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Bhadralok (Bengali: ভদ্রলোক bhôdrôlok, literally 'gentleman', 'well-mannered person') is Bengali for the new class of 'gentlefolk' who arose during British colonial times (approximately 1757 to 1947) in Bengal.
Caste and class makeup
Most, though not all, members of the bhadralok class are upper caste, mainly Baidyas, Brahmins, Kayasthas, and later Mahishyas. There is no precise translation of bhadralok in English, since it attributes economic and class privilege on to caste ascendancy. Many bhadraloks in the nineteenth century came from the privileged Brahmin or Priest caste or middle level merchant class (such as Rani Rashmoni). Anybody who could show considerable amount of wealth and standing in society was a member of the bhadralok community.[full citation needed]
The bhadralok community includes all gentlefolk belonging to the rich as well as middle class segments of the Bengali society. Amongst the upper middle classes, a zamindar, or landowner, normally bearing the title Chaudhuri or Roy Chaudhuri at the end of the name, and Babu at the beginning would be considered to be a bhadralok. A zamindar bearing the title Raja or Maharaja would be considered to be higher than middle class, but would still be a bhadralok 'gentleman'. All members of the professional classes, i.e. those belonging to the newly emerging professions, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, university professors, and higher civil servants, were members of the bhadralok community. However, an individual bearing the title Esquire at the end of the name, denoting a rank just below a Knight, was also considered to be higher than a bhadralok.
The two biggest factors that led to the rise of the bhadralok were the huge fortunes many merchant houses made from aiding the English East India Company's trade up the Ganga valley, and Western-style education (at the hands of the colonial rulers and of missionaries). The steep rise in real estate prices in Calcutta also led some petty landlords in the area to become wealthy overnight. The first identifiable bhadralok figure is undoubtedly Ram Mohan Roy, who bridged the gap between the Persianised nobility of the Sultanate era in Bengal and the new, Western-educated, nouveau riche comprador class.
The Bengal Renaissance
The Bengal Renaissance was largely carried out and participated in by bhadralok. In addition, the rise of the Brahmo Samaj and various other samajes (a category halfway between 'society' and 'community') was also largely a bhadralok phenomenon. To be a bhadralok was to embrace some Western and Northern European values (though not always the same ones in each case), to have a modicum of education, and a sense of entitlement to (and consequently grievance against) favours or employment from the colonial government. While the bhadralok were influenced by the West (in terms of their morals, dress, and eating habits) they were also the people who reacted most strongly against the West, and the most scathing critiques as well as the most spirited defences of Westernisation were made by bhadralok writers.
The term Babu means an individual of rank and dignity. It is most commonly used to refer to gentleman, but is meant for anybody who enjoys a position of dominance in his immediate social circle. An Indian zamindar as well as an Indian member of the higher government services was referred to as a Babu. Amongst the landlords a Babu in the former Bengal Presidency, especially in Bengal and Behar, was normally a substantial and extremely wealthy zamindar in the same rank as a Thakur or a Mirza, and would rank just below a Raja. The term Babu has been historically used to refer to the upper echelons of the Indian society, including the ruling classes.
In the colonial period the term was derogatorily used to refer to members of the indigenous community, especially in law courts and revenue establishments in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, where most members were appointed as Munsifs from respectable and/or zamindari families.
Bhadralok class is copiously referred in the popular Bengali literature including in the novel and stories of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore. Kaliprasanna Singha sarcastically criticized the class' social attitude and hypocrisy during its accession to prominence in the nineteenth century in his famous book, titled Hutom Pyanchar Naksha. In 1990s and 2000s, Chandrabindoo brings forward the class' dilemma and hypocritical attitude in their songs including Sokale Uthiya Ami Mone Mone Boli, Amar Modhyobitto Bheeru Prem, Amra Bangali Jaati and many more.
Among others, Joya Chatterji, Lecturer in History of Modern South Asia at Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College, accuses the Bhadralok class for the economic decline of the state of West Bengal after India's independence in 1947. She writes in her book, titled "The Spoils of Partition" :
In these ways, Bengal’s partition frustrated the plans and purposes of the very groups who had demanded it. Why their strategy failed so disastrously is a question which will no doubt be debated by bhadralok Bengal long after the last vestiges of its influence have been swept away. Many excuses have already been made; and different scapegoats remain to be identified and excoriated. But perhaps part of the explanation is this: for all their self-belief in their cultural superiority and their supposed talent for politics, the leaders of bhadralok Bengal misjudged matters so profoundly because, in point of fact, they were deeply inexperienced as a political class. Admittedly, they were highly educated and in some ways sophisticated, but they had never captured the commanding heights of Bengal’s polity or its economy. They had been called upon to execute policy but not to make it. They had lived off the proceeds of the land, but had never organised the business of agriculture. Whether as theorists or practitioners, they understood little of the mechanics of production and exchange, whether on the shop floor or in the fields. Above all, they had little or no experience in the delicate arts of ruling and taxing people. Far from being in the vanguard as they liked to believe, by 1947 Bengal’s bhadralok had become a backward-looking group, living in the past, trapped in the aspic of outdated assumptions, and so single-mindedly focussed upon their own narrow purposes that they were blind to the larger picture and the big changes that were taking place around them.
- K. L. Sharma, ed. (2013). Readings in Indian Sociology: Volume II: Sociological Probings in Rural Society. Sage Publications.
- "Bengal's sorrow". frontline.thehindu.com. Retrieved 2019-08-08.
- Chatterji, Joya. The spoils of partition : Bengal and India, 1947-1967. p. 317. ISBN 9780521188067. OCLC 816808562.
- Subho Basu and Sikata Banerjee, 'The Quest for Manhood: Masculine Hinduism and Nation in Bengal in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East
- Bhadralok in Banglapedia
- Indira Choudhuri, The Fragile Hero and Virile History: Gender and the Politics of Culture, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998).
- Tithi Bhattacharya, The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).