Friday Review

The India-Oxford cultural bond

A view of the Indian Institute, Oxford

A view of the Indian Institute, Oxford  

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Indian Institute at Oxford is an enduring cultural icon and boasts of illustrious alumni as well.

The University of Oxford is known world over for its high educational standards, world class infrastructural facilities, and above all century-old traditions. It brings together leading academicians and students across the subjects from different countries and cultures helping to foster inter-disciplinary approach that makes Oxford a real leader in the field of higher education. With an alumni around the world, Oxford is an internationally renowned University. To study at Oxford is a dream come true for every youngster in the world today. Oxford is one of the oldest Universities of the western world and is located at a distance of 80 km north of London.

Though India has had close links with Oxford ever since the creation of a separate, ‘Boden Chair’ for Sanskrit studies in 1832, Indian cultural presence was firmly marked only with the establishment of the Indian Institute in 1883 by the India born, Sir Monier Williams, a well known Orientalist. He studied, documented and taught Sanskrit at Oxford; compiled Sanskrit- English Dictionary besides writing several books on India and Hinduism. He was a great admirer of Indian culture, arts and languages. As per the norms then at Oxford University, Monier Williams contested and won the poll against none other than Max Muller to become the Boden Professor of Sanskrit in 1860. He was knighted by the government of Britain in 1876.

Sir Monier Williams felt the need to build an Institute that would serve as a centre for Indian studies in Oxford. For this purpose he undertook three visits to India between 1875 and 1883, and collected 22 thousand pounds through donations from the Indian princes and nobles. Queen Victoria, the empress of India gave her approval for building the Institute and the foundation stone was laid by her son, the Prince of Wales in 1883.

‘The Indian Institute’, built of solid red stone, is an attractive three-storied structure, close to the Clarendon building on one side and the Bodleian Library on the other, and stands very prominently at the eastern end of the Broad Street in the heart of Oxford. The Indian Institute was primarily meant to facilitate Indian studies in Oxford besides making Britishers to appreciate better the languages, literature and culture of India. It was also to provide training for the personnel of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) of the British Raj.

Indian cultural imprints

Though the building was erected with English Renaissance architecture, Monier Williams could see to it that several distinct Indian cultural details were represented on the rounded north-west corner cupola of the building. There are the motifs of elephant, bull and other animals at the ground floor level of the circular outer wall. At the second floor level, the images of few Indian warrior-gods are depicted with finely chiselled sculptures and festoons. There is on the top of the cupola, a tall pole on the tip of which is seen the weathervane containing not the usual cock, but the replica of a beautiful caparisoned Indian elephant with a bejewelled howdah and a mahout with turban, riding. Indian students often gather on the road here with friends to show off this tiny weathervane high up on the Institute’s cupola.

The Indian Institute originally contained a large library, several lecture rooms and a museum. In 1927, the library was made a constituent library to the Bodleian, the main library of Oxford and was shifted to its top floor, where it functions even today. The Indian artefacts in the museum were moved to the nearby Ashmolean museum, where they are displayed in three large galleries. When the library and museum were thus shifted away from the Indian Institute building, the government of India after independence, filed a formal protest on behalf of the families of the original donors, who felt that it was a breach of trust on the part of the University for moving away the library and the Indian artefacts, leaving nothing Indian in Indian Institute.

India, probably, is the only foreign country to have such an imposing building on its name in central Oxford. Though the building at present is given to Oxford Martin School, it is popularly known only as the Indian Institute, the name, prominently embossed on its main doorway.

Indian studies and scholars

One of the early Indian students to study at Oxford was Nasik-born, Cornelia Sorabji. In 1889, she joined the Somerville College at Oxford to become the first ever woman to study law at Oxford University. She was the first woman graduate of Bombay Presidency, and also the first woman to practice law when she enrolled in Allahabad high court. Incidentally, it was Somerville College in which Indira Gandhi, former Prime minister of India also studied years later between 1937- 41. The other Prime Minister of our country to study in Oxford was Manmohan Singh and he was a student of Nuffield College.

There are a number of India-focused courses offered by Oxford University. The University has unrivalled collection of source materials on Indian history and culture in its Library. Prominent Indians to have held academic posts at Oxford in the past include former President, Sarvepalle Radhakrishnan, Noble laureate, Amarthya Sen, India’s chief scientific advisor, C.N.R. Rao, historians, S. Gopal, Thapan Roy Chowdhury and others. Of the nearly 40 Indian faculty at present is Aditi Lahiri, the first Indian woman to hold a Chair at Oxford, a specialist on Indo-Aryan languages.

It would be highly fitting if Indian Institute building at Oxford is revived to its former glory as an Indian Studies Centre as a comprehensive hub, which students and scholars interested in Indian cultural studies can make use of, the purpose for which it was originally built with resources entirely contributed by Indians.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2019 6:35:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/the-indiaoxford-cultural-bond/article8188572.ece

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