Late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Calcutta was the setting for the first sustained encounter between Asian intellectuals and the west. An Indian intelligentsia living in Calcutta responded in a most creative way to aspects of European culture that became available to them in the city. Much about this response is now contentious. If the term Bengal Renaissance is still generally applied to it, the implications of that term are disputed. It is no longer necessarily assumed that ‘modern’ India was born in early nineteenth-century Calcutta by a fusing of what was western and what was ‘traditional’. Assumptions that Indian cultures in general and that of Hindu Bengal in particular lacked a capacity to change and to develop on their own internal dynamics, whatever the input from the west, now look more than a little ‘orientalist’. Furthermore, even if the Bengal Renaissance can be shown to have had its roots in its own culture, to some recent critics it was still a movement whose impact was severely limited by the very narrow base on which it rested: an elite group enclosed in a colonial situation. Yet, however the Renaissance may be reassessed, there can still be no doubt that Calcutta under the East India Company contained Indian intellectuals of exceptional talent, who absorbed much from the west. ‘The excitement over the literature, history and philosophy of Europe as well as the less familiar scientific knowledge was deep and abiding’, Professor Raychaudhuri has recently written.
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