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Bhadralok physics and the making of modern science in colonial India Banerjee, Somaditya


This study offers a cultural history of the development of quantum physics in India during the first half of the twentieth century, prior to Indian independence. The investigation focuses on the case studies of Indian physicists Satyendranath Bose (1894-1974), Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1888-1970) and Meghnad Saha (1893-1956). The analytical category “bhadralok physics” is introduced to explore how it became possible for a highly successful brand of modern science to develop in a country that was still under the conditions of colonial domination. The term Bhadralok refers to the then emerging group of native intelligentsia, who were identified by academic pursuits and manners and effectively transcended the existing class and caste barriers of the colonial society. Exploring the forms of life of this social group allows a better understanding of the specific character of Indian modernity that, as exemplified by the work of bhadralok physicists, combined modern science with indigenous knowledge into an original program of scientific research. Unlike the most prominent Indian scientists of the preceding generation, Bose, Saha and Raman received their academic education in India proper, rather than Europe, and can be considered the “first indigenously trained generation” of modern scientists. They achieved most significant scientific successes in the new revolutionary field of quantum physics with such internationally recognized accomplishments as the Saha ionization equation (1921), the famous Bose-Einstein statistics (1924), and the Raman Effect (1928), with the latter discovery leading to the first ever Nobel Prize awarded to a scientist from Asia. The study analyzes the responses by Indian scientists to the radical concept of the light quantum and their further development of this approach outside the purview of European authorities. The outlook of bhadralok physicists is characterized here as “cosmopolitan nationalism,” which allows us to analyze how the group pursued modern science in conjunction with, and as an instrument of Indian national liberation, and explore the role played by modern science for and within the Indian nationalist movement.

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