The Impact of Fort William College and the Printing Press on ModernIndian Literature

It is usually understood that modern Indian literature entered a new era in 1800 when the Fort William College was established in Calcutta and when the missionaries at Serampore brought the printing press to print Bibles in Indian vernacular languages.

G.P. Deshpande (b.1939), who served as Professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, noted in his essay "Dialectics of Defeat" (First published in Economic and Political Weekly, 12 December 1987):
"The singlemost important intervention that colonialism made in the cultural life of India over the last two centuries was the establishment of Fort William College in Calcutta in 1800... The College, established by the East India Company to train its administrators in the languages of India, provided facilities for teaching Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Hindustani, Bangla, Tamil, Marathi, and Kannada.... Close to Calcutta, in Srirampur, missionaries had established the first printing press and begun publishing theological works such as the Dharma Pustak, a Bangla translation of the Bible.
"Any account of literary movements in colonial India will have to give due credit to the role played by these institutions in the new literature and theatre that grew and developed in the whole of India in the nineteenth century."
[Dialectics of Defeat, Calcutta: Seagull, 2006, pp.12-16. ISBN: 81-7046-279-7]

Similarly, Swapan Majumdar has written:
The College of Fort William emerged as both a centre of research and a publication unit, a cradle of creativity as well as scholarship. Planned originally to train probationer British civilians in the languages and cultures of the subjugated country, the college rendered services tantamount to those of a university in promoting modern Indian literatures, Bengali in particular… Under the leadership of William Carey, the College could also claim credit for drawing together Sanskrit pandits and Perso-Arabic munshis to reshape Bengali prose… The variety of the College’s publication also deserve note. From colloquies and popular stories, chronicles and legends, to definitive editions of literary texts.
[Calcutta, the Living City, Vol. I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, p. vii, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-563696-1. As found cited on Wikipedia article "Fort William College" today]

Life was sparked into the vernacular literature which saved Indian literature and theatre from death. "With the decline of Sanskrit as an instrument of cultural expression," writes Deshpande, "several things died out. The most notable casualty was the decline and eventual eclipse of theatre..."
"British intervention in the field of literature, therefore, could not have come at a more appropriate time. Fort William College began its work by standardizing the languages it was teaching--it first compiled and published dictionaries in those languages.... British rule contributed to the growth of the Indian vernaculars by turning them into useful and usable instruments of statecraft.... The dominance of Persian in most parts of northern India as a language of high culture and high administration finally came to an end. The British started schools in the native languages.... by the middle of the nineteenth century there were more Marathi medium schools in Maharashtra than ever. Fort William College also worked on rendering the Hitopades, the Panchatantra, the Vetal Panchavimsati and other popular Sanskrit works into Indian vernaculars. In so doing, the pandits in its monopoly opened new vistas before the 'natives' in the use of their languages.... India was forced into a new era...."

Deshpande goes on to note how the impact of English even altered the syntax of Indian languages. For instance, a Marathi speaker would never have earlier said, "I told him that I would meet him at 7 p.m.". The traditional way to say this would have been "I would meet him at 7 p.m., I told him."

In north India, Hindi with the Devanagiri script emerged as the language of cultural expression.

India found a new release of expression in the living and local languages of the day. It entered its modern era of literature.


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