Pointing out that I don't pay enough attention to academicians and scholars in this column and that there's rather too much focus on lawyers, missionaries, feminists etc., is K. Ravichandar. He suggests I pay a little more attention to people like Gilbert Slater, Edgar Thurston — he's certainly had his share of space — and Kathleen Gough (Help!) and sets me off on the Slater trail. He's someone I'd heard of as an outstanding economist, but Ravichandar indicates a much more interesting aspect about him, namely that he was a Shakespearean scholar. And that's something I doubt if even too many in the University of Madras, where he spent many years, know much about.
Slater's Shakespearean scholarship, however, is best known for his positing alternative theories to Shakespearean authorship. In 1931, he wrote a book, Seven Shakespeares, in which he expresses the belief that Shakespeare's plays were written by seven different authors writing at various times in the 16th Century. He also suggests that they were written as part of a propaganda campaign mounted against England's arch-rival Spain by these officially-blessed authors who took the over-arching name William Shakespeare to hide their respective identities. Slater's views certainly caused enough debate in the 1930s.
Closer home, Slater, a Cantabrigian, taught at Balliol House and Toynbee Hall, before becoming Principal of Ruskin College (1909-1915). In 1915, he left Britain to found and head, as Professor of Economics, the Economics Department of the University of Madras. In England, he had been an active supporter of the Labour movement and in Madras they were views he expressed by asking his students to look beyond their texts that were oriented towards Western capitalism and seek economic solutions to what constituted the greater part of India, in those days more than 90 per cent, its villages. He sent his students out to survey their native villages in districts as varied as Ramnad, Malabar and Kistna and come up with economic profiles of them. These he published in 1918 in a book titled Some South Indian Villages . These villages became known as ‘Slater's villages' and have been re-surveyed from time to time by the Department even into the 21st Century.
Slater served as a member of the Madras Legislative Council in 1921 but appeared to have changed sides in that role; he became a totally Establishment man and was far from popular with the Indian Members. He returned to Britain in 1923 but was back in Madras a few years later to serve as Labour Commissioner of the Madras Presidency. Back in England after a brief stint in the bureaucracy, he concentrated on writing before passing away in 1938.
His dozen or so books include half a dozen on economics and a few on Indian subjects. One of the latter, published in 1924, was titled The Dravidian Elements in Indian Culture. In it he claimed Egyptian origins for South India's Brahmins and Mediterranean origins, with roots in Africa, for other South Indians. Controversy was something Gilbert Slater cherished but there is no gainsaying that he laid the foundations for what was one of the best Economics Departments in India.