‘A Gentle Colossus’
Sisir Kumar Majumdar

Ashutosh Mukherjee was born on June 29, 1864 in Calcutta (British India) and died on May 25, 1924 (aged 59) in Patna, Bihar. This short note is an humble commemoration of the sesquicentenary of his birth.

The edifice of modern education in science and technology was built during the first two decades of this century in the University of Calcutta (First modern University in British India established in 1857). The main architect was Ashutosh Mukherjee (1864-1924).

The University Act of 1904—a modified version of the University Act of 1857 is a landmark in the development of higher education and academic programmes in Indian universities. It made provisions for teaching and appointment of professors and teachers of such work. The University officials at that time were mostly Europeans, and the actual control was in their hands. It was not conducive to the fulfilment of aspirations of Indians and to the development of modern science and technology in India. This act invited strong criticism from Indian intellectuals endowed with the spirit of nationalism and patriotism. Eminent educationalists like Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915) and Ashutosh Mukherjee (1864-1924) considered some of the provisions as a retrograde step in the development of education in general and science and technology in particular in Indian elements from the active administration of the universities, leaving all the directive and administrative powers in the hands of European professors and bureaucrats.

The ghost of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was haunting the psyche of British educationists in India. As a member of the supreme Council of the Governor-General during 1834-38, Macaulay formulated the modern education system for India. Macaulay wrote in his ill-famed Minute of 1835 : "We must at present do our best to form a class, who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect". Macaulay's offspring among the neo-educated middle class urban intelligentsia immediately started swamping the society like locusts as 'Brown Englishmen'. In a dialogue with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) said: "When Macaulay imposed a third-rate literature and a poor system of education in India, Indians naturally resented it". This was what Indian intellectuals of the day under the leadership of Ashutosh and Gokhale were fighting against. In reply to H G Wells, Rabindranath said : "Physical science of the nineteenth century probably has created this spirit of race superiority in the West. When the East assimilates this physical science, the tide may turn and take a normal course". This was exactly what Ashutosh was trying to do to turn the tide and to initiate the normal course in India. He was a prophet in a sense. And Indians are enjoying the fruits today. India is the fifth technoligical power in the world today. Ashutosh struggled to develop science and technology through the University system of education. At Ashutosh's initiative, young scholars like Satyendranath Bose (1894-1974), Meghnath Saha (1893-1956) were appointed Lecturers in Physics in 1914 to teach post-graduate students. The first World War (1914-1918) had already begun ; books and journals from abroad were not available in India. Saha and Bose translated into English Albert Einstein's (1879-1955) epoch–making paper–‘Special Theory of Relativity’ published in Annalen der Physik, in Berlin, Vol. 17, p. 891-921, 1905, and also the second paper–‘General Theory of Relativity’ published in 1915. All these translations were published by the University of Calcutta with due approval of Einstein, for post-graduate studies. This was how post-graduate teaching in modern physics started in India. On March 28, 1914, Ashutosh, in his convocational address mentioned his struggle for building a permanent edifice of educational system, which he rightly expected would gradually expand to other parts of India. He said :

"The sister Universities (in India) are eager to imitate and emulate what we have boldly initiated. I feel that a right spirit has been around, a spirit that will not be quenched and this conviction, indeed, is a deep comfort to me at the moment when I take leave from work dear to me for weighty reasons. The workers pass away; the solid results of their work remain and fructify".

The legacy left behind by Ashutosh continues to be the fountain of hope and inspiration for generations of scientists in India. Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman (1888-1970), first Nobel Laureate in Physics in Asia and Africa, Meghnath Saha and Satyendranath Bose are some of products of the life-long struggle of Ashutosh. Humphry Davy (1778-1829) discovered Michaeal Faraday (1791-1867) ; Geoffrey Harold Hardy (1877-1947), Srinivasa Rama-nujan (1887-1920) and similarly Ashutosh, discovered a galaxy of eminent Indian scientists who made immense contributions towards the development of global profile of Indian science. The nation is always greateful to Ashutosh for laying the foundation of education in modern science and technology in India. India’s national scientific organisation-Indian Science Congress Association-instituted an annual award of a gold medal to a leading Indian scientist from 1988 in the sacred memoiy of Ashutosh (also the first President of the Association in 1913) in order to pay homage to the great savant. Today, and for all time to come, Ashutosh will remain immortal in the annals of creation of modern India.

The dream that an Indian must learn science under Indian tutelage fround the best expression in the development of post-graduate teaching in science and technology at Calcutta University. The first phase of the science movement in India initiated by Mahendra Lal Sarkar in 1876 was complete, due to the contribution of educationists, scientists and scientific workers in India. The establishment of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Calcutta in 1876, the Tata Institute (1908), now known as the Institute of Sciences in Bangalore, and the Bose Institute (1917) in Calcutta are some of the landmarks, but none had so much far-reaching impact before independence as that of the developments initiated by Ashutosh at the University of Calcutta

Vol. 45, No. 8, Sep 2-8, 2012