Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Naturalists in court and courtship

The Bombay Natural History Society offers an interesting case in the history of amateur science in India and there are many little stories hidden away that have not quite been written about, possibly due to the lack of publicly accessible archival material. Interestingly two of the founders of the BNHS were Indians and hardly anything has been written about them even in the pages of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society where lesser known British members have obituaries. I suspect that the lack of their obituaries can be traced to the political and social turmoil of the period. Even a major historical two-part piece by Salim Ali in 1978 makes no mention of the Indians involved in the founding of the BNHS. Both of the founders were connected with medicine and medical botany and connected to some of the other naturalists not so just because of their interest in plants but perhaps through their participation in social reform movements (markedly liberal). The only colleague who could have written their obituaries was the BNHS member Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar who probably did not because of his conservative-views and a fall-out with the liberals. This is merely my suspicion and it arises from reading between the lines when I recently started to examine, create and upgrade the relevant entries on them on the English language Wikipedia. There are also some rather interesting connections.

Sakharam Arjun
Dr Sakharam Arjun (Raut) (1839-16 April 1885) - This medical doctor with an interest in botanical remedies was for sometime a teacher of botany at the Grant Medical College - but his name perhaps became more well known after a historic court case dealing with child marriage and women's rights, that of Dadaji vs. Rukhmabai. Rukhmabai had been married off at the age of 11 and stayed with her mother and step-father Sakharam Arjun. When she reached puberty, she was asked by Dadaji to join him. Rukhmabai refused and Sakharam Arjun supported her. It led to a series of court cases, the first of which was in Rukhmabai's favour. This rankled the Hindu conservatives who believed that this was a display of the moral superiority of the English. The judge had in reality found fault with English law and had commented on the patriarchal and unfair system of marriage that had already been questioned back in England. A subsequent appeal was ruled in favour of Dadaji and Rukhmabai was ordered to go to his home or face six months in prison. Rukhmabai was in the meantime writing a series of articles in the Times of India under the pen-name of A Hindoo Lady (wish there was a nice online Indian newspapers archive) and she declared that she would rather take the maximal prison penalty. This led to further worries - with Queen Victoria and the Viceroy jumping into the fray. Max Müller commented on the case, while Behramji Malabari and Allan Octavian Hume (now retired from ornithology; there may be another connection as Sakharam Arjun seems to have been a member of the Theosophical Society, founded by Hume and others before he quit it) debated various aspects. Somewhat surprisingly Hume tended to being less radical about reforms than Malabari.

Dr Edith Pechey
Dr Rukhmabai
Dr Sakharam Arjun did not live to see the judgement, and he probably died early thanks to the stress it created. His step-daughter Rukhmabai became one of the earliest Indian women doctors and was supported in her cause by Dr Edith Pechey, another pioneering English woman doctor, who went on to marry H.M. Phipson. Phipson of course was a more famous founder of the BNHS. Rukhmabai's counsel included the lawyer J.D.Inverarity who was a big-game hunter and BNHS member. To add to the mess of BNHS members in court, there was (later Lt.-Col.) Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar (1850-9 May 1917), a student of Sakharam Arjun and like him interested in medicinal plants. Kirtikar however became a hostile witness in the Rukhmabai case, and supported Dadaji. Rukhmabai, in her writings as a Hindoo Lady, indicated her interest in studying medicine. Dr Pechey and others set up a fund for supporting her medical education in London. The whole case caused a tremendous upheaval in India with a division across multiple axes -  nationalists, reformists, conservatives, liberals, feminists, Indians, Europeans - everyone seems to have got into the debate. The conservative Indians believed that Rukhmabai's defiance of Hindu customs was the obvious result of a western influence.

J.D.Inverarity, Barrister
and Vice President of BNHS (1897-1923)
Counsel for Rukhmabai.
It is somewhat odd that the BNHS journal carries no obituary whatsoever to this Indian founding member. I suspect that the only one who may have been asked to write an obituary would have been Kirtikar and he may have refused to write given his stance in court. Another of Sakharam Arjun's students was a Gujarati botanist named Jayakrishna Indraji who perhaps wrote India's first non-English botanical treatise (at least the first that seems to have been based on modern scientific tradition). Indraji seems to be rather sadly largely forgotten except in some pockets of Kutch, in Bhuj. I recently discovered that the organization GUIDE in Bhuj have tried to bring back Indraji into modern attention.

Atmaram Pandurang
The other Indian founder of the BNHS was Dr Atmaram Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1823-1898)- This medical doctor was a founder of the Prarthana Samaj in 1867 in Bombay. He and his theistic reform movement were deeply involved in the Age of Consent debates raised by the Rukhmabai case. His organization seems to have taken Max Muller's suggestion that the ills of society could not be cured by laws but by education and social reform. If Sakharam Arjun is not known enough, even lesser is known of Atmaram Pandurang (at least online!) but one can find another natural history connection here - his youngest daughter - Annapurna "Ana" Turkhud tutored Rabindranath Tagore in English and the latter was smitten. Tagore wrote several poems to her where she is referred to as "Nalini". Ana however married Harold Littledale (3 October 1853-11 May 1930), professor of history and English literature, later principal of the Baroda College (Moreshwar Atmaram Turkhud, Ana's older brother, was a vice-principal at Rajkumar College Baroda - another early natural history hub), and if you remember an earlier post where his name occurs - Littledale was the only person from the educational circle to contribute to Allan Octavian Hume's notes on birds! Littledale also documented bird trapping techniques in Gujarat. Sadly, Ana did not live very long and died in her thirties in Edinburgh somewhere around 1891.

It would appear that many others in the legal profession were associated with natural history - we have already seen the case of Courtenay Ilbert, who founded the Simla Natural History Society in 1885. Ilbert lived at Chapslee House in Simla - now still a carefully maintained heritage home (that I had the fortune of visiting recently) owned by the kin of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Ilbert was involved with the eponymous Ilbert Bill which allowed Indian judges to pass resolutions on cases involving Europeans - a step forward in equality that also led to rancour. Other law professionals in the BNHS - included Sir Norman A. Macleod and  S. M. Robinson. We know that at least a few marriages were mediated by associations with the BNHS and these include - Norman Boyd Kinnear married a relative of Walter Samuel Millard (the man who kindly showed a child named Salim Ali around the BNHS); R.C. Morris married Heather, daughter of Angus Kinloch (another BNHS member who lived near Longwood Shola, Kotagiri) - and even before the BNHS, there were other naturalists connected by marriage - Brian Hodgson's brother William was married to Mary Rosa the sister of S.R. Tickell (of Tickell's flowerpecker fame); Sir Walter Elliot (of Anathana fame) was married to Maria Dorothea Hunter Blair while her sister Jane Anne Eliza Hunter Blair was married to Philip Sclater, a leading figure in zoology. The project that led to the Fauna of British India was promoted by Sclater and Jerdon (a good friend of Elliot) - these little family ties may have provided additional impetus.


Someone in London asked me in 2014 if I had heard of an India-born naturalist named E.K. Robinson. At that time I did not know of him but it turned out that Edward Kay Robinson (1857?-1928) born in Naini Tal was the founder of the British (Empire) Naturalists' Association. He fostered a young and promising journalist who would later dedicate a work to him - To E.K.R. from R.K. - Rudyard Kipling. Now E.K.R. had an older brother named Phil Robinson who was also in the newspaper line - and became famous for his brand of Anglo-Indian nature writing - a style that was more prominently demonstrated by E.H. Aitken (Eha) of the BNHS. Now Phil - Philip Stewart Robinson - despite the books he wrote like In my Indian Garden and Noah's ark, or, "Mornings in the zoo." Being a contribution to the study of unnatural history is not a well-known name in Indian natural history writing. One reason for his works being unknown may be the infamy that Phil achieved from affairs aboard ships between India and England that led to a scandalous divorce case and bankruptcy.

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