  They continued correspondence with Rajendra discussing different matters of their interest beyond business, as they did in Calcutta. ‘Norton a supercargo later turned academician’ wrote several letters to his family members and Boston friends, recounting the warmth of the friendship he enjoyed in company of Rajendra, and reflections on Rajendra’s lifestyle, his environment and obligations. (See Bean)  Norton wrote to his aunt, Miss Anna Ticknor, on October 21, ‘89 that he was invited to a native theatrical entertainment’ at Dutta’s house. The house he found, ‘. . ill-situated, large, and inelegant on the outside. Within, the rooms, which are generally very small, are built around an open square court; about the second story runs a verandah with which the upper chambers communicate. All looks uncared for and often dirty, as if there were an absence, as indeed there is, of refined taste and oversight.’
Norton sat on the verandah watching the episode of Nala and Damyanti being played. He was surprised that ‘the only mark of applause among the audience was the occasional throwing of some rupees tied in the corner of a handkerchief at the feet of the actors, and this was only done by the family or the guests in the verandah. It was only by their stillness and attention that the crowd below showed their approbation’. He thought the Hindu, ‘whose highest idea of happiness is inaction, can hardly understand that state of excitement which finds vent in a Western audience in a whirlwind of applause’. Norton misinterpreted the conduct, not being versant with the etiquette of Hindustani music, which never approves an applaud dispelling its lingering appeal. Hindustani music sounded ‘nasal and unmusical’ to Norton. But soon he gained some respect for the system, and came to know that “to a stranger the music is quite uninteresting, but I have no doubt it would become less so the more you heard, particularly if you knew anything of the science, for it is cultivated as a science, of Hindu music.” This he apparently learnt from his friend Rajendra.
Norton wrote to his sister Louisa on October 22, 1849 that the Dutta family was a very remarkable one; and added, “I treated them as gentlemen and as equals, we are now warm friends”. The Duttas, on the other hand, delightfully found their new friend’s interest ‘in the Hindus’, ‘their characteristic customs and habits’. Rajender had prepared a Hindu dress for Norton to wear on a special occasion, as he thought ‘that the natives would be pleased at the conformity to their customs’. His friend Norton found the dress a picturesque and most comfortable one for the climate.
On October 31, 1849, Charles Norton in a letter to his mother gave his scathing re-view on the Hindu rites of sacrificing that he experienced at Dutta’s house on the occasion of Jagadhatri Puja. He was there invited to see the ritual. The old Durgacharan, the head of the Dutta family, on his knees, bending head to the ground, made some silent prayer. When he rose, “a goat was brought forward, and its head being fastened was struck off at one blow by an attendant. Three or four musicians made a loud din with their tom-toms and cymbals; the blood of the goat was poured over the plates of offerings.” Describing the shocking sight he shared his immediate reactions with his mother. – “It is a fact strikingly characteristic of Hindu nature, of its aversion to change, of its want of spirit to break through the shackles that bind it. Rajender did not even pretend to regard the sacrifice with anything but contempt. . . .” (My emphasis) See: Norton

Philanthropy

In words of Shivnath Shastri, Rajendra had all the advantages that wealth and education could give him. See: Shibnath Rajendra dedicated all resources to help his people to live fit and well, with dignity. He studied medicine with this object, and rendered most extraordinary caring service for well-being of the people, irrespective of their class and faith.

Homeopathy
Finishing academic studies, Rajendra opted for medical science to fulfill his cherished ambition to relieve the sufferings of diseased humanity. Rajendra set up at his residence an allopathic dispensary in collaboration with the eminent physician Dr Durgacharan Banerjee. He earned reputation as a allopathic doctor. But he felt not so happy with the results of his allopathic treatment.Rajendra got involved in exploring alternative methods of treatment, and eventually found his answers in homeopathy. In 1864 he opened a charitable homeopathy dispensary, and earned wide reputation as a homeopathic practitioner in Calcutta society. He cured Pundit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar of his chronic ailment that baffled the leading allopath doctors. He also successfully treated a nasty gangrene developed on a leg of Rajah Radhakanta Deb, and had the rare privilege of attending the God-like personality, Sriramakrishna. The contribution of Rajen Dutta however was not limited to practising homeopathy but mothering the young science in India by promoting its capabilities, and reinforcing the drive for homeopathy by winning over confidence of other practitioners. He pushed up Dr C.F. Tonnere, helped him setting up a Homeopathy Institute. Rajendra also worked with French physician Dr. Thienette de Berigny when he was in Calcutta. It was a memorable day, when at the residence of Pearycharan Sircar, Rajendra had convinced the young Mahendra Lal Sircar, an MD, of the efficacy of Homeopathy by demonstration in presence of Dr Berigny and few students of Calcutta Medical College. See Pearycharan Jibanbritta. Dr Sircar, then a medical star of the Calcutta medical firmament, took to homeopathy under the tutelage of Rajen Dutta. (See: Collection on Carcinosimum/ By Mahender Singh, Jain.2003) During the latter part of his life, taking Dr Berigny with him, Rajendra went round visiting the sick, making no distinction of creed, caste, or rank. Such visits were not just professional, but friendly as well. He would sit by his patients in friendly chat; and arrange for their diet or any other necessities, if needed. As an instance of his caring attention to his patients, we may recall that Rajendra, in one of his visits to ailing Sriramakrishna in April 1886, happened to notice the wretched pair of sandals on his feet and took personal care to get them replaced with a new made-to-order pair. The sandal is now preserved in Belur Math as an object of worship. See Kathamrita
Rajendra Dutta has made a permanent place in history as the father of homeopathy in India. Whatever else he did for the good of his patients remain unexplored.

Hindu Metropolitan College
In 1854, the middle-class sentiment of the Calcutta gentlemen had a shock when Hira Bulbul, a well-known Baiji, wished to get her meritorious son admitted to Hindu College – the elite institution of Western education. Hira Bulbul presumably had some patrons to back her up, and Rajendra, a genuine admirer of her music (See Norton), and a champion of human dignity, could have been the likely sponsor of her move. But, other than his liberal character and his humanitarian principles, which his friend Charles Norton analytically described, nothing whatsoever was found to hold up any possibility of his supporting Hira’s cause. On the contrary, there remains a popular belief that it was Rajendra who really lead the protest movement against Hindu College and broke away with a good number of mainstream Hindu elites to establish the Hindu Metropolitan College. The only reason that might explain his disagreement with Hindu College was perhaps the serious lack of spiritual input for educating their boys.  Today, reviewing the situation with a wider perspective, the episode of Hira Bulbul appeared to be merely an accidental cause for founding the Hindu Metropolitan college in 1853, which was , actually, ‘opened by a knot of orthodox Hindus, as a sort of protest against the laxity displayed in the matter of religious teaching in the older institution.’ (My emphasis) See Life of Indian journalist

The Hindu Metropolitan College, the first national college in Calcutta, opened in the palatial house of Gopal Mullick at Sanduriapatty, with Radhakanta Deb as the President and Debendranath Tagore as the Secretary. Celebrities like Motilal Sheal, Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, and Rajendra Dutta were among its patrons. The college was fortunate to have Captain David Richardson as its Principal. Rajendra had a major role in setting up the College, and managing its affairs. He also had to shoulder its financial burden as well. Soon it earned reputation as an excellent institution of learning. Several men of eminence had their education here. Keshub Chandra Sen, Sambhu Chandra Mookherjee, Kristodas Pal were among the students of upper class. The college ran for a few years only. The reason of its discontinuation was thought by many as a natural outcome of the shift in the Government policy for admission to Hindu College. The new policy permitted no students other than sons of the Hindu community to get admission to the School section of the Hindu College. The policy of admission to College section however remained unchanged, allowing students of all castes and creeds. As we see today, this policy shift did not affect the senior section, where the final products of the College were groomed, and on whom the reputation of the College largely depended. Since there was no change in College level admission policy, we cannot reasonably guess why then the new policy be considered as the reason for declining importance of the Hindu Metropolitan College and its diminishing relevance to contemporary society. It looks like that the restriction imposed for school-level admission was no more than a compromise that suited both the sides at least for the time being.

Savitri Library

Savitri, a free circulating library was founded in 1879 in the Dutta house at Akrur Dutta Lane. It started with the donated books from the private library of Duttas enriched with contributions of scholarly family members, particularly Rajendra, an acknowledged book lover and book collector. He grew a fine collection out of the books gifted to him, ordered by him, and also received on exchange. (See Bean). His interest had no boundary. Harvard University gratefully acknowledged his gift of precious volumes of oriental literature. One may be pleasantly surprised to find him sending for a copy of Mrs Kirkland’s ‘The book of home beauty’ as early as in 1853.

Rajendra was in his fifties when Savitri started. His two cousins, Gobindalal and Kanailal Dutta, were in the forefront of all activities of the library and its literary and the cultural events conducted under the library banner. Illustrious literary personalities, like Bankimchandra, Chandranath Basu, visited Duttas’ courtyard to preside over the Library foundation day celebrations. Here at a public meeting called by the Swa-Dharma Samity, Rabindranath made his historical announcement on September 17, 1905 of the nationwide observation of Rakhibandhan Day in protest of the Government move for Bengal Partition. See:Basantipur Times

Savitri continued for many more years after Rajendra passed away. When the li-brary was finally closed its collections were donated to Sahitya Parishad.

Women Emancipation
Among other issues, women’s emancipation- ‘women’s rights, the plights of Hindu widows, and the need for women’s education’ –  was one of his chief concerns. The introduction of the sewing machine to Calcutta society in 1853 had been a significant news item in context of social change. The machine got imported for the first time from America by Rajendra Dutta (see: Benoy Ghose). The same year he brought Mrs. Kirkland’s ‘The book of home beauty’. His involvement in the move-ment against polygamy might be deeper than just putting signature on the joint petition, বহুবিবাহ প্রথা নিবারণার্থ আবেদনপত্র, signed by over two thousand citizens. He must not have ever forgotten his suffering of being a father to see his only daughter a child widow. It was expected that he had made some organized effort for the cause of women.
Above everything, Rajendra considered the improvement of the basic character of his people by restoring spirit of goodwill, desire for learning, patriotism, which have been eroded partly as a result of the abuse of foreign dominations, especially under the British rules. Some scholars, who intimately studied the Bengali society of the mid-19th century,  ‘distinguished a lower and higher type of Indian’. The demarcation hinged, not on wealth or even on education as such, but on whether privileged Hindus used their education and intelligence to raise the character of their people. ‘Of those who did, like Rajinder Dutt (sic), there seemed hardly a saving remnant’ See: Turner

A Tragic Hero of Bengal Renaissance

rajedraDutta

Rajendra Dutt. Clay model. Courtesy: Peabody Museum, Salem

Rajendra Dutta, an acknowledged protagonist of social upliftment had fought lifelong for the cause of the common people by democratic means. He continued unendingly with his struggle against social evils, like illiteracy, physical and mental sickness, cultural apathy. His Indianness, his unshaken loyalty to cultural tradition made Rajendra different from his Derozian classmates at Hindu School. He took the gradual path of social change as opposed to the revolutionary path of his Young Bengal friends. We may not however forget that Rajendra Dutta was after all a product of David Drummond, the brilliant teacher who fired his pupils’ mind with the culture of independent thinking. Drummond also had produced Henry Derozio, the fiery patriot who instilled the spirit of liberty, equality and freedom in the minds of his students at Hindu College.
Rajendra did never admit the ‘professed’ Derozians’ arrogant disregard for authority and tradition, as to him those were much too deep-rooted social system to throw out overnight without destroying the society itself. This conviction determined his way of negotiation with the realities of social discriminations and abuses and deprivations of their legitimate right of living useful life in good health with dignity.
It was his dogged fidelity to the tradition and authority that costed his mental peace and happiness in personal life, and even forced him to sacrifice his personal preferences of religious affinity. He had been a defenseless spectator of the bloody rite of animal sacrifice performed in his own house; and a condemned father who had to bless his only daughter marrying under-aged only to get back as a cursed widow-child.

Rajendra had also given up his right of embracing a faith of his choice. As it appears in some letters and journals of his contemporaries, Rajendra had every opportunity to come close to espousing progressive Christian or Brahmo ideologies. In 1854 Rajendra met Reverend Charles Brooks, a Unitarian pastor. Brooks was curious to know why Rajendra had not embraced Unitarianism in spite of so much keenness. Rajendra made it clear that it was because his mother would expect her last right be done by him. Next year, Rev. Charles Dall, the American Unitarian missionary stationed in Calcutta, considered Rajendra as one of the two ‘pioneers in the Unitarian cause’, the other one being Rajnarayan Basu. Rajendra was also closely connected with the Brahmo movement. The harsh comments of the veteran Brahmo, Rakhadas Haldar, that the new Brahmos were no better than Hindus, could not dampen his spirit. The promise of Brahmoism encouraged Rajendra to support Debendranath in Tattvabodhini Sabha. See: Lavan  ‘Dutta expressed his views on religion, in which he assails both Hindu and Christian orthodoxy’ (See Bean )  No matter where he belonged, what he believed, Rajendra pursued religiously his humanitarian labour of love through his life. In his prime time, during mid-19th century, the state of public morals was far from heartening. “The idea of truth seems extinct in the nation, and the higher qualities of the character are developed in very rare and uncertain instances.” Charles Norton, who later in life was regarded ‘the most cultivated man in the US’, wrote “I have seen but one native, whether Hindu, Mussulman, Parsee, or professed Christian, that I respect, — that one is my Calcutta friend, Rajender Dutt.” See Norton
To Norton, Rajendra was a tragic hero as he failed to bring about any lasting effect on the mind-set of his people, and his mission for improving the quality of life of his people and of the society remained a short-lived phase in history. His was a tragedy, because he knew experientially of incorrigible elements of national character, nonetheless never stopped midway, like a Sisyphus.

This is an input for inspiring research
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2 comments on “Rajendra Dutt 1818-1889

  1. Pradip Kumar Ray says:

    Very much informative, however the attitude of Rajendra in the matter of Hindu Metropolitan College and Hira Bulbul’s son is not clear. Where the boy ultimately got admitted

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