Article Review: ‘Domesticating electric power’

Article Review

‘Domesticating electric power: Growth of industry, utilities and research in colonial Calcutta’ by Suvobrata Sarkar

The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 52, 3(2015): 357-389


This article, published in The Indian Economic and Social History Review, is derived from Sarkar’s doctoral dissertation at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The article, according to Sarkar, studies “the impetus of the Bengali public for modern technology – electricity, its impact on the industry and the emerging trends” (p.359). The introduction asks some important questions with regards to the history of technology, and especially electrification, in colonial India. The overall narrative, however, is just a conglomeration of facts, dates and numbers, with several assumptions that the electrification of colonial India was historically imminent, and hints of technological determinism.

Beginning with a historiography of the electric power industry worldwide, the article makes a good start. It discusses, in addition to several works on the history of electrification in the West, a recent work on the electrification of the Madras Presidency. There is also a recognition of the fact that the acceptance or perception of a technology does not just relate to its suitability to a certain region, but also to economics, politics and technical knowledge. However, the discussion seems to simply be a diversion to the article’s teleological account of the inevitable acceptance of electricity by Indians. An example of such an account is evident when Sarkar states that while the electric supply company in Calcutta was apprehensive of Indians’ acceptance of this new technology, “all their fears proved groundless and electricity was gradually very successful” (p.361).

The electrification of India, and especially its acceptance into Indian homes and industries, I would argue, was not as straightforward as Sarkar makes it seem. It is important to note that the introduction of public electricity supply in India coincided with Indian nationalist movements making the Indian household as significant a setting for a full-fledged political struggle as the streets and government offices.[i] British engineers and administrators realised that with the domestic domain becoming the site for resistance to British political and economic rule, there was a need to make Western technologies attractive to the Indian populace. In Our Work in the Nineteenth Century, a paper presented to Lord James of Hereford on 18 January 1900, the authors wrote that “if steam and electricity are pouring new wine into the East, with its patient deep disdain of the Christian West, it is necessary that new bottles should be prepared for its reception.”[ii]

While one of the footnotes in the article does mention marketing tactics used by supply companies to entice Indians to use electricity in their homes, the historical significance of the primary source and its context is lost within the greater narrative of presumptive acceptance that the article strives for. Sarkar also claims that “…in a conflict between gas and electricity, the victory of the latter was inevitable. Being a superior technology, as an illumine electric light stood ahead of gas” (p.365). On page 367, Sarkar writes about the Indian business class’s acceptance of electricity over gas, oil and other forms of energy: “As soon as they realised the power of electricity, they chose this new technology rejecting the earlier versions.” Such claims show a simple adoption of a deterministic outlook linked to the modernisation theory; a form of historical analysis that has now been replaced by more complex techno-cultural studies that look beyond the usual schemes of modernity and acceptance of technology.[iii] In addition, Sarkar uses claims made in advertisements (published in newspapers and journals) for electric lighting companies as evidence of the popularity of electricity amongst the masses, without considering the agenda or context behind the publication of such advertisements.

The teleological narrative that historians of technology have long rejected is also evident in the article when, after discussing the economics of installing street lighting in Calcutta from the 1890s to the early 1900s, Sarkar writes: “Civic life in Calcutta is now unthinkable without street lighting” (p.363). It is also hard to understand why, in his discussions of the complex concerns of public safety and administration with regards to the laying of electric cables, Sarkar claims that the Calcutta Electricity Supply Corporation (CESC) had no practical experience of laying underground cables in tropical conditions. Much was written and said in India from the 1890s onwards about telegraph and electric cabling, mostly to reinforce the connection between electricity supply and local conditions. The department of telegraphs in Calcutta conducted exercises to understand the effects of local conditions (soil, vegetation and climate) on underground cables as early as 1892.[iv] Thus, to claim that an organisation such as the CESC would have no prior experience of local conditions in Calcutta is farfetched.

The section ‘Evolution of Electrical Engineering’ studies the new institutions and human capital that the new technology facilitated. One of the major developments was the introduction of electrical engineering lectures and classes at the Civil Engineering College in Sibpur in the late 1890s. The ‘development’ of electrical engineering as a field of study in engineering colleges in Calcutta, and the growing need for trained electrical engineers for the electrical industry was, nonetheless, still subservient to colonial interests. Sarkar claims that despite the hindrances to Indian entrepreneurship by colonial engineers and administrators, “the demand for electrical engineering among the Bengali intelligentsia was steadily on the increase” (p.377).

Sarkar studies the rise of electrical engineering courses and facilities, and the production of Indian (mostly Bengali) electrical engineers in several engineering colleges across Calcutta (and Bengal) as a consequence of Bengalis’ constant strive towards modernity. He writes: “The [sic] electric power was to be the key to a modern industrial economy excited Bengali intellectuals” (p.380), and that “Bengalis not only welcomed electricity but also launched a monthly journal Bijoli on the subject by the third decade of the twentieth century” (p.380). These analyses are problematic. First, attributing the phenomenal acceptance of electricity and electrical engineering education, as Sarkar claims, to the intelligence and entrepreneurship of Bengalis belies fact that the establishment of engineering colleges in India and the Public Works Department (which employed most of the Indian graduate engineers) was a product of the ‘colonial requirement’ of educated but cheap labour.[v] Sarkar, in a section of the essay, accepts the colonial control over electrical engineering projects and employment, but totally ignores the observation in the next section to reinforce his claim of Bengali industry. To also claim that ‘Bengalis’, the overarching term that constituted the rich and the poor, the intelligentsia and the uneducated, the urban and the rural, nationalists and colonialists, all welcomed electricity is historically erroneous. Given the political struggle for independence at the time, not all Bengalis were supportive of colonial technologies and, given the variety of social strata that Bengalis constituted, certainly not all Bengalis would have either launched Bijoli or even known about it.

The article goes on to discuss the impacts of several nationalist enterprises on the electrical industry in Calcutta. However, Indian nationalism can be read here as simply being too small a worry, or simply accepting of the move towards modernity, resulting in a “logical culmination” to the nationalisation of the power sector. In the conclusion, Sarkar writes that the article looked “into the more abstract role of ideas, cultural beliefs and the contributions of technology towards a growing sense of nationalism and identity” (p.385). This view seems to have been imposed on the article, which has no mention of anything on cultural beliefs, nationalism or identity. Nationalism is studied as a uniform acceptance of electricity as a means of development followed by an opposition to British control over electricity supply resulting in nationalisation of electricity supply. Sarkar, while making such an argument, ignores several studies on the multifaceted nature and varied meanings of nationalism in colonial India. The notion of identity discussed in this essay focuses solely on ‘Bengalis’, meaning that all Bengalis shared a common sense of social, cultural, economic and political identity. The article could have done better with an understanding that indigenous society (including Bengalis) constituted social, political and gendered hierarchies, which meant that Indian (including Bengali) engagement with the British was never straightforward.[vi]

Bengali ingenuity is given one last flourish in the conclusions, with the author stating that Indians appropriated the new knowledge of electricity and produced models that competed with Western products and systems. There is mention of the Bengal Lamp, an electric bulb manufacturing company set up by three Bengali brothers, “ushering a new era in the electric bulb manufacturing industry of the country” (p.386). Whether the company made new kinds of bulbs, or just manufactured copies of already existing bulb technologies is not mentioned.

This is not to say that the article does not possess novelties. The footnotes contain some archival materials never before seen in studies on the history of technology in colonial India, mainly because the history of electrification is still an under-researched field. The author makes good use of biographical, journalistic and official primary material, but their significance and novelty is lost within a historical narrative that more recent studies on the history of technology have either superseded or simply rejected.

[i] See Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee et al, India’s Struggle for Independence (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1989); Bipan Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India (New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2010); Bipan Chandra, Essays on Colonialism (New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2009); Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2010); Partha Chatterjee, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999); Partha Chatterjee, ‘Colonialism, Nationalism and Colonised Women: The Contest in India.’ The American Ethnologist, Vol.16, No.4 (November 1989), 622-633

[ii] William Lee-Warner, Martin Conway and Author Rigg, ‘Our Work in India in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 48:2463 (February 2, 1900), pp.213-244 (p.220)

[iii] See: Graeme Gooday, Domesticating Electricity: Technology, Uncertainty and Gender, 1880-1914 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008); David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (London: Profile Books, 2007)

[iv] P.V. Luke, ‘A new danger to which underground wires in India are exposed’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, 22:104 (1893), pp. 146-147

[v] See: Daniel Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar (eds.), Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India (New Delhi: Sage, 1995), especially the chapter by Arun Kumar, ‘Colonial Requirements and Engineering Education: The Public Works Department, 1847-1947’.

On the rise of professional engineers and industrialisation in colonial India, see Aparajith Ramnath’s PhD thesis submitted to Imperial College London in 2013: Engineers in India: Industrialisation, Indianisation and the State, 1900-1947.

[vi] See: Douglas M Peers and Nandini Gooptu (eds.), India and the British Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Maria Misra, Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India since the Great Rebelion (London: Penguin, 2007); Sekhar Bandopadhyay, Nationalist Movement in India: A Reader (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009)

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