Close on the heels of the social reforms in the country the Brahmo Samaj embarked upon educational reforms. At that time the state of popular education was at its lowest ebb. The majority of the male population along with the women were living in the darkness of ignorance. The little education that was imparted to those to carry on the ordinary business of the nation. It was not a matter of shame that even the Brahmins were unlettered. There was no literature save a few poetical works complied two to three centuries earlier. Men were exclusive, unsympathetic and jealous of their caste and class privileges. Those that were well to do wasted their time in flying kites, witnessing fights between rams and bulbuls (a type of bird) and visited professional nautch girls or frequented the opera. People had to learn Persian and Arabic to get high ranking government jobs.
In 1816 Rammohun Roy in consultation with David Hare, formed the plan of opening an educational institution for the instruction of the youth in the science and literature of Europe. This proposal was earnestly taken up Sir Hyde East the chief justice of the Supreme Court, but Rammohun resigned from this committee seeing the opposition by his Hindu adversaries which removed the obstacle for implementing the scheme. Thus was born the Hindu College which was later renamed Presidency College in 1856 when it was taken over by the government. In 1822 Rammohun started the Anglo Hindu School where Debendranath Tagore received his first education. The purpose of the Hindu College was to educate the scion of the Bengali elite in English and Western sciences. Thus educated, Bengalis would be better equipped to administrate the expanding bureaucracy of the empire in India and accept their place within it. The establishment of Hindu College was followed by the setting up of a number of schools and, in 1857 an university.
The then Governor General of India Lord Amherst proposed to open a college for teaching the Sanskrit language. Rammohun protested strongly against this and wrote to the Governor General, “…the Sanskrit system of education would be the best calculated to keep this country in darkness, if such had been the policy of the British legislature. But as the improvement of the native population is the object of the Government, it will consequently promote a more liberal and enlightened system of instruction embracing Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Anatomy with other useful sciences which may be accomplished with the sums proposed by employing a few gentlemen of talent and learning, educated in Europe and providing a college furnished with necessary books, implements and other apparatus.” One wonders in awe as to how were these words penned by a native Indian in 1813, when the current ideas of education were low and old fashioned. To this synthetic vision of Rammohun in the spheres of religion and culture, the Indian Renaissance of the 19th century owes its origin and birth. Indeed, there was not a single aspect of India’s life – political, social, economic, religious and cultural – which was not shaken out of stupor, and rendered dynamic by the touch of this mighty personality.
The efforts of Rammohun proved to be fruitful after his death when Lord Macaulay proclaimed in the minute of 1835 that it was his intention to initiate a policy of education that would produce a strand of people who would be English in all but the colour of their skin. Such an edict sums up very well the imperial sense of racial superiority. Calcutta was the first city in India to feel the social and political impact of this colonialism.
The enthusiasm for English education, Western sciences and lifestyle led not only to the establishment of influential learning establishments but also to a proliferation of smaller schools. The system in such institutions was, at times, far from what had been visualized by Macaulay. Tutored in these “schools”, Bengalis began to pepper their conversation with English words. The vulgar imitation of the West contributed to the growing concern that Indians were losing their identity on the road to modernisation. A major reason for the proliferation of these schools was the difficulty involved in gaining entry into the premier institutions. Ramtanu Lahiri, a stalwart of the 19th century reform movement, was obliged, as a boy from the moffussil to run for days after the palanquin of David Hare, one of the pioneers of English education, before he was admitted to Hare School.
Exposure to Western ideas and ideology produced an extreme reaction among some of the students of Hindu College. Under the influence of Henry Vivian Derozio (1809 -1831), a brilliant young Eurasian teacher, students in the “Young Bengal” movement not only avidly read western philosophy in the 20s and 30s but also, in an attempt to emulate Western lifestyle, ridiculed the Hindu religion and instead of uttering mantras or prayers repeated lines from the Iliad. This rebellion caused fractures in family life as tradition and revolt met head-on. In 1829 Derozio established the Academic Association where the utmost freedom of discussion was allowed on all subjects sacred or profane. The Hindu community was so alarmed that they under the leadership of Dewan Ram Kamal Sen, the grandfather of Keshub Chandra Sen, brought pressure on the college authorities that they were forced to secure the resignation of Derozio.
Under Debendranath we have the Tattwabodhini period (1839 – 1859) which was indeed the formative and most productive period of Renascent Bengal. Through its articles in the Tattwabodhini Patrika – the people of the country were exposed to being educated by the works of great men. The characteristic of any great thought-movement is that even those who are not open adherents of it are influenced by it in many ways. For instance, even those thinkers in the fields of history, economics, sociology, etc who have not accepted Brahmoism as an ideology were influenced by Brahmo ideas in more ways than one. There were boys and girls schools in Chandernagore, Bhastara, Gournagar, Konnagar and boys’ school at Ranchi, Burdwan, Behala, Bareilly, Nibadhoy.
During the era of Keshub Chandra Sen and the Brahmo Samaj of India we find that there was a lot of emphasis on female education. The Brahmo School was started in 1859 where weekly lectures in theology was given to young men. This was greatly popular and several branches were opened in and around Calcutta, with Debendranath and Ayodhyanath Pakrashi delivering regular lectures in Bengali. The Society of Theistic Friends or Brahmo Bandhu Sabha was set up in 1863 which took an active interest in spreading educaion to women. A special Bengali monthly journal for women called Bamabodhini made its appearance under the editorship of Umeshchandra Dutta. The establishment of the Brahmika Samaj or Brahmo Ladies’ Prayer Meeting in 1865 gave a great impetus to the cause of female education in the Brahmo Samaj. The Indian Reform Association established in 1870 also took up the cause of providing female education and general and technical education.
To promote this general and technical education a night school for the education of the working classes and for the industrial education of the middle classes were also opened. However later on efforts of the Association were confined in the maintenance of a higher class English education for boys. The progressive members of the Brahmo Samaj of India who had formed themselves in to the Samadarshi or liberal party like Durga Mohan Das, Dwarkanath Ganguli, Ananda Mohan Bose and Sivnath Shastri started the Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya for the spread of education of adult young ladies belonging to their party. This school did excellent work for many years and was subsequently conducted under the name of Banga Mahila Vidyalaya and which was at last amalgamated with the Bethune College (established in 1879) for ladies. In 1883 Keshub started the Vedic school for the encouragement of the Vedic studies among the young members of the congregation. The Metropolitan Girls School, later on known as the Victoria Institution in 1883 was a successful institution for higher education for Indian ladies. This school survived mainly due to the grants from the Cooch Behar state and able management by P C Moozomdar. He organised a system of weekly lectures for women for which he secured government aid.
The emphasis on education was further emphasised by the progressive members of the Brahmo Samaj who had formed the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. The City School was started in 1879 and in 1880 a Brahmo Children’s Education Sub Committee was formed which gave birth to the Brahmo Balika Sikhshalaya (or the Brahmo Girls School) in May 1890 and the Brahmo Boys School. The Anandamohan School was set up in 1883 which subsequently became Anandamohan College. The Mahila Parishad flourished under the able guidance of Lady Abala Bose and the member of which were enriched by discourses by Prof Jagadish Bose, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy etc. Also a Bharat Stree Mahamandal was started by Sarala Devi – granddaughter of Debendranath Tagore. Also music training classes were started for the ladies under the able guidance of Upendrakishore Roychowdhury – grandfather of the noted Oscar winning film director Satyajit Ray and philosophy was being taught by Pandit Sitanath Tattwabhushan and Prof. Hiralal Halder.
The Sadharan Brahmo Samaj established a Students ‘ Weekly Service in 1879, where weekly lectures were provided on religious, social, moral, and politico – moral subjects. Basing on the principle of “a sound mind in a sound body”- the students would be led out on excursions to nature spots and public resorts where lectures would be delivered and amusements provided for them. Food was also on the agenda. This was greatly popular with the rising generation.
The North City college was founded as a school in the year 1879 A.D. and was raised to a college in the year 1881 by a band of patriotic and self-less workers of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj headed by the late Ananda Mohan Bose, Sivnath Shastri, Umeshchandra Dutta, Heramaba Chandra Moitra & others. Prof. Heramba Chandra Moitra, the Principal of City College, had the distinction of being made a University Professor and received an honourary D. Litt from Calcutta University in 1931. A pious Brahmo and a devout theologian, he was an adoring pupil of Charles Tawney. A staunch puritan, he was steeped in Carlyle, Emerson and Wordsworth.
By 1890, Nilmani Chakraborty had established a Brahmo movement amongst the Khasis of Assam. His method was largely educational and he spread literacy amongst thousands in the medium of Bengali. Single handedly he built schools, started newspapers, all the time preaching Brahmo religion.
The Brahmo Samaj aroused the sympathy of the common men to the plight of those less privileged like the blind, deaf and dumb. The Calcutta Deaf and Dumb School was established in 1893 by Umeshchandra Dutta, Jamininath Ganguly and Mohinimohan Majumdar. Umeshchandra remained the secretary of the school till his death in 1907. A Bengali Braille System of the language for the blind was established by Ramananda Chatterjee – founder Das Ashram and Prabasi. Later on Lal behari Saha made a few changes to it and this has continued in India as the Shaw Braille system. The Calcutta Blind School was subsequently set up in 1897. Prior to this Debendranath Tagore had donated a sum of Rs.130,000 in a Trust according to the will of his late father Prince Dwarkanath Tagore for the welfare of the blind people of Calcutta.
One cannot complete the educational impact of the Brahmo Samaj without mentioning of Rabindranath Tagore and Visva Bharati. He was a pioneer in the field of education. For the last forty years of his life he was content to be a schoolmaster in humble rural surroundings, even when he had achieved fame such as no Indian had known before. The little school for children at Santiniketan in 1901, became a world university, Visva-Bharati, a centre for Indian Culture, a seminary for Eastern Studies and a meeting-place of the East and West. It was opened in December 22, 1921 with Dr. Brajendranath Seal as its first Vice Chancellor. The poet selected for its motto an ancient Sanskrit verse, Yatra visvam bhavatieka nidam, which means, “Where the whole world meets in a single nest.” “Visva-Bharati”, he declared, ” represents India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best.” In May 1951 Visva-Bharati was declared to be a central university and an institution of national importance by an act of Parliament.
Amongst the great contributors to the spread of medical education in West Bengal were Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy and Dr Sundari Mohan Das. The eminent physician Dr. Roy devoted his time in treating patients inspite of his busy schedule as Chief Minister of West Bengal. He established the Jadavpur T.B. Hospital, Chittaranjan Seva Sadan, R.G. Khar Medical College, Kamala Nehru Hospital, Victoria Institution, and Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital. The Chittaranjan Seva Sadan for women and children was opened in 1926. The women were unwilling to come to the hospital initially but thanks to Dr. Roy and his teams hard work, the Seva Sadan was embraced by women of all classes and communities. He opened a center for training women in nursing and social work. Dr. Sundarimohan Das devoted his entire life in the spread of medical education to the citizens of India. He pledged his entire life’s savings in setting up of the Chittaranjan National Medical College in 1921 then known as National Medical Institute or “Jatiya Ayurbigyan Vidyalaya”. It is now known as Calcutta National Medical College. This institute was a product of the historical Non Cooperation Movement. In 1925 Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, the first Mayor of Calcutta, handed over a plot of land of 4 acres which enabled the institute to shift to its present location. Dr.Sundarimohan Das was the first Principal.