Mitra, Raja Rajendralal

Mitra, Raja Rajendralal (1823/24-1891) was one of the major activists of the bengal renaissance.

Rajendralal Mitra was born in 1823 (or 1824) in a Kayastha family at Soora, an eastern suburb of Calcutta. To understand Rajendralal's achievements in various fields it is important to remember his family background. The family, although it had fallen on bad days, had a great background and had received various honours from the Bengal Nawab and later Nawab Waizir of Oudh when the family under Ajodhyaram, Rajendra's great-great-grandfather, migrated there from Bengal after the disaster at Palashi and settled for some generations. The emperor of Delhi also honoured him. Rajendralal's forefathers had literary reputations as well. Both Pitambar and his grandson, Rajendra's father, Janmejay Mitra wrote Brajabuli poems. But what is remarkable is that Janmejay was also an Urdu poet of high standing. Rajendralal was the third son of Janmejay Mitra.

Rajendralal, who later became famous as one of the most learned men of India of his time and one who was famous for his mastery of the English language had, however, a sporadic schooling. With the completion of his early education he joined the calcutta medical college in December 1837 but failed to get degree and got dropped out in 1841. He then tried to become a lawyer, but he later abandoned the idea of becoming a legal practitioner. Then his family tradition of learning alien languages took hold of him. He applied himself wholeheartedly to mastering different languages – English, Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu and Hindi - which all stood him in good stead in the career that was awaiting him in the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, the sheet-anchor of his fame and life-long work. He later became well conversant with French, Greek and Latin.

In November 1846, Rajaendralal was appointed Librarian and Assistant Secretary of the Asiatic Society. His connection with the Asiatic Society attained its apogee with his election in 1885 as its first native-born President. Formerly, he had also been its Secretary in 1857 and 1865 and Vice-President from 1861 to 1865 and from 1870 to 1884. He was again its Vice-President between 1886 and 1891. Thus honours were heaped upon him, an Indian, by an institution that was very much British at the time. Very fittingly it was he who wrote the Asiatic Society's centenary history, published in 1885.

Mitra resigned his job with the Asiatic Society in 1856 to take up the post of Director of the newly set up Wards' Institution for the education of the wards of zamindars. He stayed in this job till 1880 when the Wards' Institution was abolished. This interruption did not, however, affect much his indological career.

Under the celebrated Bibliotheca Indica series of the Asiatic Society, Mitra edited fourteen texts between 1854 and his death in 1891. Meanwhile the work of discovering, collecting, cataloguing and describing Sanskrit MSS in Bengal and other provinces and in the libraries of the native princes and even in Nepal was going on in full swing under the auspices of both the Asiatic Society and the Government of India. Several catalogues and translations made by him followed and were highly appreciated at home and abroad. His The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal published in 1882 indeed marked a milestone in the field of Nepalese history. Besides editing, translating and cataloguing, his two important works, The Antiquities of Orissa (1875, 1880) and Buddha Gaya, the Hermitage of Sakya Muni (1878), were pioneering works. However it is to be noted that besides these main works, he also delivered numerous lectures on different occasions both in English and Bangla and wrote nearly 120 articles in the Journal and the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. He was a contributor to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Journal of the Anthropological Society, Journal of the Photographic Society of Bengal, Calcutta Review and Mookerjee's Magazine. He also contributed to The Englishman, The Daily News, The statesman, The Phoenix, The Citizen, The Friend of India, The Indian Field and The hindu patriot. He was the editor of The Hindu Patriot for several years. He also wrote many articles and books in Bangla. Rajendralal also rendered assistance to Prof. Max Muller in the task of editing ancient Sanskrit literature. He also deciphered some ancient inscriptions. He corresponded and communicated with the greatest of the European indologists of the time on equal terms. Max Muller himself wrote in Rajendralal's appreciation when Rajendralal was hardly forty-five years old.

Parallel to the very important work being done at the Asiatic Society, Rajendralal Mitra was also contributing to educative journalism by editing from 1852 to 1859 the popular and the only illustrated monthly magazine of the time, the Vividhartha Sanggraha, published under the auspices of the Vernacular Literature Committee. Vividhartha Sanggraha won the heart of young rabindranath tagore. In 1863 the Vividhartha Sanggraha was replaced by another illustrated monthly magazine of the same kind, the Rahasya Sandarbha and this was, again, entrusted to the editorship of Rajendralal. He edited it for six years till its 66th number. Much before this, as early as 1848 and again in 1850 he was selected as one of the members of the committee for reviewing papers for publication in the tattvabodhini patrika. He was also chosen as the President of the Sarasvat Samaj established by the Tagores in 1882 for the general purpose of the development of Bangla language and with the specific idea of developing Bangla equivalents of English technical terms, particularly in geography.

Rajendralal lived in the social milieu of the Bengal Renaissance and in the environment thus created, in spite of his primary pre-occupation with antiquarian studies, the question of the spread of education among his fellowmen could not be far from his mind. He contributed to that need by looking after some organisations supervising the education of the young such as the Central School Book Committee, Vernacular Literature Society, calcutta school-book society, Sarasvat Samaj, bethune society, Society for Promotion of Industrial Art, Association of Friends for the Promotion of Social Improvement. He himself wrote text-books in Bangla on different subjects, particularly geography and grammar. He laid particular stress on the spread of geographical knowledge. He was also a member of the Photographic Society, Philharmonic Academy of Bengal and a Calcutta University fellow. By writing on technical subjects he was also developing the Bangla language as a vehicle for expression of different disciplines unknown before. Another of his pioneering publications was the first Bengali atlas, which he prepared for the Calcutta School-Book Society between 1850 and 1858. Another of his achievements in the field of atlas making in the vernacular languages was a series of maps of the districts of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in Bangla and Oriya, published in 1868. He also prepared for the government of Oudh (present-day Uttar Pradesh), between 1853 and 1855, maps of India in Hindi and Urdu and also a map of Asia in Persian. His other important Bangla books were a life of Shivaji (1860) and a collection of his technical essays (1860) published in the vividhartha Sanggraha.

Rajendralal laid the foundation of the tradition of the study of Indian antiquities by Indians themselves. His hard and unsparing labour extending over more than fifty years started bringing him honour from home and abroad. He was one of the first Indians to be honoured by scholarly and learned bodies in Europe in colonial times. He was admitted as an honorary member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He was also honoured in Vienna and Italy. The government honoured him with the title of 'Ray Bahadur' (1877), 'CIE' (1878) and 'Raja' (1888).

Rajendralal had a very extensive involvement with public life and in fact he did attain national status as a public leader. From 1863 to 1876, he was a 'Justice of the Peace'. In 1876, he was elected as a member of the Executive Committee of the Calcutta Municipality. He was associated with the british india association almost from the beginning; was its President (1881-82, 1883-84, 1886-87) and Vice-President (1878-80, 1887-88, 1890-91). But with the birth of the indian national congress in 1885 he truly rose to the status of one of the national leaders of India. The second session of the congress was held in Calcutta in 1886 and Rajendralal, the then President of the British India Association was chosen as Chairman of the Reception Committee. Rajendralal died on 26 July 1891. [Abu Imam]