Bengal Tiger And The University Of Calcutta

Tarun Goswami

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, then a 24- year-old-youth, was one day strolling on Marina Beach in Madras when he saw a dhoti clad gentleman walking briskly towards him. The man introduced himself as Asutosh Mookherjee, the vice chancellor of Calcutta University and after talking to him for some time requested him to come and join the university’s department of Philosophy. Radhakrishnan was then teaching in the Presidency College of Madras.

Radhakrishnan came to Calcutta and stayed at the residence of the vice-chancellor in Bhawanipore.  After a few days he requested Mookherjee to ensure that his pay packet was protected as he had to look after a family of seven including his aged parents. Mookherjee assured him not to worry. That evening he received a communiqué from Calcutta University. He opened the letter and found that he had been appointed as the George V Professor of mental and moral philosophy. Professor Radhakrishnan taught in the department for over a decade before joining Andhra University as vice chancellor. He left for Oxford after being appointed the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics. It was through Professor Radhakrishnan, Asutosh got in touch with Bertrand Russell and requested him give the convocation address of Calcutta University. After Russell agreed, he placed the proposal before the University senate. The British members rejected the proposal outright as they considered Russell to be a communist and a debauch for his remarks in Marriage and Morals where he had observed “mother is a reality and father a mere belief.”  He lost his job in the University of Harvard because of this observation. Annoyed, the senate members recommended the removal of Mookherjee. Lord Montague who was the then Secretary of State for India came to the city and met Mookherjee and Bhupendra Nath Basu, a leading lawyer of Calcutta High Court. Later, Lord Montague wrote a letter to Lord Chelmsford saying “Mookherjee is brilliant but he is darker than my hat and should be replaced immediately.”  Asutosh was removed and replaced by Basu.

Sir Asutosh Mookherjee was the vice chancellor of Calcutta University from 1906-1914 and then again between 1921 and 1923 till he was removed.  Before Asutosh Mookherjee took up the reins of Calcutta University it was little more than a body conducting examinations and there was no arrangement for academic teaching or research. From the very beginning Asutosh devoted his energy in setting up academic departments and consolidating graduate level teaching and research.  He also ensured autonomy of the university despite government funding. As vice chancellor he brought great scholars from all over the country to the university turning it into a true centre of excellence. He brought CV Raman who joined the Indian Science Association founded by Dr Mahendralal Sarkar. Later he won Nobel Prize in Physics. He was instrumental in bringing Acharya Brojendranath Seal who was teaching in Victoria College in Coochbehar and made him a professor in the Philosophy department. Inspired by him Sir PC Roy joined Presidency College.

Noted painter of the era, Abanindranath Tagore narrated an amusing anecdote.  Asutosh Mookherjee’s daughter Kamala Devi had died and in her memory he started the Kamal Devi Memorial lecture in 1921. Rabindranath Tagore delivered the first lecture. In 1922 Mookherjee invited Abanindranath to deliver the lecture on the Indian School of Art and requested him to give a copy of his address so that he could distribute it among the audience beforehand.

Abanindranath very reluctantly went to Mookherjee’s chamber in Calcutta University and handed over him a copy of the speech. Asutosh very hurriedly read it and kept it on his table. Abanindranath thought that since he was a student of mathematics it was difficult for him to understand the content of the lecture. Abanindranath delivered the lecture which was presided over by Tagore. Asutosh praised him and extended an invitation for tea. On a Sunday, Abanindranath accompanied Tagore to the Bhowanipore residence of the VC. To his astonishment Abanindranath found that both Tagore and Mookherjee were talking on Indian art and Abanindranath was further amazed by the depth of latter’s knowledge on the subject.  It was Sir Asutosh who helped Subhas Chandra Bose to get admission in Scottish Church College after he picked up a quarrel with Professor Otten of Presidency College. He inspired Sanskrit pundits to open traditional schools under Calcutta University and engaged Harish Chandra Singha to translate many English and Sanskrit books into Bengali. He took initiative to set up the Bengali department at a time when majority of the academicians did not consider the vernacular to be important enough to merit academic learning or research. Nikki Kumara, a Japanese monk and scholar was appointed to teach Mahayana Buddhism and history of Buddhism in modern India. During his time, Calcutta University became a centre for learning and scholars from all over the globe came to deliver lectures.  He was instrumental in establishing Mitra Institution in Bhowanipore and sent his sons Ramaprasad, Shyamaprasad, Umaprasad and Bamaprasad to this school. He had a huge library containing about 30,000 books and journals.

Asutosh Mookherjee was born in Calcutta on June 29, 1864.  He had a brilliant academic career. He did his MA in Mathematics and Physical Science and was awarded Tagore Law Gold medal for three consecutive years in 1884, 1885 and 1886. He joined the Calcutta High Court in 1888 and became a judge in 1904. He founded the Bengal Technical Institute in 1906 and the Calcutta University College of Science in 1914. He was the first president of Indian Science Congress in 1914.  As a legal luminary, Mookherjee was an expert on Hindu Law and Hindu Succession Law.