Henry Derozio: Early iconoclast

Print edition : December 17, 2021

An image of Henry Derozio. Photo: credit

Presidency College, which started its life as Hindu College in 1817, was where the precocious Derozio dazzled the contemporary intelligentsia as a young teacher from 1826 to 1831. Photo: DEBASISH BHADURI

A freethinker par excellence, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio’s alleged notoriety lay in his incessant exhortations to his students to cease conforming to medieval notions of morality and start thinking and deciding for themselves.

This is the story of an extraordinary seat of learning, a no less extraordinary individual, and their historic association that ought to have generated widespread interest across the sub-continent but unfortunately has not for reasons that are not far to seek. The 19th century was still young when young Henry Louis Vivian Derozio first stepped into what was then known as Hindu College. Within no time he had shaken its foundations, and much else besides, with his talk of free thought and spirit of radicalism.

A hundred and ninety years separate us from his untimely death on December 17, 1831. It is no small wonder, therefore, that Derozio is, if anything, a dim, distant figure today. Few have heard his name and fewer still have any idea of what his life and times were like. It is a sad commentary on our sense of history that even in Bengal, whose “stormy petrel” he was, he is a largely forgotten figure.

Arguably, the stateliest piece of architecture on Kolkata’s brisk College Street is Presidency College, its broad drive-in, massive Gothic columns, and imposing central staircase faultlessly combining to give it a dignity and charm all its own.

However, what is more germane to our story, Presidency College has been since its inception more than 200 years ago the rendezvous of the student elite of Bengal and its neighbourhood. Many a convulsive dissent movement, including the one spearheaded by the naxalites in the 1970s, was first mooted within its aged portals or on its sprawling green lawn. And many a fiery rebel first made his mark haranguing people at the college’s ornate entrance gate. It is another story that in course of time many of these rebels switched roles to become strong pillars of the establishment they had once raved and ranted against.

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Presidency College as we know it today was not there in the second and third decades of the 19th century when Derozio and his associates took it by storm. It was then known as the Hindu College. The unusual family of radicals, with its unusual cult of cutting society to size, settled down to a brief but busy life of writing tracts on abuses of the day and debating passionately in favour of the poor and the underdog. Sins of the past were to be washed clean in the rushing waters of the new enlightenment, and the void caused thereby was to be filled by ideas and institutions meaningful and just. The college was the venue of the intellectual investigations of these radicals and the leader’s house the site of orgiastic bouts of eating and drinking which were meant to symbolise their emancipation from the shackles of superstition and cruel social conventions.

The Hindu College was founded on January 20, 1817, by a small band of progressive Bengalis in love with Western liberal learning, led by Raja Rammohun Roy, in the face of acrimonious orthodox opposition. The progressives, actively supported by Lord Bentinck and Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian, wanted their countrymen to be educated in the humanities and the sciences with English as the medium of instruction. The obscurantist forces of Raja Radhakanto Deb of Sobhabazar, who wanted the traditional stream of learning to continue, were decisively routed. But this did not remove the deep-seated distrust of Western learning in many sections of society.

A decade later, however, the progressiveness of the progressives was found wanting— by the Derozians. To them, Rammohun was a reformer at best and certainly not a revolutionary. They argued that the Raja wanted no full-scale crusade against existing evils. To the young Derozians, steeped in revolt and contemptuous of equivocation, the elder men appeared ridiculous in their “coming as far as half the way in religion and politics”.

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-31), the tragic yet triumphant figure who initiated the movement that bears his name, was of Portuguese-Indian lineage—we would have called him an Anglo-Indian had he been living today. Derozio, notwithstanding his detractors, shines luminously in the annals of what is known in the history of modern India as the Bengal Renaissance (1814-1919). In the Hindu College records of 1831, the name occurs as De Rozio; the German Indologist, Max Mueller, however, spelt it D. Rozario.

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Derozio joined the Hindu College faculty in 1826 when he was 17. He was dismissed on unfounded charges of corrupting Bengali youth on April 25, 1831. He died of cholera before the year was out in the midst of his turbulent intellectual inquiries. His enemies claimed that it was the wrath of the gods which had robbed him of his life at such a tender age; his students and admirers wept inconsolably; Bengal lost one of her dearest and most devoted sons.

While on the subject of his leaving the college, there are some scholars who argue that Derozio left of his own choice, that he resigned and was not removed from the faculty. That debate is now of academic interest; the fact remains that many of his colleagues did not take kindly to his questioning nature and worked overtime to make things difficult for him, which caused him great unhappiness but never embittered him, pointing to the quality of human being he was.

As will be obvious to readers, in many ways, Derozio’s life and his end remind one of the manner in which Socrates lived and died. The false charge of corrupting the youth of the day was common to both, underlining the truth that anyone who dares to go against the mainstream is fated to face disapproval—and worse. Comparisons may or may not be odious, but one question cannot be brushed aside—if Socrates is rightly an inseparable part of the lore and learning of the world, is it fair that Derozio should be little-known or unknown even in the land of his birth?

Poet, philosopher and teacher

A freethinker par excellence, Derozio’s alleged notoriety lay in his incessant exhortations to his students to cease conforming to medieval notions of morality and to start thinking and deciding for themselves like intelligent, rational beings. He hated being pushed around by superiors in college, notably the headmaster, D’Anselme, or by sanctimonious Brahmin pundits in society. Available contemporary records are unanimous that Derozio possessed rare gifts of head and heart, and, before his premature death, had given ample evidence of being an unusually sound poet-philosopher apart from being a teacher of a high order. His delightful temperament endeared him to one and all, and the fact that people came from far and wide to partake of the sumptuous feast provided by his great heart and lofty mind only served to widen the gap between him and his many rich and envious enemies.

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In drawing to himself the most alert and scholarly Hindu College boys of the day, collectively known as Young Bengal, and exorcising them of the ghost of traditionalism and its attendant evils, the young revolutionary was launching out on a singularly courageous search for truth and beauty, knowledge and compassion.

The master, no older than many of his students, was assisted in his epochal efforts by Rasik Krishna Mallick, Dakshinaranjan Mukhopadhyay, Krishnamohan Bandopadhyay and Ramgopal Ghose—the “four firebrands” as they were called. Less well-known but no less important were Harachandra Ghosh, Sibchandra Deb, Ramtanu Lahiri, Radhanath Sikdar (he was the first to calculate the approximate height of Mount Everest), Pearychand Mitra, Madhabchandra Mallik, Maheshchandra Ghose, Gobindachandra Basak, Amritlal Mitra, Tarachand Chakrabarti and Kishorichand Mitra.

The distinguished Marxist teacher, Professor Susobhan Sarkar, who taught history with elan for many years at Presidency College and whose birth centenary was observed in 2000, wrote a couple of brief but sharp and perceptive essays on Derozio and his movement. These are contained in an anthology of his writings entitled Bengal Renaissance and Other Essays. The portrait that Professor Sarkar paints, with the help of authoritative records, is that of a child of destiny—at once a palpably human individual and an amazingly gifted scholar drunk deep at the fountain of English radicalism and the lessons of the French Revolution.

Even though he lived so many decades ago, Derozio appears strikingly modern in the ideas he articulated and even strove to translate into reality. The Derozian manifesto could be summed up thus: Down with the past and its many profligacies; Down with all that is superstitious and exploitative in the Hindu manner of life; Onward with Reason and Truth; Onward with all those values that make for an egalitarian, free and dynamic society. It is curious to note that the modernity in the thoughts preached by the naxalites of Presidency College in the 1970s had been envisaged by Derozio and his followers almost one and a half centuries earlier. Sadly though, between the two phenomena, Young Bengal and the naxalites, stretched a long and largely abortive search for emancipation from diverse social inequities and economic disparities.

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The external manifestations of Derozio’s philosophy alarmed those who sat smug and self-satisfied at the top of the early 19th century Bengal society. Even the Brahmos, who had dissociated themselves from the general tenor of idol worship and prevalent rites and rituals, did not look on Derozionism kindly. The Brahmo protest movement had learnt to live with not a few compromises, their dissidence frequently sounding like “Thus far and no farther”’. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Brahmos should argue that the Derozians, with their many supposed excesses and their accent on secular learning, had long exceeded that ‘farther’.

The Young Bengal group, however, could not care less. There was, one suspects, some bravado in their declamations and deeds, but there was also idealism and the willingness to suffer on account of it. They scandalised the orthodox Hindus with their strict injunctions on diet, by feasting on forbidden food and drink. If it was necessary to exhibit their iconoclasm in order to awaken a sleeping society, so be it. To quote a hostile critic, the Derozians took society to task “by cutting their way through ham and beef and wading to liberalism through tumblers of beer”.

Attacks on orthodoxy

Anything that failed to pass the test of reason was anathema to the Young Bengal fraternity. Wearing the so-called sacred thread, worshipping the fearsome image of Kali to the deafening accompaniment of cymbals and tom-toms, stressing the absolute necessity of having Ganga water for elaborate sacramental purposes, and conforming to meaningless mumbo-jumbo of the priests were not only senseless and irrational, but also the less outrageous aspects of a decadent society that encouraged the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands or the killing of children to appease angry gods.

Thus it came to pass that Madhabchandra Mallik publicly asserted: “If there is anything that we hate from the bottom of our heart, it is Hinduism.” And Rasik Krishna Mallick, while refusing to swear by so-called holy water, affirmed: “I do not believe in the sacredness of the Ganga.” The Derozians, in their determination to clean the Augean stables of Hindu orthodoxy, appealed to both the head and the heart of the populace, but it was on the head—Reason and Intellect—that they laid the greater emphasis.

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Alienated from their own prevalent culture, replete with ignorance, prejudice and cruelty that no amount of persuasion seemed capable of removing, the Derozians sought refuge in and sustenance from, among others, Francis Bacon, John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Paine and Jeremy Bentham. This, coupled with their claim that Christianity was an infinitely more compassionate creed than Brahminical Hinduism, brought on their head the unsubstantiated charge of extreme Anglicism.

What critics, including some in recent times, have failed to grasp in their undue haste to denigrate the Young Bengal movement is worth examining. The Derozians’ love for Western ideas was not blind. Even here they did not abandon their commitment to Reason—the English radical thinkers were great and had a lot to offer, but they were by no means sacrosanct. Reason was the presiding deity and the Derozians gathered to pray at its altar—that was the way their young leader wanted it. Their philosophy has been pithily summed up by Ramgopal Ghose: “He who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who does not is a slave.”

In an India where some unholy elements with an eye to economic and political power are currently frenziedly pursuing a fundamentalist line, enlightened and truly cultured people should make it a point to read as much as they can on the lives and thoughts of visionaries like Derozio and his associates. That exercise should be enthusiastically extended to school- and college-going students because fundamentalist outfits are keen to recruit members and supporters from the ranks of the young and the impressionable.

The present combination of ultra-nationalism and blind observance of rituals in the name of religion cannot but inflict irreparable damage on the Indian peoples. Every time a fanatic, regardless of his or her religious affiliation, raises the cry for faith without reason, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio squirms in his grave. The likes of him deserve better.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a freelance writer based in Kolkata.

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