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Dwarkanath and Vivekananda’s Bengal and how to revive it

By the time Swami Vivekananda was a teenager (he was born in 1863), the industrial revolution that Dwarkanath Tagore and his ilk had dreamt of on the shores of the Hooghly had stuttered, and Bengal was already losing its place as the home of business in the Indian subcontinent to Bombay.

Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846), the grandfather of Rabindranath, was a pioneering businessman, the first Indian director of a bank, the co-founder of the first Anglo-Indian agency with interests in jute, tea, coal, among other things.

Tagore was involved in shipping, and running river-steamboat companies, he had a finger in sugar refining, coal mining, salt manufacturing. But by the time Vivekananda was old enough to understand the world, the Tagore dream was already fading. Dwarkanath’s own son Debendranath was already too gentrified to have business chops.

While his father, Dwarkanath, was known by the moniker ‘Prince’, no doubt because of the immense wealth he gathered, Debendranath was ‘Maharishi’, a philosopher among men, and founding light of a new way for worship, the Brahmo Samaj. The transition was telling.

It is Debendranath to whom a young Vivekananda is said to have gone to ask have you seen God? The philosopher Tagore is said to have evaded the question, remarking, instead, that young Naren (Vivekananda’s pre-monastic name) had the eyes of yogi.

Dwarkanath’s dream had stuttered, in part, because the wealth it had generated had, in turn, created an elite that swiftly became more concerned with living off their zamindaris (and gentrifying themselves by travelling to, and sending their children to study in, England). They started to emulate the English landed gentry a little too closely.

But even as they lost their commercial instinct, the Bengalis, of Vivekananda’s age discovered a certain penchant for refinement. The money was going, slowly, but the culture would stay and flourish for a while yet.

The trouble with present-day Bengal (and Bengalis), and let us be honest, it has been this way for decades now, is that both flair for commerce, and expertise at doing high culture have faded.

Today a lot of Bengali high culture does exist but often outside Bengal. The money too, and the enterprise, where it exists among Bengalis, is usually outside their home territory.

So, the fundamental thing for Bengal, and Bengalis, to comprehend is this and it comes from a family they revere, the Tagores the money came before the culture, the refinement, and the poetry. Dwarkanath’s enterprise came before the sublime sophistry of the Brahmo Samaj, and Rabindranath’s Nobel Prize in literature.

This fundamental flaw, nurtured for decades, is the primary thing that needs to be fixed.

It needs an attitude change. Even today Bengal has all the advantages that it did in Dwarkanath’s time fertile soil, relatively well-educated labour force, a proper urban hub in Kolkata (Calcutta), a strong port, there is no reason why Bengal cannot once again rise as one of the leading economic hubs in the world.

As Asok Mitra wrote in Calcutta: India’s City (1963), at the same time when Bombay’s industrialists focused on the city, their only home, rather than many of the merchants in Calcutta who arrived from elsewhere with little stake in, and little contribution to, the city, especially in the early years.

Also, unlike many of the Calcutta wealthy who made their money from their zamindari lands, and invested in those estates, the Bombay elite had only the city to romance and poured their money in bettering it.

Now that the Bengalis are in danger even of losing their high culture in their home ground, must recall Dwarkanath’s relentless focus on transnational opportunities.

Bengal, an early mover in the software race, should draw inspiration from Dwarkanath and seek opportunities where it can have a first-mover advantage (for instance, why not in data sciences in a city teeming with math minds, or as a global content production hub in the age of Netflix).

Vivekananda himself was not averse to commerce or prosperity he was pragmatic and objected to anyone being “ slovenliness in business matters, not being sufficiently methodical and strict in keeping accounts” He was not a man who romanticised poverty or lack of enterprise.

The first step towards reviving the memory of Vivekananda, or even Dwarkanath, is to trigger the spirit of enterprise in Bengal wealthy again.

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