The Bengal Obituary: Reading and Writing Calcutta Graves in the Mid Nineteenth Century

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David Arnold has drawn attention to the ways in which accounts of European death in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century India, and of what he terms 'deathscapes', were put to rhetorical use in narrating, justifying and consecrating the colonial enterprise in the sub-continent. This essay examines a contemporaneous version of the colonial deathscape: the vogue in Calcutta for the collection and circulation of epitaphs and obituaries to European 'departed worth', culminating in 1848 in the publication of the Bengal Obituary, a volume its most recent editor, P. Thankappan Nair, dubbed 'the greatest storehouse of epitaphs and monumental inscriptions ... ever published in Bengal, if not in India' (P. Thankappan Nair, ed., The Bengal Obituary (Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1991), p. xxxvii). I argue that while the framework and idiom of the Obituary supports what Arnold calls the 'sentimental annexation of India', its local genealogy and format resist either a purely ideological or a straightforwardly sentimental interpretation. The Bengal Obituary, I suggest, offers itself to more localized, ambivalent and contingent ways of reading, proper to the dialogic relationship between colony and metropole, and to European Calcutta's fragile but emergent civic self-image.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-59
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Victorian Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2010


  • colonial
  • India
  • Bengal
  • Calcutta
  • obituary
  • epitaph
  • bereavement
  • commemoration
  • mourning
  • deathscape

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