Tag Archives: British Empire

A Script for the Masses? Pedagogic Practices and Didactic Traditions among Sylhetis

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Debarati Bagchi.

Debarati Bagchi is as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Dehli, and a member of the Max Weber Foundation Transnational Research Group “Poverty and Education in Modern India”. She is currently working on Sylhet Nagri texts and pedagogic practices in colonial Northeast India.

This proposed project intends to track the circulation of printed and handwritten texts in Sylheti-Bengali, written in Sylhet Nāgarī script in late nineteenth-early twentieth century Sylhet and later among the London-based Sylheti diaspora. The Sylhet Nāgarī script was projected to have been devised as a ‘simplified alternative’ of the sanskritised version of Bengali and was chiefly attributed to the ‘illiterate masses of the Muslim population’ including peasants, fishermen, boatmen – people who were ‘not well versed in Bengali literature.’ Its entire pedagogic endeavour was to bridge the gap between the written (lekhya bhasha) and the spoken (kathya bhasha) and thereby meeting one of the preconditions of democratisation of education – the concern for reaching out to a larger mass. The primer of the script differed from the available forms and contents of primers in the school system not only in its lack of secular content but also in addressing the audience. The declared purpose of this primer was to address an adult audience who would be able to read the texts in Sylhet Nāgarī outside the school system. In content, these texts dealt with the ethics and values associated with the local form of Islam where it was not impossible to find the stories of Yusuf Zuleikha along with the stories Radha-Krishna and the nineteenth century concern for the pervasive threat of conversion to Christianity. Besides songs by Pirs and Fakirs, didactic manuals for the followers of Islam, popular stories viz. the war of Karbala, the life story of Hazrat Muhammad or the love story of Yusuf Zuleikha, the texts also occasionally dealt with chronicles of contemporary social events. It was quite a popular pastime among rural households, especially among women who gathered together from neighboring households to read and listen to these texts.

We do not yet have a comprehensive understanding of the social content of readership and the meaning of these texts in their everyday lives. Through the study of these didactic texts, this project aims to explore the nature of ‘alternative’ pedagogic practices prevalent among the poor masses of Sylhet. Instead of probing the origin of the script or analysing the religious-philosophical foundations of the texts, this project would track the circulation of the texts and the politics of standardisation of the script. It attempts to form an understanding of the public sphere that once consumed these texts and develop an understanding of the colonial modern in the formation of a regional identity. The project also seeks to add a postcolonial dimension to the question by trying to address the historical reasons leading to the revival of Sylhet Nāgarī script among the diasporic population in UK.

Primed to Labour: ‘Education’ in Industrial and Artisan Schools of Colonial India (1860s-1940s)

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Arun Kumar.

Arun Kumar is a doctoral candidate in Medieval and Modern History at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Georg-August-Universität Gottingen. His research interests intersect educational and labour histories in colonial South Asia with focus on education of ‘labouring poor’, transnational circulation and transformation of ideas and practices in twentieth century, and everyday restructuring of caste hierarchies.

This thesis is about the poor and their education in colonial India. It enquires into the nature of education which was imparted to ‘educate’ poor children who were deemed unfit for book-centred, ‘proper’ schooling in didactic institutions such as industrial, reformatory and factory schools, rural schools, orphanages, children’s homes, workhouses, and railway workshops set up by Christian missionaries, ‘natives’, and colonial masters. The subject of these institutions were the ‘unruly and indolent’ class of low castes and untouchable poor, artisans and factory workers, peasants, beggars, vagrants, juvenile offenders, fakirs, gamblers, thieves, and criminal tribes. The thesis analyses the tension between the stated objectives of these institutions which was to produce an educated, disciplined, and semi-skilled work force and the poor’s aspiration for social and material upward mobility by getting a post in colonial offices.

This thesis will look into the issues of poor childhood, child labour, production and reproduction of social hierarchies. While looking in and out of the British Empire, the thesis will also look at the flow of pedagogic ideas and practices from Germany, Britain, and America in colonial geographies to show how the local institutions were fitted in the global pattern and yet were not global. It examines the circulation, contestation, appropriation, and transformation of ideas to educate, train, regulate, order and reform both morally and physically the bodies of the poor children in colonies. By looking at the everyday histories of schooling for the poor in India at the fin de siècle, this work unfolds the shared global vision of an education attempting to reform the figure of the ‘poor’ in nineteenth and twentieth century. To trace these networks of clues, this thesis uses missionary and colonial writings, school records, vernacular literature, and oral testimonies.