Were it not for the dense shadow of the national and international repute of his Nobel laureate younger brother Rabindranath, Satyendranath Tagore would surely hold a far greater place in the pantheon of the 19th century figures, with strong connections to the lands that are now Bangladesh than he seems to have.
Arguably, himself a great polymath, he was the first native of the sub-continent to hold high rank in the British-Indian/Imperial Civil Service, and, himself an author, song composer, and linguist, made a major contribution to the emancipation of women in India, and is the forerunner of today’s, traditionally highly regarded, Bangladesh Civil Service.
He was born in Calcutta in 1842, the second son of Debendranath Tagore, of whom his younger brother, the “immortal” Rabindranath Tagore, was the youngest of the family, born in 1861.
It was Debendranath, whose birth in Shilaidaha, in Kumarkhali Upazila in Kushtia District of Bangladesh, to whom both brothers owe their enduring ties to Bangladesh. In truth, members of this family of zamindars were, for the most part, absentee landlords of their extensive holdings in the lands that are now Bangladesh, but with close and enduring ties.
His grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, was not only a successful industrialist, but also noted as “one of the first Indian entrepreneurs” with substantial zamindari holdings, as well as manufacturing plants for indigo, silk, and sugar, across the lands that are now Bangladesh, West Bengal, and Orissa.
This certainly laid the foundations for the wealth that so evidently facilitated the lives of both his son and grandsons, enabling them magnificently to fulfil their own and their family’s expectations of life.
Debendranath himself was born in 1817, at a time when the East India Company was responding to the 1793 Act of Permanent Settlement. The act had been passed by the British parliament in an endeavour to eradicate the mistakes of the “colonisers” of the Company that were seen to be running the risk, since acquiring control of the three north eastern states of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, of losing it again.
It was widely believed in Britain that reckless exploitation of the American colonies had alienated, only a few decades earlier, the colonists of North America, and resulted in the loss, to Britain, of those colonies.
In an era that treated wealthy zamindari as no more than competent management of their businesses, and left the responsibility of the meetings of the annual requirement of revenues to the administration, Debendranath concentrated on the effective administration of his estates and became a widely respected Hindu religious philosopher. It seems reasonable to suppose that the family grew in a liberal, anglophile household.
The oldest son, Dwijendranath became an accomplished scholar, musician, mathematician, composer, and a pioneer in Bengali short-hand and musical notations. Described by his brothers as a greatly disorganised man, who was left a widower at a young age, he was evidently a conservative, and even when confronted by the agricultural workers’ uprising in the 1873, Patna disturbances, in the lands of which he was an absent zamindar, he advocated for drastic action to restore “order and tranquillity.”
By contrast, although always evidently close to his elder brother, Satyendranath was, unlike that elder brother, of whom it is said “he was comfortable with the traditions of society.” Satyendranath has been written of as someone who “enjoyed breaking down conservative rules and developing a modern society.”
1793, and the Act of Permanent Settlement, laid the foundation stones, it may reasonably be said, for much of the best of the countries of today’s subcontinent. In 1806, the East India Company responded to it by setting up a college in Britain for training administrators. That college has since morphed into Haileybury School, still one of Britain’s best-known public schools. In 1809, at Addiscombe in Surrey, the Company established a Military College to train officers for their armies.
Between them, these institutions may be given credit or blame, depending on one’s point of view, for the development of the legal, administrative, transportation, educational, and military organisations of the countries of the sub-continent, and many others around the world today.
These Company initiatives, pressurised by parliament, of course, began to see improvement in both security and administration, but it was also widely acknowledged that more was needed to be done to widen participation by locally born talent.
When, in 1813, parliament renewed the East India Company charter for 20 years, it required financial provision to be made by the Company “for the revival and promotion of literature and the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories.”
Perhaps in those words we can see the origins of the great scientific achievers of those of Indian origin in the latter part of the 19th century, and since. As for the literary reward, well, the name of Satyendranath’s youngest brother, Rabindranath, is probably enough said, standing as he does, not alone, but amongst many with today’s international reputation.
Such Company-financed institutions as the Mohammedan College and Hindu College in Calcutta were certainly criticised by Company servants. But there is no doubt that these also inspired the rapid development of a private sector of education, these later mostly committed to the teaching of “Western knowledge” as requested by parents for their young.
The 1833 renewal of the Company charter was accompanied by even greater pressure to develop educational, and then career opportunities for the native youth.
Despite some opposition, funding was found, both to continue the more traditional lines of education, such as the Hindu and Muslim schools, and also the English-based, which were to become the foundation of leading schools in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, today.
At the same time, more junior posts in the administration were, for the first time, opened to locally-educated young men. In 1833, the posts of deputy magistrate and deputy collector were created, and opened to young men of Indian birth and origin.
Following the 1857 “First Liberation War,” and in 1858, the termination of the Company Charter, and in 1861 the creation of direct rule from London, the Indian Civil Service was created. Entry to all the offices of administration, since the 1833 reforms, was established as being through competitive examinations.
It was likely to prove a daunting prospect for any youth to travel to London to participate in the exhausting process.
But when Satyendranath set out in 1862, together with his friend Monomohan Ghose, his family was already familiar with such travel. Indeed, his grandfather had died in London a decade earlier.
Monomohan failed the entrance exam, but stayed to study and practice law, becoming, eventually, a leading lawyer in India and a politician. Satyendranath, however, was selected for the newly formed Indian Civil Service in June 1863, becoming the first Indian to break through the “Whites Only” ceiling of appointment.
After completing probationary training, he returned to India in November 1864, to join the Bombay Presidency. We may be reasonably sure that his arrival would not have been welcomed, as the only Indian of his rank in the ICS, and it must have taken all the strength of character with which he and his family were so conspicuously endowed, to survive what was, surely, considerable hostility.
A hostility almost certainly enhanced in the clubs, and other such places of ICS members gatherings, from which we may readily speculate that he would have been excluded.
There is an old saying: “Pioneers are killed by the Indians,” a business adage that warns such pioneers to be alert. Doubtless Satyendranath required all his faculties to survive his 30 years, and emerge, finally, as a Judge at Satara in Maharashtra in 1897.
He is credited with contributing significantly to the emancipation of women in India. His emancipation of his wife Jnanadanandini aroused considerable controversy, even within the wider Tagore family.
But, throughout his life, he supported her travels, including those made to Britain, where, for a time, she lived alone with the children in Brighton, acting like any increasingly emancipated British woman. He and his wife “laid the foundations for freeing upper and middle class women from purdah.”
Despite his work with the Raj, there can also be no doubt about his patriotic and religious convictions, some of which certainly rubbed off on his children.
His son, Surendranath, apart from literary works, which included translation of his uncle’s literary works into English, and the Mahabharata into Bengali, was long associated with Independence groups regarded by British authorities as terrorists.
His daughter, Indira Devi, became a great French scholar and an authority on music. Later in her life, she became Vice Chancellor of the Visva-Bharati University, founded by her uncle, Rabindranath, with his Nobel money, based on the latter’s well expressed view of confining education to: “I do not remember what I was taught, I only remember what I learnt.” A view, no doubt, shared with his elder brother.