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Looking at Assam

The American Baptist Missionary and Assamese Modernity

Nandana Dutta

In the troubled area of “Assamese modernity” studies, always caught in the shadow of the Bengal Renaissance and its confident march toward cultural reawakening, the American Baptist Missionary is an important figure “looking” at the people, culture, and land in ways that are crucially different from the British. For this article's argument, it is the account produced by British administrator William Robinson, along with the letter he wrote on the Assamese language establishing it as a dialect of the Bengali, that bear examination alongside the writings of the Americans and, most specifically, Nathan Brown and Miles Bronson, who were best equipped and therefore most convincing and articulate in a counter effort to prove the separateness of the Assamese language. I look back at this corpus of writings that constitute an early debate on the identity of the Assamese and suggest that Assam's long history of resistant cultural politics and its peculiarly schizophrenic identity-making process may be traced to this early polarization of discourse between the British and Americans. While it might be too reductionist to claim that Assamese modernity is a legacy of the Americans, unlike the largely British inspired Bengal Renaissance, it is still worthwhile to examine the legacy of American Baptist missionaries in order to understand and distinguish Assamese modernity from the Bengali.