Department of English, Jadavpur University

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Expanding Universe

International Conference (6-8 February 2010) on ‘The Expanding Universe: Science and Literature in the Nineteenth Century’Coordinated by Shanta Dutta and Supriya Chaudhuri, with support from the University’s Merged Grant. Charles Darwin Bicentenary (12 February 2009) Conference.

The conference focused on the interface between science and literature in the nineteenth century and Professor Gillian Beer (University of Cambridge) delivered the inaugural lecture on the influence of the fine arts on Darwin’s creativity. Dr Samantak Das (Department of Comparative Literature, JadavpurUniversity) focused on accurate representations of the human body and, with the help of graphic visuals, argued how notions of racial superiority and inferiority and criminality were predicated on physical / physiognomical traits. Dr Gowan Dawson (University of Leicester, UK) emphasized the importance of paleontology in our understanding of the ‘loose baggy monsters’ (as unwieldy Victorian serial novels were described), with the Megatherium – which seemed ill-proportioned but was perfectly integrated in design –  becoming a metaphor for the serialized fiction of the period. Professor Sambudha Sen (University of Delhi) shed light on how representations of nineteenth century London were shaped by two popular visual modes of the day – the panorama and the stereoscope. Professor Carlo Vecce (University of Naples) spoke on the rediscovery of Leonardo da Vinci’s manuscripts in the nineteenth century, supplementing the talk with some rare visuals. The conference was enriched by the participation of two eminent scientists: Professor Jayanta Bhattacharjee  (SN Bose Centre for Basic Sciences) related ‘The Story of Light’ while India’s foremost environmental biologist, Professor Madhav Gadgil (Padma Bhushan), enthralled the audience with an illustrated presentation on ‘Genes, memes and machines’ which dealt with Samuel Butler’s evolutionary insights.

Several members of the Department presented papers at this conference: Professor Shanta Dutta, Convenor of the conference, spoke about the impact of the three ‘terrible Muses’ – astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology – on Victorian fiction, especially on the novels of Thomas Hardy and Charles Kingsley. Professor Prodosh Bhattacharya chose the novels of Marie Corelli, a best selling novelist, to illustrate how some of the contemporary scientific ideas were imaginatively woven into her fiction. Dr Chandreyee Niyogi explored the non-fictional writing of Victorian women, like Harriet Martineau, to demonstrate how their attempts to describe other worldly experience had to confront patriarchal attitudes to science. Dr Abhijit Gupta drew attention to the beginnings of scientific publishing in Bengali during the colonial period, especially the contribution of the Serampore missionaries, and the role played by the Calcutta School-Book Society in creating a curriculum for science at the primary and secondary levels. Dr Rimi B. Chatterjee concentrated on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the progenitor of all science fiction, to show how it was influenced by the older pseudo-science of alchemy and the contemporary debates about scientific morality, parenthood, reproduction, progress and power. Sm Saswati Halder analyzed Elizabeth Gaskell’s last unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters, to reveal how the scientific temper of the age is reflected not only through the figure of the professional man of science, Roger Hamley, but also through the intimate material changes affecting ordinary domestic lives in the most traditional homes.

In keeping with a long established Departmental tradition, there were several student papers of high quality. Ramit Samaddar (then a JU M.Phil. student who has recently joined the Department as an Assistant Professor) offered a reading of Constance Naden’s ‘Evolutional Erotics’ as reinforcing scientifically backed sexual stereotypes while also challenging contemporary gender roles. Abhishek Sarkar (then a JRF at JU who has now joined the Department as an Assistant Professor) brought in the 19thc Kolkata stage: choosing one of Girish Chandra Ghosh’s plays, he showed how the popular idiom of the commercial theatre mediated and refracted the current debates concerning science as a tool for colonial self-fashioning. Anirban Ray (M.Phil. student, JU) took up the fascinating subject of Jules Verne’s interest in and knowledge of contemporary theories of space travel and astronomy, with his descriptions of lunar voyages and landscape proving to be quite prophetic. Pushapati Teja Varma (M.Phil. student, Delhi) spoke about the traditional gender prejudices that precipitate tragedy in George Eliot’s Middlemarch where new scientific knowledge strives to bring about medical and social reform. Shantanu Majee (PG II, JU) read Sarah Grand’s New Woman classic, The Beth Book, in the light of Darwinian formulations, especially the concepts of growth and transformation.

The conference included speakers from all over the country. Dr Christel R. Devadawson (University of Delhi) looked at the Darwinian legacy of the Sherlock Holmes stories and their accompanying illustrations. Shilpy Malhotra (Miranda House, Delhi) discussed the employment of contemporary forensic science in crime detection. Dr Debarati Bandyopadhyay (Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan) discussed another crime novelist, Wilkie Collins, reading his novels almost as clinical analyses of the maladies of 19thc British society. Dr Nishi Pulugurtha (Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, WB) explored the impact on Coleridge’s poetic metaphors of his interest in chemistry, fostered by his friendship with Humphrey Davy. Dhrubajyoti Sarkar (Vidyasagar College, Nabadwip) discussed Ruskin’s engagement with science from an ecological perspective, underlining his relevance in a world faced with environmental decay. Nivedita Basu (St Stephen’s College, Delhi) traced the impact of science and technology on 19th c spectacular melodrama, with elaborate stage machinery often competing with human actors for attention. Dr Arpa Ghosh (Vivekananda College for Women, Barisha) focused on two Bengali texts, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhay’s Krishnacharitra and Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose’s Obyakta, to show how one uses scientific argument to rationalize mythology while the other uses poetry and mystery to popularize science.


10.00 – 10.30: Registration
10.30 – 11.00: Inauguration by Professor Ashoke Ranjan Thakur, Vice-Chancellor, West Bengal State University
11.00 – 12.00: Keynote Address: Professor Gillian Beer (University of Cambridge): ‘“The Backbone Shiver”: Darwin and the Arts’
12.00 – 12.15: COFFEE
12.15 – 1.00: Samantak Das (Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavapur University): ‘Written on the Body’
1.00 – 2.00: LUNCH
2.00 – 2.30: Christel R. Devadawson (University of Delhi): ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Darwinian Legacy’
2.30 – 3.00: Shilpy Malhotra (Miranda House, Delhi): ‘Science and Literature in the
Nineteenth Century: The Case of Sherlock Holmes’
3.00 – 3.20: Shantanu Majee (PG 2, Jadavpur University): ‘On the Origin of the New Woman: Reading Darwin’s Influence on Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book’
3.20 – 3.30: TEA
3.30 – 4.00: Debarati Bandyopadhyay (Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan): ‘Science and Crime: “Recognizable Realities” of the 19th Century in the Novels of Wilkie Collins’
4.00 – 4.30: Prodosh Bhattacharya (Jadavpur University): ‘Bestseller Science: Some novels of Marie Corelli’

10.00 – 10.30: Phillip Mallett (University of St Andrews, Edinburgh): Thomas Hardy
10.30 – 11.10: Gowan Dawson (University of Leicester): ‘Literary Megatheriums and loose baggy monsters: Palaeontology and the Victorian Novel’
11.10 – 11.50: Sambudha Sen (University of Delhi): ‘Visuality, Technology and the Making of a Modern Urban Imaginary’
11.50 – 12.00: COFFEE
12.00 – 12.30: Nivedita Basu (St Stephen’s College, Delhi): ‘Staging Technology:
Nineteenth Century Melodrama and the Modern’
12.30 – 1.00: Nishi Pulugurtha (Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata):
‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Early Nineteenth Century Science’
1.00 – 2.00: LUNCH
2.00 – 2.30: Rimi B. Chatterjee (Jadavpur University): ‘The New Great Work: Frankenstein and the Transmutation of Alchemy’
2.30 – 3.00: Dhrubajyoti Sarkar (Vidyasagar College, Nabadwip): ‘Hind Swaraj to
Copenhagen: John Ruskin’s Lasting Legacy’
3.00 – 3.20: Pusapati Teja Varma (MPhil, University of Delhi): ‘Prescribing/ Proscribing Reform: Gender Prejudice and Medical Knowledge in Middlemarch’
3.20 – 3.30: TEA
3.30 – 4.00: Saswati Halder (Jadavpur University): ‘“Ascendancy of a New Order”: The Rise of Professional Science in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters’
4.00 – 4.30: Shanta Dutta (Jadavpur University): ‘The “Terrible Muses” and Victorian Fiction’

10.30 – 11.10: Madhav Gadgil (Agharakar Research Institute, Pune): ‘Genes, memes and machines: Samuel Butler’s evolutionary insights’
11.10 – 11.50: Jayanta Bhattacharjee (S. N. Bose Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata): ‘The Story of Light’
11.50 – 12.00: COFFEE
12.00 – 12.40: Carlo Vecce (University of Naples): ‘The rediscovery of Leonardo da
Vinci’s manuscripts in the nineteenth century’
12.40 – 1.00: Anirban Ray (MPhil, Jadavpur University): ‘Exploring the Heavens: Space-Travels in the works of Jules Verne’
1.00 – 2.00: LUNCH
2.00 – 2.30: Abhijit Gupta (Jadavpur University): ‘Scientific Publishing in 19th century Bengal: an overview’
2.30 – 3.00: Arpa Ghosh (Vivekananda College for Women, Barisha, Kolkata): ‘Bankim Chandra Chattopadhay’s Krishnacharitra and Jagadish Chandra Bose’s Obyakta: The correlation between Science and Literature in two 19th century texts’
3.00 – 3.20: Abhishek Sarkar (JRF, Jadavpur University): ‘Thematizing Science on the 19th-century Kolkata Stage: Girish Chandra Ghosh’s Mayabasan’
3.20 – 3.30: TEA
3.30 – 3.50: Ramit Samaddar (MPhil, Jadavpur University): ‘Ambivalence in Constance Naden: Science, Gender and “Evolutional Erotics”’
3.50 – 4.20: Chandreyee Niyogi (Jadavpur University): ‘Some call it Imagination and others call it God: dream, trance, and spirit communication in Victorian women’s battle for the soul of man’
4.20 – 4.45: VALEDICTORY

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