The Calcutta Pococurante Society: Public and Private in India’s Age of Reform

Joshua Ehrlich in the Public Domain Review:

ScreenHunter_2435 Dec. 11 20.01Lurking on the shelves of the Uttarpara Jayakrishna Public Library, in the Indian state of West Bengal, is a most unusual text. Prefixed to the Calcutta Quarterly Magazine for 1833, this sixty-page supplement bears the insignia pictured above and the title “Calcutta Pococurante Society”. It begins with some scraps of verse and a manifesto to “investigate and discuss the following subjects”:

Firstly.—Three courses and a des[s]ert.
Secondly.—An additional course.
Thirdly.—Cant, Humbug, and Absurdity in all their branches whether Tory, Whig, Radical, Ultra, or Liberal, Medical, or Literary, Martial, or Civil, National, or individual … (p. 3).

The proceedings which follow are a mixture of light humor, literary chatter, and armchair philosophy, all dripping with booze. “My dear compatriots and I,” one member sets the scene, “are scribbling in Calcutta, the ruling caste, and tippling our Hock and Champaigne round this table” (p. 22). Another notes “how much the art of preparing the necessaries of life has advanced in Calcutta”, referring specifically to “the modus operandi of cooling wines” (p. 33). Elsewhere a full page is taken up by a wine list. Evidently, this is “a club where the mind can throw off its coat, and put its legs upon a chair if they are tired” (p. 7). The members’ wandering dinner chat, peppered with lines of poetry and elements of the occult, is not the kind of thing modern readers are used to seeing in print. Nor is it obvious why past readers should have wanted to.

Early nineteenth-century Calcutta (now Kolkata) has long held particular fascination for historians. In older tellings, this was the setting of a “Bengal Renaissance”, which saw ambitious attempts to synthesize eastern and western philosophical traditions, and gave an early (if abortive) impulse to Indian nationalism. Recent studies have situated Calcutta’s intellectual and political ferment in the larger context of a British-imperial or global age of reform.

More here.