First in class

Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee  

The drawing room walls of my grandfather’s home were mostly filled with portraits of noble people — Tagore, Gandhi, Vivekananda, Subhas Bose… But I was always fascinated by the walrus moustache that dominated one particular photo-frame. The man with the tache looked formidable even in the picture on the wall.

Banglar Bagh or Tiger of Bengal is what Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee was popularly called in Bengali circles. The nickname fits well with the portrait. Years later, while leafing through the writings of historian D.R. Bhandarkar, I came across the epithet ‘Vikramaditya’ also ascribed to Sir Ashutosh.

Interestingly, Sir Ashutosh got both his seemingly divergent sobriquets for his lifelong endeavour in the field of education. He was the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, then a premier institute of learning in the country, from 1906 to 1914, and again from 1921 to 1923. He catapulted the University into becoming the foremost centre of learning in the whole subcontinent. His eye for detecting young talent is part of folklore even today in the lofty stratosphere of academics.

Look, for instance, at whom Sir Ashutosh found for the Science College that he created as an affiliate to the University. None other than young physicist C.V. Raman. And this, despite the two not-inconsiderable hurdles. Raman was working in the government’s Finance Department and they were understandably reluctant to give him away. Second, the terms of the endowment professorship that Raman was to adorn disqualified him. Ashutosh managed to stitch up both snags and C.V. Raman joined as Palit Professor of Physics, at a much lower salary than his government job. Raman was given a free hand with no compulsion to take classes, but to augment fundamental research. Raman, however, loved teaching and conducted classes along with research projects.

In 1921, Sir Ashutosh found another gem. He persuaded budding philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to join Calcutta University. More such stories abound. When an impoverished mathematician in Madras called Srinivasa Ramanujan was trying in vain to publish his theories while making ends meet, Sir Ashutosh recognised the genius and tried to bolster his cause in academic circles. Under Sir Ashutosh, Calcutta University became a buzzing hive of academic and intellectual pursuits. Luminaries such as Sir P.C. Roy, widely known as the father of chemistry in modern India, and historian and epigraphist D.R. Bhandarkar accentuated the scholarly milieu. On quiet afternoons, students and teachers alike would gather to attend guest lectures by Rabindranath Tagore.

A student of Mathematics, Physics and Law, Sir Ashutosh brought in a diversity of disciplines to the University. Under him were introduced graduate courses in Comparative Literature, Applied Psychology, Industrial Chemistry, Ancient Indian History and Culture, and Islamic Culture. Post-graduate courses and research were started in Sanskrit and Pali. Bhandarkar has been ebullient about the intellectual integrity and freedom fostered by Sir Ashutosh, calling him a veritable Vikramaditya.

Using his vast network of scholars and friends, the academician brought in accomplished professors, both Indian and European, to the University. His writer-son Uma Prashad recalled years later that, wherever he went, he would meet some friends of his father. Even in remote Peshawar.

Diversity was intrinsic to the charisma of Ashutosh. He was at home with the street-fighters of the freedom movement on the one hand and the British Viceroy and his administrative machine on the other. There were moments of intense tension. When Subhas Bose, then a student of Presidency College, assaulted Professor Oaten, an Englishman, for abusing Indians, he was suspended from college.

There was immense pressure on Sir Ashutosh, the Vice Chancellor, to rusticate Subhas from the University. But he could not allow the academic life of a brilliant student to be nipped in the bud for standing up against injustice. Instead, he arranged for young Subhas to continue studies at the Scottish Church missionary college.

Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee left behind a large intellectual and cultural legacy for his charmed compatriots, scholars, students, admirers and friends. Legend has it that when Sir Ashutosh bought books at Calcutta’s famous College Street, a porter had to carry them home. His personal collection of 80,000 books, donated by him, now rests in the city’s National Library.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 4:18:41 PM |

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