By – Dr. Kaustav Bhattacharyya
‘WE HAD BRITISH COUNCIL, WE HAD SHAKESPEARE….LEARNING ENGLISH IN KOLKATA’
For my generation who grew up in ‘Calcutta’ as opposed to Kolkata the city, had a certain sense of pride and belonging to the world of English ‘lettres’ using the word in the French sense where it includes all written words in different forms like verse, prose and essays, i.e. the literary world of English language. We read and devoured English poets and dramatists with an affection which was devoid of any alien feeling of English being a language imported from elsewhere in the world. The city’s intellectual and artistic life was buzzing with plays, literary discussions, café’s, writer’s workshops and individuals passionate about English literature.
The learning of English language in good, old, fabled Anglo-Indian schools had a certain element of ‘dramatis personae’ about it, meaning one had to perform as an articulate speaker with sharp wit and imagination in English. The plethora of debating societies, elocution contests, public speaking events only testified to this desire to speak the language with confidence and strut on the stage and moreover these events were taken seriously. Years later I would meet successful professionals like medical doctors who would proudly confess that they won the Rotary Club speaking contest or British Council debating society in the year 1985 or 1969 and they treat this as a badge of honour. I recollect vividly the pillorying received at the Rotaract Elocution contest held at the St. Xaviers School as a participant and then returning with a certain glum resolving to plunge into tedious preparation for the next event.
Clearly for us it was not good enough to read and write correctly the English language but had to be able to express and articulate well; the culture of which has sadly dissipated. This was prior to the rise of post-colonial literature when English was spoken and written by our ‘masters’ writers who commanded the language with certain felicity, for most it was their mother-tongue and for select few it was work of lifetime passion and dedication, here I mean the likes of RK Narayan and Nirad C Chaudhuri. I recollect while being part of the editorial team of our brainchild STS school magazine ‘Flash’, writing an audacious article sometime around 1989 titled ‘Glasnost in the Literary and Cultural world’ where I spoke about a highly controversial novel penned by an Indo-Anglian writer and a highly provocative film both released around the same time. I was there discussing with my Headmaster in his august chamber about these trends in the literary world and the idea of freedom of expression. Looking back one might call this adolescence preciousness but those were the times when our teachers encouraged us to push boundaries of our thought.
Audacity was emblem of learning the English language; you should be able to speak and write boldly with sarcasm and wit. I feel the way one learnt the language in schools like St. Thomas School with its long tradition of Anglo-Indian education system was to make bold yet nuanced statements and expressing your thoughts which might question prevailing conventions and norms. However what really fueled the love of English language with our intellect and imagination were Shakespeare and British Council which I discuss below and were two of the most iconic forces shaping our encounter with the language.
Being a student at STS in an Anglo-Indian school setting the task of learning English language well meant having learnt Shakespeare well, one’s knowledge of English is inadequate and incomplete without mastery or even basic grasp of Shakespeare. Metaphors like ‘Shakespearean English’ abounded in conversations about English language and literature and often phrases like ‘don’t try writing Shakespearean style’ or ‘you have learnt your Shakespeare well’ meant learning the Old Bard was serious business.
The l’amour with Shakespeare started for me and many of us precisely in my 9th standard when the play ‘Merchant of Venice’ was introduced into the English curriculum and stayed on till I completed ICSE which was the end of 10 years of schooling. Those days the Council for education stipulated that a couple of Shakespearean plays be taught as part of the syllabus and we ended up learning one each for the 10th standard and 12th standard. In the next phase of the Shakespearean l’affair it was ‘Macbeth’ which was part of the ISC course in English language and literature. In my case the play Macbeth was taught by the venerable Ms Manjula Ray who would dissect and dramatize those lines mellifluously.
Hence the entire Shakespearean dalliance lasted nearly 4 years with few sonnets thrown in and Hamlet being studied outside the ambit of school curriculum for staging plays. Who can forget the dramatic passion exuded by Mr. Allan Samuel while teaching the lines of the play, one was literally transported into that medieval world of intrigues and mystery??
Reciting with ease lines from the Shakespearean plays were hallmark of brilliance and there was something dashing about it. Acquiring a mastery of the nuances of the play, the theatrical plot and most important understanding of the context was sine qua non for being able to lay any claim to the learning of Shakespeare. We had film shows which were held on the school premises screening the plays like that of Macbeth and Merchant of Venice. Those days these films were screened on small TV screens connected to video recorders with huge reeled tapes. I recollect once I had to stand outside the classroom peeping through the window to watch the film on Macbeth since the seats were fully occupied. Many of these films were stage productions which had actors and actresses spouting the dialogues with animated expressions in very staid settings. Needless to add the thought of answering questions in English language papers in both ICSE and ISC drawn from both the plays made us enormously nervous and we thanked our stars when the Shakespearean saga was all over.
I must admit that I cringed when recently someone shared with me that they were taught Shakespeare in narrative form rather than learning the entire play with its dialogues and I realized times have changed.
British Council embodied the finest, best and refined aspects of English language and literature. I used to travel down to the British Council where they had these small desks or what would be called workstations for watching the BBC films and drama. The films were available on video format and I think during late 80s the first adaptation in colour format arrived of the Shakespearean plays which we had learnt at school.
I was thrilled to watch the Macbeth production which was set outside the confines of stage and I guess it must have been Polanksi’s production of 1971. Besides the plays there were very interesting and informative films on current affairs, politics like the Soviet Union and World War 2. The iconic building of British Council was located on a busy arterial avenue with trappings of a boulevard called Shakespeare Sarani close to some of the old Victorian buildings and a hotel named Astor which was housed in an old-styled manorial edifice and was reputed for its kebabs and tandoor; quite ironic for the name and the architecture but then such was Kolkata’s magnificent cosmopolitan blend. It has always baffled me that most of the British Council libraries in India are located in rather modernist architectural edifices with concrete and glass rather than quaint colonial bungalows where the location would have been befitting. The British Councils staff were all very strict disciplinarians and had innate passion for the works of literature and arts hence one had to be careful with the books and tapes.
The staff was very eager to guide us through the collections and suggest enriching books and magazines. It was an absolute delight to be able to watch those drama films in dazzling colour with those humongous earphones whose sizes have shrunk over the years placed on your ears. There was no digital sound but the baritone voice of the actors and actresses transported one to the eerie, hair-raising, magical world of Elizabethan world of Britain where murder plots and intrigues ruled the roost. As a matter of fact whenever I visited a Tudor building or tavern located in one of those timber buildings had this constant sense of ominous things happening, Shakespearean plots never left my mind!! Apart from watching the films the next best draw were books on eclectic subjects like psychology, politics which were drawing my attention for the first time as one embarked to pursue university education.
In my personal case the literary critics were a fascinating genre of writing since it explained better what we read in our school lessons like Tennyson and Dickens, it assisted me to place them in the broader cultural and historical context and there was one A.W. Verity which I was quite fond of. There is one habit which I picked up which persists till today is the regular and routine reading of the magazine, The Spectator (British current affairs commentary magazine which is of Conservative leanings in its vision of society, culture and politics) and even subscribe to it online.
In conclusion, Kolkata schools were a wide spectrum when it came to imparting the knowledge of English language and instilling the love of it, there were some who were absolutely superb, old-school and pukka and there were plenty who barely made it into the annals of English-medium education. However the romance of the English language and its literature was in the air and for an Anglophile schoolboy who loved the language it was there for them to be explored, absorbed and relished. There were plenty of inexpensive bookstores where one could buy Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen or PG Wodehouse or for that matter Naipaul for a pittance and the sellers were well-versed in the literary nuances and could hold forth on the best works for verse and prose.
At many of these stores or in café’s one would run into English teachers or professors with thick-rimmed glasses and few in dhoti who would discuss literature and works of art in the most impeccable English accent. In the strictest sense of the term for most students of Anglo-Indian schools in Kolkata it was not an elitist endeavour requiring whole lot of resources to learn and appreciate Shakespeare and Shelley
Looking back those were wonderful and dreamy days for many of us students and would not trade anything with the experience of learning English language during the 1980s as a student of Anglo-Indian school in Kolkata.
Profile: Dr. Kaustav Bhattacharyya is an entrepreneur from Bengal engaged in the field of ecological water treatment and holds a PhD from Cass Business School, University of London in Management Sciences. Entrepreneurship and Business History being one of his favourite research topics.