Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, a great teacher as well as the leader of an age, and a poet was born at Entally Padmapukur in Kolkata on 18 April 1809. His father Francis Derozio was a well-esteemed man in the Anglo-Indian community.
He received his education at David Drummond’s Dhurramtallah Academy, from the age of 8 to 14. Then he joined his father’s concern in Kolkata, and later shifted to Bhagalpur in Bihar.
Inspired by the scenic beauty of the banks of the river Ganges, he started writing poetry. Some of these were published in Dr Grant’s India Gazette. He came to Kolkata with the objective of publishing his long poem—Fakir of Jungheera (published in 1828). And when he learnt that a post in teaching faculty was vacant at the newly established (1817) Hindu College (now Presidency College), he applied for it and was selected. Thus, in May 1826, at the age of 17, he was appointed teacher in English literature and history at the Hindu College which was set up to meet the interest in English education among young Indians. He was initially a teacher in the second and third classes, and later also in the fourth or the upper class. Thus he attracted students from all classes by his personality and scholarship and interacted freely with students, well beyond the class hours.
Within a short period, he drew around him a group of intelligent boys in the college. He constantly encouraged them to think freely, to question and not to accept anything blindly. His teachings inspired the development of the spirit of liberty, equality and freedom. In fact, his interactions with students created a sensation at Hindu College. He organised debates where ideas and social norms were freely debated. In 1828, he motivated them to form a literary and debating club called the Academic Association. In 1830, this club brought out a magazine named Parthenon (only one issue came out).
His brilliant lectures presented well-reasoned arguments based on his wide reading. He encouraged his students to read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and other free-thinking texts. Although Derozio himself was an atheist and had renounced Christianity, he did not directly call his students to be atheist but inspired them questioning the orthodox Hindu customs and conventions on the basis of Italian Renaissance and its offshoot—Rationalism. He infused in his students the spirit of free expression, the yearning for knowledge and passion to live up to their identity while questioning irrational religious and cultural practices. He was close in age to most of his students (some were older than he was!) The motto of his teachings was “He who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot reason is a fool, and he who does not reason is a slave.”
He took great pleasure in his association with students. He wrote about them: “Expanding like the petals of young flowers/I watch the gentle opening of your minds.”
His ideas had a profound influence on the social movement in Bengal that came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance in the early 19th century. And thus his students were known as ‘Young Bengal’ or simply ‘Derozians’.
This was the time when Hindu society in Bengal was undergoing considerable turmoil. In the meantime, we see that, in 1828, Raja Rammohun Roy established the Brahmo Samaj that kept Hindu ideals, but denied idolatry and opposed some blind beliefs and superstitions. This resulted in a strong and widespread reaction within the orthodox Hindu society. It is in the perspective of these changes—Derozio created a whirlpool in association with his revolutionary disciples. Apart from criticising Hindu practices, the students wrote on women’s emancipation and criticised many aspects of British rule. As a result, the Hindu-dominated Managing Committee under the Chairmanship of Radhakanta Deb expelled Derozio from the Hindu College on 23 April 1831 by 6:1 vote on the ground that Derozio had injured the students’ moral character and peace in society, and no less than 25 pupils of respectable families had been withdrawn from the college.
But Derozio could not be dominated by this. Though facing penury, he published a journal titled East India’ and continued his interaction with those students of his inner circle who used to meet him at his residence. He encouraged them into journalism and helped them bring out several newspapers. Side by side he continued his literary writings. His Fakir of Jungheera was a long lyrical poem depicting apathetic as well as romantic episode of a young Hindu widow escaping from a burning pyre and marrying a Muslim young man. Among his short poems, there are some sonnets. Fired by a patriotic zeal he also wrote a good many nationalistic poems. Some of them were quite rebellious, such as in The Golden Vase: “Oh! when our country writhes in galling chains/When her proud masters scourge her like a dog/ If her wild cry is borne upon the gale/Our bosoms to the melancholy sound/Should swell, and we should rush to her relief …” or in his poem To India My Native Land: “My Country! In the days of glory past/A beauteous halo circled round thy brow/And worshippe as deity thou wast/ Where is that glory, where is that reverence now?”
Derozio passed away too early at the age of only 22 as a severe cholera snatched him on 26 December 1831. But his key role in the Bengal Renaissance will be ever remembered in the history of Bengal.