S. Sarkar: Let there be light

Let there be light. Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Electricity in Colonial Bengal, 1880–1945

Sarkar, Suvobrata
Anzahl Seiten
308 S.
£ 75.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ritam Sengupta, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Suvobrata Sarkar’s Let There be Light is a welcome addition to the growing body of historical scholarship on technology and technical knowledge in South Asia. The book’s focus on the adaptation of electrical ideas and technologies also makes for a relatively novel foray into histories of “electrification” in India. Some such histories have examined the development of electricity distribution in the wake of the constitutional reforms of 1919 and 1935.[1] Others have concentrated on the complex interplay of a developmentalist pursuit of “electrification” with the demands of regionally situated, postcolonial democratic politics.[2] These works have dealt with details of electrical policy as it concerned the political order in colonial and postcolonial India. Sarkar in a way charts a course parallel to this historiography.[3]

He begins with an earlier phase of more limited urban “electrification” in Calcutta and proceeds to trace the expanding production, use and learning of electrical technology both by studying the policy adopted by the colonial state and private capital as well as by asking how social actors interacted with this technology. He does this through historically plotting the evolution of technical education and “the interface it had with entrepreneurship and industry in Bengal” and by focussing on “how governmental and popular concern about technology […] shaped the electrification of Calcutta” (p. 2). Sarkar’s insistence on the social and local emplacement of electrical technology deserves credit for moving beyond obvious indices of expanded “electrification”, to ask about the more rudimentary forms of social mediation and technical literacy enabling the adoption of the new technology in the colonial context. However, this is also a challenging task that involves a constant interrogation of any self-evident notion of technological ascendancy as well as (indigenous) social agency, against which Sarkar might be seen as faltering at times.

In his introductory chapter, Sarkar slants towards a now-familiar position of moving beyond histories of technology transfer as “diffusion” to an understanding of technology adoption and use as locally significant modes of adaptation or assimilation. Two points of emphasis describe his specific interest within this more general critique of diffusionism. Firstly, Sarkar seems to concede that the characteristically systemic aspects of electricity production and distribution while important, had developed without much local/Indian participation or expertise or innovation (pp. 15–17) – so in this sense “there were no fundamentally ‘Indian’ technologies” (p. 19). The second point that follows from this is that the localization of electrical technologies amounted more to forms of assembling rather than system-building (p. 15). For Sarkar this implies devoting more attention to issues of administration and maintenance of technology than to the making of the systematic character of electricity production and distribution in the settings of colonial India (pp. 15–19). One critical question arises here regarding the analytical separation maintained by Sarkar between innovation and systematicity, and the more localized character of administration, maintenance or assembly. Can innovative system-building, presumably of western import, be sustained at all without local acts of assembling, maintaining or administering?

For this reviewer this question persists, as Sarkar’s narrative often seems to resort to a rather unproblematised notion of the systematicity/superiority of electrical technology as explanatory device. This is particularly evident in chapters 3 and 4 of the book that focus on the expansion of electricity distribution through colonial Calcutta between the 1880s and the 1940s. These chapters catalogue the ways in which the electrical network was connected to fans, lights and trams and eventually industrial units in the city. Alongside this they document how with the socialization of electrical technology in the colony, the “new knowledge” was appropriated and eventually certain other models for “electrification” were proposed by Indian elites during late colonial rule (p. 182). Such models did not quite succeed as the distribution of electricity in the city remained under foreign ownership even after independence (p. 181).

The approach that Sarkar takes in narrating electrical developments in colonial Calcutta is primarily a linear tracing of the processes involved, which allow for very little consideration of issues that exceeded the immediate stimulus of energy need and its fulfilment. For instance, it is noted that electric fans secured the essential “day load” for electric supply in Calcutta (p. 127), but we do not get any sense of why electric fans attained popularity in a city where the manually worked punkah had been successfully operated for many decades in spite of the availability of several mechanically driven alternatives. Again, while gas survived for a long time as the medium of street-lighting in Calcutta, Sarkar resolves that the victory of electricity over gas “was inevitable” as it was after all “a superior technology” (p. 159). Similarly, Sarkar states that “for the business class […] as soon as they realized the power of electricity” vested in its “economic viability”, industrial applications for the new form of energy became popular (p. 166). This narrative is however difficult to square with the account presented a couple of pages later, of government functionaries complaining about how over-pricing by the electricity distributing company CESC was holding back electricity use in industry (p. 168). Here part of the problem seems to be that Sarkar has presupposed a certain kind of techno-economic systematicity and ascendancy of electrical technology, which is precisely what needs analysis as a contingent interaction of technical and economic practices as well as social conditions.[4]

In this account of the inexorable march of technological system-building, contingencies are not entirely absent. But like in Sarkar’s interesting account of the debates concerning overhead and underground wiring (pp. 130–131 and pp. 158–159), such contingencies appear as occasional interruptions, tided over in favour of the system’s coherence. With respect to such debates, Sarkar inadvertently seems to accept prevailing views at face value, for instance of CESC that Calcutta’s soil and climate made it difficult to lay underground cables. Notable here is also how he deals with the significant debates concerning rates of electricity charged in Calcutta that recurred during the 1910s and the 1930s. Except for bare outlines, Sarkar leaves somewhat under-analysed the substantive logics adopted by the detractors of the colonial state and CESC in these debates. Foregrounding such logic could have led to definite insight into alternative models and the politics of systematicity in relation to networks of electricity distribution in the colony both before and after the constitutional reforms. Instead, we are left with an account of the opposition to CESC that seems to be (merely) subsumed in the nationalism of objecting to foreign ownership.

Beyond these limitations, the particular strength of Sarkar’s book derives from his discussions on technical learning and intellectual responses to the imported western technology. The history of the Bengal Engineering College at Shibpur and the College of Engineering and Technology at Jadavpur is presented in chapter 1. Through this Sarkar attempts to transcend the oft-expressed colonial view that Bengali students were averse to practical and mechanical training. He shows that specialised engineering education in electrical or mechanical engineering was inhibited by a combination of factors ranging from educational policy, a skewed scholarship disbursal system influenced by the hostility of European firms and differential prospects in the job market. By analysing articles in a student-run magazine of the Shibpur College, Sarkar convincingly demonstrates the interest in such specialized engineering courses (pp. 40–42). He argues that with the reorganisation of technical education in terms of greater practical training and better scholarship distribution in the wake of the two World Wars, this interest became more prevalent.

In accounting for the history of the Jadavpur engineering college, Sarkar draws upon the legacy of the Swadeshi movement-inspired National Council of Education (NCE) and the Society for the Promotion of Technical Education (SPTE). The debate between these two societies, he shows, revolved around whether the cultural contents of technical education needed further (nationalist) specification or if technical education was self-sufficient in terms of its instrumentalist objectives (p. 57). However, we do not quite get an explanation of how this debate was eventually won in favour of SPTE’s more instrumentalist view. Chapter 2 turns to the entrepreneurial activities pursued by two prominent Bengali technical men, Rajendra Nath Mookerjee and Prafulla Chandra Ray. Here we encounter a different version of the debate concerning technical learning that centred on whether technical institutes were needed at all or if it was more necessary to subject technical interest to the training grounds of the workshop and the market more than academic orientation (p. 106).

Finally, in chapter 5 of the book, Sarkar analyses intellectual and practical responses of Bengali men to the ingress of mechanical and electrical technology as a kind of appropriation and eventually assimilation of technical ideas. Sarkar’s invokes yet another discussion around technical education in this chapter, that between Dinanath Sen and Pratap Chandra Ghosh in the late 19th century regarding whether a separate institutional framework was needed to train Indian youth in mechanical engineering or if it was more necessary to concentrate instead on educating the native artisan (pp. 192–193). It would have been useful if Sarkar would relate the terms of such intellectual debates in the Bengali public sphere to terms of sociological differentiation in Bengali society, particularly those obtaining from caste.[5] He does specify that there were a group of “subaltern technologists” who stayed “outside the focus of any intellectual limelight” and whose technical achievements were “devoid of formal technological training” (p. 204). He takes such achievements as evidence of the deep seepage of technical learning into native society beyond its elite reception, though “there was a ‘de-link’ between the ‘intellectual technocrats’ and the ‘subaltern technologists’” (p. 231). Yet this “de-link” is not analysed in terms of the politics of intellect and practice as might be mediated through social divisions like caste.

Nonetheless, the book uncovers significant complexities that marked the conception of technical education in Bengal. It is thus undoubtedly a key contribution to the social history of technology and technical learning in the colony.

[1] Yenda Srinivasa Rao, Electricity, Politics, and Regional Economic Imbalance in Madras Presidency, 1900–1947, in: Economic and Political Weekly 45 (2010), 23, pp. 59–66; Sunila S. Kale, Structures of power: Electrification in colonial India, in: Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 34 (2014), 3, pp. 454–475.
[2] Sunila S. Kale, Electrifying India: Regional political economies of development, Stanford 2014; Elizabeth Chatterjee, The Asian anthropocene: Electricity and fossil developmentalism, in: The Journal of Asian Studies 79 (2020), 1, pp. 3–24.
[3] Another exception in this regard is Leo Coleman, A Moral Technology: Electrification as Political Ritual in New Delhi, Ithaca 2017.
[4] As suggested in Timothy Mitchell, Rethinking economy, in: Geoforum 39 (2008), 3, pp. 1116–1121.
[5] As insightfully done in Ajantha Subramanian, The Caste of Merit, Cambridge, MA 2019.

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