1 march 2010

Celebrating Indian legacy in Oxford

University | Art

Cornelia Sorabji was India's first lawyer and the first woman to sit Oxford's Bachelor of Civil Laws exam. Reproduced with permission of Richard Sorabji.

Oxford University is hosting a temporary display and conference to commemorate the University’s relationship with India during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Bodleian library today opens a  temporary display of archival sources exploring the varied journeys of Indian students, politicians, writers and critics through Oxford, including letters from Gandhi.

Indian students are today the fifth-largest international population at Oxford: The University has around 320 Indian students, along with more than 900 Indian alumni and six alumni branches in India. Famous Indian alumni include India’s first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, as well as its current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bollywood film star Soha Ali Khan. The exhibit highlights the longstanding role of Indians in Oxford by showing examples of their earliest presence at the University.

Professor Elleke Boehmer and Dr Sumita Mukherjee of the English Faculty are curating the display. ‘During our research we found so many Indian tracks and pathways running through Oxford,’ says Professor Boehmer. ‘This exhibition highlights the fact that the relationship between Indian and Britain is deeply embedded and woven into the texture of Oxford University; it’s about the warp and weft of Indian presences in Oxford.’

Both the display and the workshop will consider the value and meaning of manuscript traces, how they reflect on the ways in which Indians and Britons interacted in the period. The day also includes a walking tour of ‘Indian Oxford,’ with highlights including the portraits of Radhakrishnan and Benazir Bhutto in All Souls Hall and the Oxford Union and the roof boss caricature of Gandhi in the University Church of St Mary's. 

This exhibition highlights the fact that the relationship between Indian and Britain is deeply embedded and woven into the texture of Oxford University

Professor Elleke Boehmer, English faculty

The Bodleian display explores the varied journeys of students, politicians, linguists, art critics, and poets through Oxford in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Their exchanges with the University and its libraries are revealed through photographs, letters, published works, and other archival sources from the Bodleian and the college libraries. These reflect the many surprising ways in which Indians and Britons, including Mohandas Gandhi, CF Andrews, Laurence Binyon, Cornelia Sorabji, and Rabindranath Tagore, interacted in the period.

The display will also feature correspondence between Gandhi and his great Christian friend, Charlie Andrews. There will be other letters on the subject of Indian self-determination between Edward Thompson (father of historian EP Thompson), who taught Bengali at Oxford, and Mohammed Iqbal, one of the early proponents of an independent state for the Muslims of British India and an eminent poet.

The display will be inaugurated with a half-day workshop in the Bodleiain’s Convocation House, introduced by acclaimed Indian author and Oxford alumnus Amitav Ghosh.  ‘In my view this experience - of Third Worlders studying in foreign universities - played a critical part in the history of the 20th century,’ Dr Ghosh says.

Alexander Bubb, an English Faculty graduate student and organiser of the walking tour, explained: ‘Our intention was to get people thinking about the nature of those cross-cultural and migratory lives that an imperial education engendered, and the encounter between Western and Eastern intellectual cultures which British imperialism in South Asia brought about.’

The first Indian students to take Oxford degrees arrived in 1871 and over the next two decades about 50 graduated. No women students could graduate then, but their ranks included Cornelia Sorabji, who became India’s first female lawyer and championed education for Indian women. A fragment of one of her brightly-coloured saris will be included in the Bodleian display.

The display and events are linked to the AHRC-funded project Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870-1950, in collaboration with the Open University and King’s College, London. The project examines how South Asians positioned themselves within British society and culture, and explores the significance of their impact on British life.