The book, a narrative of the growth of chemical sciences during the colonial period, is authored by a trained analytical chemist whose work presents an insider’s view on the subject. The author aims at presenting the institutional developments in chemical sciences during the colonial period with a view to outlining the complexities of the East West interaction in scientific knowledge. There are seven chapters in the book and an epilogue. The introduction and the second chapter give details of Indian achievements in chemical and allied sciences and technologies over the centuries. Starting from Rasayana and tantra schools in the Indian tradition, the author lists seminal treatises on the subject in Sanskrit demonstrating how at different points in time, the alchemists, Tantric and the Buddhists have engaged in studies on preparation and use of chemical substances like sulphur and mercury These developments also contributed to new medical formula as recorded in texts like Rasaratnasamuchaya of the fourteenth century.
The author then describes the developments during the Islamic period in terms of the contributions of Islamic physicians. Parallel to the presentation of key works, Basu also gives details of technological innovations of each period in arts, crafts, dyeing and jewellery that embodied knowledge of chemical substances and processes.
With the arrival of European visitors, the author notes, an interesting phase begins. Coming from a situation where chemical sciences were not so well developed because of its weak connection to Industrialisation in their home country, British officials took keen interest in the methods and approach of Indian chemical science at various levels and have surveyed the resources in this land. They have tried to improvise existing techniques and gradually facilitated the move to mass production of chemical material. Basu argues how British officials found the furnaces and technologies widely used by artisan communities in India to be inadequate though chemical sciences in their own country was far less developed. However, with the introduction of English education, Indians inspired by new inputs from Europe for scientific knowledge formed societies of scientific learning.
Basu demonstrates that the British were reluctant to support education that was not directly beneficial to their economic interests, focussed more on survey of botanical. geological substances. So they developed field sciences through institutes of research. But first generation Indian scientists like P.C. Ray took great interest in basic chemical sciences in which they thought there was an Indian legacy. The era of field science also saw several experiments by inquisitive officials like O’Shaughnessy, but it was after 1835 that science education with academic orientation started but in a handful of institutions only. Basu notes how science education in colonial India suffered from lack of funds for teaching and laboratories due to step motherly treatment of the colonial government.
The second half of the nineteenth century was a gestational period for the sciences according to Basu, a period in which institutes, universities and colleges were created but did not receive any sustained financial support for carrying out research activities because of the need based commercial orientation of the state. Yet luminous candidates emerged from these institutions; P.C. Ray who was a student during 1880–81, was one such candidate. When the PG degree in Chemistry was introduced at Presidency College in Calcutta, there were three students in the first batch in 1888 and until 1910 it hovered around 3–4 students per batch. Students who wanted to pursue research in Chemistry had to go abroad. It was only after 1910 that the inflow of students increased when P.C. Ray added a new dimension to chemistry teaching. The dearth of institutions of higher education in science led to the initiatives by nationalist elites and several colleges were started from 1875 onwards. Basu presents a detailed account of papers published in the subject, research sponsorship, departments started, appointments made and conferences held with regard to chemical science in India and this is indeed valuable information. Basu maps private initiatives by national elites, princely endowments and government institutes set up to promote science education during the early twentieth century. The debates between Indian scientists and politicians with the British administrations on causes of poor industrialization and the possible ameliorative measures, setting up of Indian Industrial commission (1916), Indian Munition Board (1917) and the proposal for Indian chemical board and a host of other measures to organize scientists and scientific research during early 20th century has been discussed in detail by the author. The author tracks the advances in chemical sciences by further listing new departments and laboratories in the eastern and northern region in detail and the west and south in brief.
The last chapter on science society interaction is an attempt to tie the discussion in the book that started with the early vedic period, to the current situation. He argues that though there were several sophisticated applications of chemical substances and processes in pre-colonial India and chemical sciences were also quite well developed, industrial production introduced during the colonial period has been a catalyst in augmenting technology that would otherwise remain stagnant. He notes how Englishmen clamoured to study the chemical resources and processes in India, an option that was not available to them in Britain because of the underdeveloped stage of chemical sciences there. Thus European input and new technologies built on cottage industries that were already in vogue for several years such as, glass, ceramics, mortar and cement, dyes, perfumery, manufacture of salt-petre for fireworks and gun powder, production of rock salt, lac and paper. Heavy chemical industry was introduced in 1857, yet usable chemicals were indigenously made by following old techniques from materials of natural origin.
Basu concludes by outlining the impact of European science and technology on the mindset of the upper caste Indians who had scant respect for earthy materials. While industrialization harnessed chemical sciences, Basu does not fail to notice the differences of opinion between Gandhian nationalists who were against heavy industrialization and technology and others who were in favour of them. The author also notes how persons like P.C. Ray tried to syncretise their involvement in the Gandhian movement and initiative for chemical technologies.
The book is full of details of institutional developments in science education and industry during the colonial period. Besides it is sensitive to social factors like caste and class that played a role in initiatives taken. However it is different from academic history writing and is free of familiar disciplinary tropes in historiography of sciences in colonial India such as tradition and modernity. By the authors’ own admission, the book is not meant for academic history nor for expert chemists, rather for anyone ‘who desire to know Indian chemistry against the developmental parameters of British India’.
- Sujatha is at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.