Prafulla Chandra Ray (2 August 1861-16 June 1944) was the founder of the Indian school of modern chemistry and a pioneer of chemical industries in India. But, intrinsically, he was a man of letters. His erudition in English, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit literature was wide ranging. He himself admitted: 'I became a chemist by mere accident.'
As the future progress of India was bound up with the pursuit of scientific inquiry, he devoted himself to scientific researches aimed at India's political, social and economic regeneration.
Although he was a practical chemist, he found time to write outstanding works like History of Hindu Chemistry and Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist.
His Life and Experiences of a Bengal Chemist is more than an autobiography. It is, in fact, a history of intellectual renaissance in Bengal as part of the larger enlightenment of India in the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth century. The book is a vital document of our intellectual history.
Prafulla Chandra Ray may be viewed as the last representative of the vanishing generation of 'Young Bengal'. A man of letters par excellence, who combined in himself the erudition of a scholar, the wisdom of a philosopher and the saintliness of an ascetic, he was the father of modern chemical education, chemical research and a pioneer of chemical industries in India. As it was said of him, he symbolized the best of Indian tradition and philosophy, buttressed with scientific reasoning, an analytical approach and a missionary zeal in pursuit of knowledge.
His erudition in English and Latin literature was wide-ranging. Professor Henry E. Armstrong aptly said about Prafulla Chandra Ray: 'Of distinguished literary parentage, his own early English training was literary in a way unknown even to Englishmen …and not a few English chemists have had an early so-called English. What is striking in him is the completeness and breadth classical, retrograde outlook, as opposed to the confined, purely of his modern outlook, as opposed to the confined, purely classical, retrograde outlook of so many English literary scholars …and despite his English training, he was remained absolutely oriental in habits and tastes'. (Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray Seventieth Birthday Commemoration Volume). H was also a profound scholar of Sanskrit literature.
His knowledge of history-ancient, medieval and modern-was really remarkable. In the realm of literature, Rabindranath Tagore, Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Shakespeare were his favourite poets from whose works he could quote off-hand from memory. The works of Emerson and Carlyle fascinated him immensely. He himself candidly admitted: 'I became a chemist by mere accident.'
For over five decades, his autobiography-Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist-has been out of print. The first volume was published in 1932 which was followed by a second volume in 1935. The Asiatic Society has now decided to publish a facsimile reprint of these two invaluable and historical volumes as a tribute to his memory and a record of a lifetime of dedication to science and a suffering people.
Prafulla Chandra Ray had very close links with the Asiatic Society. On a number of occasions, he presented his research papers before the learned assembly at the Society. His fundamental paper on mercurous nitrite was first published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society [Jasb, vol 65, part II (1896):
In more than one sense, Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist is more than an autobiography. It is, in fact, a history of the social and intellectual movement that prevailed in nineteenth century Bengal, also partly in India, and in the early decades of the twentieth century. The encyclopaedic density of these two volumes make them a vital document of our intellectual history.
Prafulla Chandra Ray's autobiography amply reflects a range and plenitude of intellectual interest which is amazing for a man of science. In this book he also deals with the Arabs as the bringers of light to medieval Europe, suggesting intensive researches on 'the reciprocity of intellectual debt between Asia and Europe.' No doubt, from the beginning to the end, the objective of this autobiography is one of the highest endeavours, pulsating with vitality and intellectual force.
The emancipation of India, Political, social and economic, -was his life's dream, for which he never ceased to strive, and this is also reflected in his autobiography.
I am deeply indebted to Kanchan Das Gupta, the distinguished artist and painter, for his cover design and a portrait of Prafulla Chandra Ray for the book.
I should also gratefully acknowledge that without the untiring efforts and initiative of Professor Anil Sarkar, the Society's Treasurer, the publication of these two volumes of Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist would not have been possible within a span of a few weeks. I also highly appreciate the active assistance rendered by Chitrabhanu Sen and Jyotirmoy Gupta in bringing out the book.
In the preface to the first volume of this work it was mentioned that "a large mass of materials has been left out" and that "if circumstances prove favourable a supplementary volume may come out later on." I have now the satisfaction of presenting the second and concluding volume, which, for aught I know, may prove to be my swan-song.
It was with considerable diffidence, nay with fear and trembling, that I presented the previous volume to the public, but I was somewhat agreeably surprised at the favourable reception accorded to it not only in India but also in England and America. As a chemist I consider myself an international property and some critics have naturally hinted at the large amount of space devoted to matters which might be considered as extraneous and foreign to the life of a chemist, pure and simple. I submit, however, that those who have closely watched my career will not have failed to notice that I have been something more than a mere chemist. True it is that throughout- my active career, now extending over half-a-century, I have served Chemistry as the Goddess of my idolatry ; to her I have been a whole-hearted devotee, and even at this advanced age she claims me as her own. But it should not be forgotten that the present volume and its predecessor include my "life and experiences." This is my apology for the presentation of the diverse activities connected therewith.
Social and economic problems relating to India and especially to Bengal have always claimed a portion of my attention, and thus what I have written is inextricably interwoven with my life and experiences. If now and then I have been drawn into realms which might be considered as political it is because, as Professor Bowley observes, "economic ami political events cannot be disentangled."
As an educationist I have devoted considerable space in this volume to matters educational. I have traced its progress since the beginning of British rule in India and have been unsparing in criticising the wrong direction it has taken to the' serious detriment of the future prospects of our young hopefuls, who have been accustomed to. look to an academic career alone as a passport to success in life.
The saying is generally ascribed to that prince of diplomats, Talleyrand, that language was given to man to disguise his thoughts ; the student of science, however, cannot agree with the above dictum and he is inclined to call a spade a spade. Hence* my considered opinions on a variety of subjects dealt with in these volumes have been freely expressed and sometimes, I am afraid, with brutal candour.
I have reproduced verbatim el literatim several passages from my essay on India published half-a-century; ago. It is sad to reflect that there has been no material change of policy of the British Government during the last fifty years ; any change that has occurred is only a change for the worse as evidenced by the New Constitution. The problems—social and economic— which were acute then have become acuter still.
It now remains for me to express my indebtedness to Professor J. C. Ghosh, Head of the Department of Chemistry, Dacca University, for many useful hints and criticisms. Dr. P. K. Bose, my colleague and ex-pupil, has laid me under a deep debt of obligation by taking upon himself the arduous task of looking through the proofs and preparing the table of contents and the index. He has also furnished me with many valuable suggestions.
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