The Bangali Babu & his representations in the contemporary accounts of 19th century Bengal

Abstract: Rituparno Ghosh’s movie Antarmahal: Views of the Inner Chamber has a scene, where a zamindar’s wife inquires of him about the “new perfume” he is sporting, as it is different from the one he has applied before “going out”. The zamindar smugly replies – “You go out with one fragrance, and return with another. Then only will you be considered a Borobarir purush-manush!” This zamindar is the prototype of the Bengali Babus who cropped up in the late 18th century – 19th century Bengal, the awkward “In – Betweens” who unfortunately fit the description provided by Macaulay’s infamous Minute, even before it was conceived – “… Indian in blood, and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” Long before the Renaissance Babus of Bengal came to command the laudable image of philanthropists, connoisseurs of art, cultural geniuses, and fosterers of a cross – cultural mentality – in contemporary imagination, they existed as the effeminate, yet ruthless “spawns of the Firangi”,  who mastered hypocrisy in the Public as well as the Private. They loved their cats, and mistresses; survived on liquor, and flamboyancy; and advocated corruption in livelihood, and morality. Vehement Anglophiles, they appraised the “Colonial”, and abhorred the “Indigenous” – a stance that earned them the ridicule of the British, and the wrath of the lower class natives. Their mannerisms provided inspiration for ruthless satire, and popular literature; and they were made unpleasant “examples” of every ill that befalls the Bangali, when he sets aside the “homely traditional” for the “alien modernity”. The present paper seeks to peek into the Babu psyche; locating the Babu culture in the context of 19th century Bengal, and anatomising its various representations in the contemporary vernacular “texts”. Drawing from primary sources: popular satires (like Hootum Penchar Naksha, and Nabababubilas), woodcut Battala prints, Kalighat pats – all of which comprised “cheap – literature” entertaining masses with news, gossip, and scandal – the paper attempts to draw a clear picture of the Babu, and embark into a character analysis of the same. The socio – cultural, economic, political, and ideological conditions that bore him, and in which he thrived would be taken into account. However corrupted and caricatured, they are the forefathers of the harbingers of the Bengal Renaissance – and it’s essential that the roots of this phenomenal movement be delivered its due respect. The Babu is not just a blotch in the pages of Bengal’s History; rather he was the channel of the much needed European – Indian friendship in colonial Bengal. Nonetheless, this sympathetic interpretation is a very recent one, and the paper will restrict itself in examining him in the uncharitable and farcing accounts of 19th century Bengal. 

Keywords: Babu; Culture; 19th century; Bengal; Colonial; Satire; Battala prints; Kalighat pats; Renaissance; Caricature. 

একাদশে বৃহস্পতি  : “A most fortunate person”

The above Bengali proverb devised in 19th century Bengal actually served as an insulting appellate for the infamous countenance of the contemporary aristocracy – the Babu. In fact, the Era saw a tempest of farces (prahasan), satirical sketches (naksha)[1], and cheap prints (Kalighat pat, and the Battala prints) congest contemporary imagination; venting out the embarrassment the enlightened middle-class Bhadralok reserved for the ‘ideal and aspired’ public culture of Calcutta, namely that of the aristocratic Baralok Babu, and his superior – the Firinghi Sahib. This literature at times substituted vulgarity for witticism; yet dominantly it attempted a thorough anatomization of the persona, as well as the social and colonial construct: Babu.

The Babu.

The Babu: A Colonial Phenomenon?

The Babus traced ‘their heritages back to two lines of ancestry. Some of their forbearers had been landowners, others had been traders. What they [had] in common is that they benefitted from the close ties they had with the East India Company in one capacity or another.’[2] The Babus were earlier a parcel of the indigenous Zamindar class called upon to ensure political hegemony over Bengal in lieu of prestigious prosperity[3]; though later connotation and circumstances crystallized them into the ‘professional’ intermediaries (dobhashis[4], banias[5], dewans[6], mutsuddis, munshis[7], pandits[8]) between the Europeans and the locals, who aided both ends to survive socially, economically, and politically. The British policies, particularly the Permanent Settlement Act and the strict enforcing of the Sunset Laws, turned the fluid strata of zamindars from ‘Mughal’ feudal landlords to absentee entrepreneurial landlords. With the ‘capital’ garnered from the colonists, they took up rental ventures attached to landholdings, and minor (trade and industry) business; achieving the social status of a landed gentry. Boasting of affluent castes like Kulin-Brahmins, Baddi-Brahmins, Kayasthas, etc., whilst navigating toward European values, the Babus proved instrumental in the collapse of the old Zamindari order, and the rise of the new, educated, urban, aristocratic class of entrepreneurs popularly termed as Bhadraloks, and Babus:

In the colonial context, the Bengali term Bhadralok was applied to the ‘western caste elite’ and the ‘upper crust of Bengali Society’. Bhadralok is the equivalent of the English ‘gentleman’ but the words Babu, also, though lesser, a term of respect, and Bhadralok, were often used interchangeably to describe respectable people. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they were able to associate with the British because of their linguistic, administrative, and legal skills. They were often also landowners. Although the use of the term Bhadralok came to be applied loosely, it continued to carry more respectability than the term Babu … The term Babu became associated with over indulgence and extravaganza, and a [derogatory] term of ridicule employed by the British and the Indian lower classes … What clearly did emerge in Calcutta was a new group of Indian merchants who were part of an aristocracy that people were not born into but moved into because of their financial success, and often, advantageous marriages. They rose to fame by dint of their wile and energy to become celebrities.[9]

Nonetheless, it was the Babus who formed the “Great Families” of colonial Bengal, contributing to a type of inter-racial socialization at Calcutta. The foreign and native ‘administrators’ formed the crowds in “parties numerous at the Government House, and dinners and fancy balls amongst the natives”[10]. The picture of peaceful cross-cultural dialogue must have been as accurate as the ones captured in the brushes of Frank Scallan or William Princep; and the pen of Fanny Parkes which described a Durga Puja festive in one of the Bonedibaris of the city, as such: a “good nach” is held adjacent the “area [wherein] a handsome supper was laid out, in the European style, supplied by Messrs Gunter and Hooper, where ices and French wines were in plenty for the European guests”[11]. This picture, however, had changed in the late 19th century. The Industrial Revolution, the 1857 Mutiny, the subsequent transfer of power over India from the Company to the Crown, and the hedonistic lifestyles of the Babus alienated the urban elite from their White superiors. Majority of them were dubbed as “Black Zamindars”, “Ejuraj”[12] or “Phoohbabu”[13] – though, in hindsight, ‘the rejection of Indians by the British laid the foundation for the Bengal elite energetically joining the burgeoning movement for independence from British control’[14]. The British justified their racial apprehension based on the minority Babu population, unjustly so! Because, by this time the Great Families have moved into passionate philanthropy (albeit through an active display of wealth) literally comprising a battalion of intellectuals and social reformers who geared all their effort toward a pocket Renaissance, and independence of India. In fact, the blotch of notoriety on the Babu name proved too rigorous to be rubbed off; and consistently persisted to ‘capture the cultural conflict and hypocrisy of the Babus’[15].

Scallan’s harmonious Calcutta.

The current paper seeks to examine the various representation and characterization of the Babu in the 19th century popular literature in Bengal. Pictured as the “fallen” shadow of the Sahib, the Babu is largely portrayed as an effeminate, native aristocrat, who offers his ‘affections’ to the women in his life (and necessarily in the descending order): Mistress, Goddess, Wife, and Mother. His piety is potlatch, his loyalty fluid, his shameless flattery abundant, and his “Englishness” a vain attempt. These aspectual of the Babu face an irrefutable ‘institutionalization’ in the minds of the readers, then and now; so much so that the rhythmic lampoons that arose as mere fiction became proverbs which thrive to this day. Subdivided into enclaves according to characterization, the paper will draw from essays, poems, proverbs, and paintings to blatantly paint the portrait of the Babu of the bygone era. The paper will aspire to place him in the context of 19th century Bengal, and analyse how certain relatability (.i.e., food, treatment of women, leisure pursuits) was employed in the ‘plotlines’ to stereotype the aristocratic patriarch, and deliver a social message concerning the nuances of the “new money”, “blueblood” and the “Bangali” in a typical middle-class racy and vigorous Chalitbhasa[16] banter!

The English and Effeminate Babu

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An Effeminate Babu with his Bibi.

Penned by the most famous satirist of the period to make the main butt of ridicule the emerging metropolis of Calcutta; Kaliprasanna Sinha’s ethnographic Hootum Penchar Naksha (1862) is the surviving proof that ‘life in the new city was so unprecedented that a new literature, expressed in a new prose with a new aesthetic and moral sensibility, had to be invented’[17]. The entire naksha is dedicated to the ruthless caricaturing of the Babu, portraying him as an opportunist, corrupt and effeminate social climber who had taken to the colonist’s way of life to make his ends meet. In fact, the text is invaluable for its graphic descriptions of the Anglophile Babu who appraised the “Colonial”, and abhorred the “Indigenous” – a stance that earned them the ridicule of the British, and the wrath of the lower class natives. The text kicks off with –

“There are two groups of anglicised babus in the city now. The members of one group are like cowdung-busts of well-bred sahibs, and the members of the other are crappy imitations of feringhees! The first group follows the English style in everything: having at-homes around tables and chairs, drinking tea from cups, smoking cigars, keeping water in jugs, serving brandy from decanters … They read The Bengal Hurkaru, The Englishman, and The Phoenix, and talk about politics and the best news of the day all the time. They dine at tables, shit in commodes, and wipe their butts with paper … Members of the second group – Bagambar Mitra and others – are more dangerous than snakes … These scoundrels masquerade as well-wishers of the country to further their own selfish interests. All their efforts are directed towards becoming rich, and getting the upper hand. They studiously keep away from charity …[18]

Nowadays people go to office wearing all kinds of clothes, thanks to English education! Pagris have almost vanished; only a few old-fashioned clerks still wear them. The only problem with a pagri is that one’s Albert fashion parting gets hidden under it when it’s wound round the head.[19]

The particular ‘attention’ imparted to the extravagant physical attire of the Babu is common for all the farces, even one written late in the century like Sukumar Roy’s poem titled “Babu[20]

অতি খাসা মিহি সুতি; ফিনফিনে জামা ধুতি –

চরণে লোপাটে ধুতি জরিদার |

এ হাতে সোনার ঘড়ি, ও হাতে বাঁকানো ছড়ি;

আতরের ছড়াছড়ি চারিধার ||

চকচকে চুল চাঁটা – তায়ে তোফা টেরি কাটা –

সোনার চশমা আঁটা নাসিকায় |

ঠোঁট দুটি এঁকে বেঁকে; ধোঁয়া ছাড়ে থেকে থেকে,

হাল চাল দেখে দেখে হাঁসি পায়ে || 

ঘোষেরদের ছোট মেয়ে পিক ফেলে পান খেয়ে, নিচু পানে নাহি চেয়ে হায় রে!

সেই পিক থ্যাপ করে লেগেছে চাদর ভরে, দেখে বাবু কেঁদে মরে যায় রে |

ও দিকে ছ্যাঁকরা গাড়ি, ছুঁটে চলে তাড়াতাড়ি, ছিটকিয়ে কাঁড়ি কাঁড়ি ঘোলা জল –

সহসা সে জল লাগে, জামার পিছন বাগে, বাবু করে মহা রাগে কোলাহল || 

[He] adorns a shirt of fine muslin –

And a dhoti with golden fringes; With a golden watch on the wrist, a walking stick in hand –

Bathed in pungent perfume [he walks].

His hair is neatly styled; he has golden glasses fixed on his nose;

His thin sculpted lips release smoke now and then –

Oh! The sight is hilarious.

The youngest daughter of Ghosh babu spits out betel juice, without a glance below –

The spit stains the dismayed Babu’s shawl red.

The hurrying streetcar runs, splashing the muddy water in puddles –

The water drenches the Babu’s neat attire,

Making him throw up a tantrum.

An unfortunate victim of the logical arrogance of colonial masculinity[21], the Babu’s love for parasitic luxurious living, and staying confined in decorated parlours, tending to books as a way of service to their homeland; further qualified him as an effeminate being, too “compassionate, generous and gentle”[22] to take on the hysteresis of the physical expressions of manliness. His enlightenment and his Passover to the West provide ample scope for generational disparagement; as evident from proverbs like –

ওয়ান পাইস ফাদার মাদার [“One P[r]ice Father Mother”][23]

কয়লা শতবার ধুলেই ময়লা ছাড়ে না [“Can’t wash the white dog all the way to whiteness”][24]

The Western Babu.

And commentaries like the one made by Dinesh Chandra Sen on the ‘denationalised’ and ‘hyper-westernized’ youth of Derozio’s Young Bengal Movement:

“Young Bengal, as the new generation of the Bengalis were then called, became thoroughly anglicised in spirit. They exulted in Shakespeare’s dramas and Milton’s poetry … They grew mad after Shelly’s Epipsychidion, Keat’s Hyperion, and even after Chatterton’s Death of Charles Bodwin. Poor Chandi Das, poor Vidyapati and Kavi Kankana! The tears of your departed spirit fell on the big towns of Bengal which lay under the charm of European influence, mixed with nocturnal dews and unheeded by Young Bengal …”[25]

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The kirti showing an European couple, and an Indian couple in opposite reflections. (See Ashit Paul, Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta)

The English ‘educated’ Babu’s representation in the Battala prints is more brutal. A kirti[26] of a certain Shri Madhavchandra Das shows an European couple sitting on chairs, the Memsahib playing the violin and the Sahib holds a liquor bottle and glass; both attended by a native kitmatgar. The other hinge of the print shows an Indian counterpart of the couple, titled as “Rasaraj and Rasamunjari”. The arrangement of the second vignette is the same, except that the man is seen holding a veena, whilst the woman holds the pipe of a hookah. Other prints depict the Babu in gentlemanly pursuits, except that the depiction of the male figure is highly feminized, and the postures are stylized to show their submissiveness or henpecked subjugation. Portrayals include the Babu dressed in women’s clothing, a Babu braiding his hair and adorning himself with jewellery, or two Babus engaged in homosexual intercourse. One shy pat painting shows a group of Babus playing the harmonium; in another, a group sits in a shop, pouring over logbook. Both pictures convey the sense of women gossiping around a fire; hence giving the idea of feminine demure, and politeness. The comparison stands; the reality, however, was quite different.

The Babu and his women

The Babu with his wife and mother. (See Ashit Paul, Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta)

A kirti titled “Ghor Kali” of a certain Shri Nrityalal Dutta shows ‘the wife is riding on the shoulders of the husband while the mother, who is a religious woman, has a rope tied round her neck as is done to a domestic animal. In other words, it shows that while the wife is cherished, the mother is neglected – abuse is her lot’[27]. The Hootum Penchar Naksha remarks “Their [Babus’] only problem is that they’re henpecked and plagued by illness all the time”[28]. Rajshekhar “Parashuram” Basu’s Birinchibaba features a Nitai Babu complaining bitterly:

 … I am not a happy man. My domestic help has run away, my wife is nagging all the time, my daughter’s got fever, and I can no longer relax and have a nap in my office.[29]

Works like Munshi Namdar’s Kalir Bau Ghar Bhangani and Bholanath Mukhopadhyaya’s Koner Ma Kande Aaar Takar Puntli Baandhe stage similar characters, thus harping on the theme of subjugation of the Babu in the hands of his wife, and the consequent mistreatment of the mother-in-law. Nonetheless, the prints that reported contemporary scandals and gossip kept intact the horrors of (legitimate) patriarchal tyranny. The Battala prints concerning the 1874 Tarakeshwar Scandal and the 1878 Upendranath Bose – Kshetromani Affair were supplemented with namesake low-brow scandal plays, ‘giving shape to emergent cultural constructions of conjugality and sexuality, domesticity and family, gender and class, morality and purity’[30].

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Right: The Sonagachi Murder; Left: The Tarakeshwar Scandal: in Battala Print.

Sensational cases, particularly involving prostitutes, became a hook to dangle a moral or humorous tale. This is noticeable in the case of the print pamphlets circulated for the 1875 Sonagachi Murder. The Sonagajir Khun aar Sonaganjir Khunir Fnasir Hukum notes:

All of you out there, do remember

How the woman bewitches by weakening your mind.

This is the price of abandoning your family and loved ones.

Coming in contact with a prostitute is a sin;

… You lose both your present and your future.

And in grave danger of losing your life.[31]

Calcutta was, indeed, a sin city with contemporary accounts reinforcing the sneer – “baishya der bor hoye na, babu hoye”[32]. The prostitutes of 19th century Calcutta are the marginalized creatures of dominant narratives, and until recently, their role in the city’s socio-economic fabric has gone largely unnoticed.  ‘The labour of prostitutes sustained the structures of colonialism and capitalism through their intimate and intricate links with the migrant force in the city’[33]. The mixed-class urban experience came complete with the ‘gratification of lust’ in the vigorous presence of the ‘bazaar’ walkers, proxy wives, baijis, and private courtesans; who offered sexual comfort (to a petty bourgeoisie and working-class clientele) and were considered to be a subtle, and quiet workforce until the 1880s. With the surge of reformist tendencies, prostitution appeared posing ‘a perennial threat to the safety and sanctity of middle class homes and colonial civility, representing a distressing street disorder that threatened to infect the normality and inviolability of respectable urban life’[34]. The initial sympathy was replaced by contempt, and clandestine prostitute entered the realm of representational politics: ‘by acting as a foil to settled domesticity, they enhanced the virtues of the middle class housewife, and strengthened the conjugal bond between husband and wife’[35]. The “Other Women” were a constant source of pollution and temptation; ‘within the emerging upper-caste Hindu nationalist discourses of the late 19th century, the prostitute was the Bhadramahila’s (genteel woman) other, and needed to be constructed as such to provide binaries of chaste and unchaste, modest and immodest. The contrast between the seductive and aggressive harlot and the virtuous wife languishing at home formed the subject matter of many reformist pamphlets’[36]. In fact, even the Bibi or Bhadramahila of colonial Bengal is not spared of criticism in the process of ‘bhadra-fication (gentrification) of Bengali society’[37]. Accused of westernization, she is portrayed as one going for her gangarsnan in a phaeton, singing Rabindrasangeet in the accompaniment of a piano, and dancing with a trousered Sahib in garden parties. 

The Vixen / She-Wolf: Women of 19th century Bengal.

It is notable that the women of the era are always portrayed in conjunction to the Babu: either with him, or even if the picture is devoid of him, they are witnessed acting out ‘something’ for his sake. Women were property, confined to the zenana, and condemned in an invisible life of patriarchy and unspeakable violence; their existence fuelling the well-being of their masters. Also the portrayal of the Babu involves conservatively victimizing him in the hands of a religious personage, femme fatales, jealous antagonists, and even lust. Love is written off, and though the acts of violence (for death is involved in each of the above mentioned cases) are condemned to no end; the Baralok Babu, much to the irksomeness of the Bhadralok, emerges passively untainted. Obviously, the Babu is the ultimate face of the Bengali society: he can be censored, but never refuted. The scapegoat has to be the ‘subordinate’ social elements suffering on their own accord – the sympathy for their plight is compelled to cease, over-shadowed by moral judgements and the reinforcement of the existing social notions. Also, in some ways, the deliberate ‘making light’ of the Babu’s persona puts him on a higher rational and moral footing. By portraying this ability to ‘do the wrong, admit the wrong, correct the wrong’, the Babu develops into the model of perfect moral refinement, capable of hankering for and initiating social reforms for greater welfare. In a way, therefore, the respective literature makes way for participatory politics.

The Babu and Hypocrisy

“… Qualifying as the aristocratic and rich in Bengali society, the Babus have a group of their own – some obsequious Brahmin pundits, kulins, bansajas, srotriyas, kayasthas, baidyas, telis, gandhabaniks, kansaris, and chhutars. They [babus] observe various scriptural rites with great solemnity in their homes … and perform the yearly memorial rites for their dead relatives with great pomp …”[38]

Yet to command a philanthropic reputation, the Babu‘s flimsiest attempt at reform robbed him of the claim of decency, and earned him the estate of the Hypocrite. The depictions question his ‘good intentions’ – from religious piety to humanitarian devotion – and effectively crystallize the enduring image of the aristocrat, who personified flamboyancy; and advocated corruption in livelihood, and morality. Bhabani Charan Bandopadhyaya’s Nabababubilas, and Pyari Charan Mitra’s Alaler Ghorer Dulal chart the rise of the various patronized clientele of the Babu, as well as provide details of his own patronal: the Firingi. Another ‘phenomenon’ registered is the rise of the “Naba (“new”) Babu” – the educated, idle and extravagant Brahmo or the Young Bengal Youth who takes to beef, and sacrifices his religion at the altar of ‘powerful’ prominence. Hootum Penchar Naksha skilfully incorporates chapters bearing elaborate content titled as Calcutta’s Charak Festival, Calcutta’s Community Pujas, Snanayatra at Mahesh, Rathayatra, Durgapuja, and Ramlila with frequent mentions of “Rammohan Roys, Debendranath Thakurs, Vidyasagars, and Keshab Sens”[39] and the affluent citizenry of contemporary Calcutta who “worshipped an idol, a saligram … and a holy casket containing an Akbari gold coin every day”[40]. Their dedication produced proverbs like:

কথায় কথা বাড়ে, ভোজনে পেট বাড়ে [“Words lead to more words, Eating leads to a bigger belly”][41]

কর্মে কুঁড়ে ভোজনে দেড়ে [“Eating is sweet, digging is weariness”][42]

বেড়াল তপস্বী [“The meditative cat”][43]

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The Hypocrite Babu. (Refer to the paragraph below)

The very image of a parasitic aristocratic gave way to an animalistic and metaphorical depiction of the Babu in the prints and pamphlets. The stealthy cat, the excess fish (a main ingredient of the staple diet in Bengal and a symbol of extravaganza), and the hare-brained goat/cow appeared frequently in caricaturing art. A depiction showed a woman walking a dog with the head of a Babu; another showed a Babu with the body of a horse clicking pictures of his tigeress-bodied baishya during a day out in the city; a third showed a woman riding her husband as a vahana.  The tendency to caricature them turned into frenzy when certain ‘emergencies’ like the Maratha Scare, the Fish Scandal or the venereal diseases scares hit the city; for it was during emergencies that seriousness replaced the humour in the satirical memory of Calcutta. Lampoons turned into serious group accounts to give voice to the subjugated, and bring awareness to the privileged class about the plight of the poor. Typical pictorial depictions during urgencies include cats eating fish, a school of fish in black and white, or a Babu with a fish .i.e., the wealthy is hoarding fish during an inflation to profit from the starving poor. Chele bhulano choras featured these unscrupulous instincts of the wealthy during ill times; an instance being –

নোটন নোটন পায়রাগুলি –

ঝোটন বেঁধেছে,

দুই পারেতে রুই কাতলা ভেসে উঠেছে;

কে দেখেছে? কে দেখেছে?

দাদা দেখেছে |

দাদার হাতে কলম ছিল, দাদা ছুঁড়ে মেরেছে –

দাদা বড্ডো লেগেছে ||

The new pigeons are playful,

On both the banks, schools of Rui and Katla have washed up –

Who has seen this? Who has seen this?

Dada has seen this.

Dada has a quill in his hand. He throws it at me.

Oh, God! It hurts.[44]

Depictions like an elaborately dressed Babu walking a cat, a Babu kissing a Sahib’s feet, or a Babu trying to appear patriotic whilst being secretly a British agent highlighted the rampant political hypocrisy. But nothing is greater than the unspoken moral hypocrisy: the Babu penned pamphlets of morality in brothels, in the parlour of a Sahib he penned a nationalist slogan, and above his thakurdalan, he ‘enjoyed’ the nautch girl who came to perform at his Durga puja gathering. The prints, paintings and writings pickled this double-standard façade into a huge collective of obscene literature; and it appeared to the eyes of the world that the contemporary literature faced a backfired purpose: it corrupted more than it censored morality.

Reading it all …

The Babu in other depictions.

The early Babu was a deliberate construct; the later Babu, a mistaken one. Either way, they and their stories of the eventful Intermediate Town and the Black Town contributed much to the salacious entertainment of the late 18th – 19th centuries, for both the natives, and the foreign rulers. Notwithstanding its notoriety, the Babu culture was, in actuality, a lavish one, comprising ‘a mixture of English Liberalism, European fin de siecle decadence, Mughal conservatism, and indigenous revivalism, inculcating aspects of socio-moral and political change. This culture was fostered in its wake by the Zamindari system, the Dayabhaga System the Hindu Joint Family System, the Mitakshara System, the Muslim Zenana System, the Protestant spirit of free capitalist enterprise, the Mughal-inspired feudal system and the Nautch[45]. It’s simply unfortunate in its timing. Like its juxtaposed protagonist, the “Bengal Renaissance” period, in itself, is one of transition – when “the nawabi era melted away like the winter sun; the might of the English shone brightly like the sun in a cloudless sky”[46].  It was a time of utter fluidity, of forging of identities, and hybridization – indeed, the Babu was the emerging intermediary between the Native and the Sahib. A combination of personal and involuntary choices: the advent of British colonization, industrialization, rise of the Bhadralok textual corpus, and tendency to emulate the culture, sans the virtues of the West. He was the objectionable middleman, of new money, and newer blood; and thus unworthy of respectful equality:

With the colonial regime affording many opportunities to mercantile enterprise, low-caste members of society could rise in status upsetting traditional social divides … As newer groups benefitting from the dispensation of colonial education came to dictate discussion of social matters, traditional hierarchies were eroded further. Caste was also losing its symbolical and ritual importance in public life – in educational, professional, cultural, political, and intellectual activities – although it sill mattered in the private realm – in marriage and social ceremonies – by the mid-nineteenth century. Earlier socially disenfranchised groups enjoyed the heady freedom to move from the older restrictive caste, and familial networks to grab new opportunities offered by the secular state.[47]

The new groups were the social aspirants who outshone the older order in loyalty to the new rulers; and for the containment of such disruptions, it was customary to poke fun at them within a very intricate framework of ritual etiquette. Hence, the hatred. Hence, the mockery in propagandized pamphlets. The higher order didn’t like the Babu’s Rolls-Royce or stately mansion; the lower order cringed from his hoarding of their daily bread (or in this case, fish). Still their ability to fuse the tenets of the Hindu dharma with those of Western ideology proved priceless in the changing state of order. For all the ridicule he faced, he was the liberal breach in the dyke of Oriental backwardness through which seeped in early modernity – ‘Early modernity would be replaced or perhaps subdued and marginalized by a full blown colonial modernity with its new agenda of social reform and nationalism’. It’s no wonder, that the Babus broke from both the sneering groups to develop a passion for philanthropy. Their schools, temples, dharamshalas, libraries, and clubs dotted the microcosmic hub of Babu culture .i.e., Calcutta; and the Bengal in the beyond; typesetting them as a Renaissance Aristocrat. Albeit lowly, yet a Renaissance Man. The negative vignette prevails even today, but as students of humanities, particularly of history, literature, or sociology, we should give credit to where it’s due. Even if it means delivering a gratitude which is over two centuries old!


[1] The Prahasans and Nakshas were ‘popular forms of literary expression in 19th century Bengal. Unlike the heroic poetry, drama, and fiction of the period, which dealt with classical, mythological, and historical subjects in heavily Sanskritized Bengali, these classics of satire dealt with the follies and foibles of contemporary Bengali society in the colloquial urban language of the day’. See Kaliprasanna Sinha, The Observant Owl: Hootum Penchar Naksha, trans. Swarup Roy (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2008), xiii.

[2] Joanne Taylor, and Jon Lang (eds.), The Great Houses of Calcutta: Their Antecedents, Precedents, Splendour, and Portents (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2016), 47.

[3] The Babus were the landed mercantile gentry, as opposed to the landed aristocracy. Drawn from lower orders (Teli, Chamar, Karmakar, etc.), they were wealthy entrepreneurs, holding British granted titles like Raja, Raibahadur, Nawab, Huzoor, etc. But they advocated the assumption of power by ceremonial emulation; which granted them the splitting image of native royalty. Their imitation of both the British and the Zamindar class is an expression of their aspiration for social mobility and affluence. Furthermore through marriage, they secured the ties of nobility, and created grandeur worthy of kings without kingdoms (literally).

[4] Bengali for “Translator”.

[5] Bengali for “Trader”.

[6] Bengali for “Accountant”.

[7] Bengali for “Clerk”.

[8] Bengali for “Scholarly advisors”.

[9] Taylor, and Lang, The Great Houses of Calcutta, pp.56-57.

[10] William Dalrymple (ed.), Begums, thugs, and White Mughals: the journal of Fanny Parkes (India: Penguin India, 2002), 98.

[11] Ibid., pp.92-93.

[12] Mocking Bengali for “Educated Raja”.

[13] Mocking Bengali for “Flower-educated fop”.

[14] Taylor, and Lang, The Great Houses of Calcutta, 62.

[15] Ibid., 48.

[16] The native tongue of Bengal, as opposed to the heavily Sanskritized Bengali that was used for works of immediate consumption like farces, newsletters, dramas, etc. This particular dialect evolved with proverbs, oral sayings, verbal insults and abuses; and till today, remains the preferred means of communication in a typical Bengali household.

[17] Sinha, The Observant Owl, x.

[18] Ibid., pp.15-16.

[19] Ibid., 12.

[20] A poem from the section “Ananya Kabita” (Other Poems) in Satyajit Ray, and Partha Basu (ed.), Sukumar Sahitya Samagraha (Kolkata: Ananda Private Publishers’ Ltd., 1973), pp.113-114.  

[21] ‘The accounts of the ‘effeminate Bengali Babu’ demonstrate a surprising perspicacity about historicising colonial constructs: ‘the old East India Company did not develop the Bengali Babu – the old East India Company left the Bengali as it found him – a cringing subservient eye servant, to be made use of as circumstances or occasion required. The Crown took the Babu in hand and developed the Babu into his present state of loquacity and disloyalty. The author’s definition of the ‘Bengali Babu’ alludes to a quite specific historical ordering of colonial masculinity. By the late nineteenth century, the politics of colonial masculinity was organised along a descending scale: senior British officials associated with the administrative and military establishment, and elite non-officials, those not directly related to the colonial administration, occupied positions at the top of the scale. Other groups and classes that made up colonial society supposedly shared some, though not all, of the attributes associated with the figure of the ‘manly Englishman’. In this colonial ordering of masculinity, the politically self-conscious Indian intellectuals occupied a unique place: they represented an ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverted’ form of masculinity. Hence this group of Indians, the most typical representatives of which at the time were middle-class Bengali Hindus, became the quintessential referents for that odious category designated as ‘effeminate Babus’. The figures of the ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali Babu’ were produced by, and helped to shape, the shifts in the political economy of colonialism in the late nineteenth century: the changing imperatives in the strategies of colonial rule as well as the altered conditions for the indigenous elite’s collaboration with colonial rule. The colonial cliché of the ‘effeminate Bengali Babu’ was thus tied to the entire ensemble of political, economic, and administrative imperatives that underpinned the strategies of colonial rule in the late nineteenth century.’ See Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp.1-32.

[22] Sinha, The Observant Owl, 16.

[23] See Mondira Sinha-Ray, The Meditating Cat – Bengali Proverbs and Their Echoes in Far Cultures (Delhi: Paragon – Publishers, 2011), 65. A proverb describing the motto of a very stingy person, who doesn’t even spend for his/her parents’ welfare.

[24] Ibid., 72.

[25] Roshnika Chaudhury, Freedom and Beef Steaks: Colonial Calcutta Culture (New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2012), 29.

[26] See Ashit Paul, (ed.), Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1983), pp.38-39.

[27] Ibid., 32.

[28] Sinha, The Observant Owl, 16.

[29] Rajshekhar Basu, Birinchibaba in Gopa Majumdar (trans.), (accessed on March 17 2017),

[30] Anindita Ghosh, Claiming the City: Protests, Crimes, and Scandals in Colonial Calcutta (India: Oxford University Press, 2016), 124.

[31] Ibid., 137.

[32] Rajkahini. Film. Directed by Srijit Mukherjee. India: Shree Venkatesh Films, 2016.

[33] Ibid., 142.

[34] Ibid., 150.

[35] Ibid., 125.

[36] Ibid., 151.

[37] Ibid., 150.

[38] Sinha, The Observant Owl, 2.

[39] Ibid., pp.21-22.

[40] Ibid., 3.

[41] Sinha-Ray, The Meditating Cat, 69. Proverb referring to the Babu’s substitution of action by mere words, for his skills.

[42] Ibid., 72. Proverb referring to the Babu’s apathy toward manual labour.           

[43] Unknown. Proverb referring to the Babu’s dubious and corrupt business practices .i.e., trade and moneylending. The metaphor of cat is used to convey an idea of cunning and shrewdness.  

[44] Reference to the foolish habit of Babus to stand guard at the river/pond bank during the mating season of fish, to prevent the poor from stealing the ‘harvest’; but to no avail! The above poem refers to one typical Babu who is standing guard by his pond, and composing poetry. “Dada” is the Bengali term for addressing a respectable gentleman. He sees a thief attempting to steal, and hence throws the quill in his hand at the thief. The thief mocks the folly of the rich, and says that he is ‘wounded’ by the pen.

[45] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, s.v. “History of Kolkata” (accessed on March 31 2017),

[46] Sinha, The Observant Owl, 34.

[47] Ghosh, Claiming the City, pp.115-117.


Paul, Ashit, ed. Woodcut Prints of Nineteenth Century Calcutta. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1983.

Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali’ in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Dalrymple, William. (ed.), Begums, thugs, and White Mughals: the journal of Fanny Parkes. India: Penguin India, 2002.

Sinha, Kaliprasanna. The Observant Owl: Hootum Penchar Naksha, trans. Swarup Roy. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2008.

Sinha-Ray, Mondira. The Meditating Cat – Bengali Proverbs and Their Echoes in Far Cultures. Delhi: Paragon – Publishers, 2011.

Chaudhury, Roshnika. Freedom and Beef Steaks: Colonial Calcutta Culture. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2012.

Rajkahini. Film. Directed by Srijit Mukherjee. India: Shree Venkatesh Films, 2016.

Ghosh, Anindita. Claiming the City: Protests, Crimes, and Scandals in Colonial Calcutta. India: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Rajshekhar Basu, Birinchibaba in Gopa Majumdar (trans.), (accessed on March 17 2017),

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, s.v. “History of Kolkata” (accessed on March 31 2017),

Taylor, Joanne. And Lang, Jon. (eds.), The Great Houses of Calcutta: Their Antecedents, Precedents, Splendour, and Portents. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2016.



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