Home \ A Strange Kindness: Largesse and Learning in the Age of Colonial Capital

A Strange Kindness: Largesse and Learning in the Age of Colonial Capital

Educational philanthropy has surged in India in recent years, rivaling other popular areas of charitable giving. In this presentation, I trace the roots of this consequential development to the colonial period when “English education” was widely touted as a preeminent “gift” of the British to their vast empire. Yet, remarkably and from the start, the so-called British gift was critically supplemented by “native” monetary contributions, despite the growing colonial stranglehold on power and capital. Indeed, British India’s most important educational institutions would surely not have emerged but for Indian capital and initiative. British India thus saw the precocious development of what would become the global phenomenon of “public-private partnership” in educational philanthropy. At the same time, I argue that giving for secular education amongst wealthy Indians was itself the practice of a “strange kindness.” Until the arrival of colonial modernity, learning in India was largely confined to elite men of certain castes and communities, and it was rarely disconnected from sacral and theological ends. Such learning was also the focus of elite giving, itself seen as a religious obligation, hence also a means of accruing otherworldly merit. Yet as “public education” is debated as a necessary good under the pressures of capitalist colonial modernity and anti-colonial politics, a corresponding shift in philanthropic practice ensues with secular learning progressively capturing the imagination of donors who directed their benevolence towards the teaching of total strangers. Today, education is frequently cited as the number one focus of giving for wealthy Indians. To donors and their recipients over the course of India’s colonial centuries, this would have seemed like a very strange proposition indeed. Yet such a shift does happen with critical consequences that are still unfolding in the world’s largest democracy.


Sumathi Ramaswamy is James B. Duke Professor of History and International Comparative Studies, and Chair of the Department of History, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA. She has published extensively on language politics, gender studies, spatial studies and the history of cartography, visual studies and the modern history of art, and more recently, digital humanities and the history of philanthropy. She is a co-founder (along with Christiane Brosius of Heidelberg University) of Tasveerghar: A Digital Network of South Asian Popular Visual Culture (www.tasveerghar.net). As a recipient of an Anneliese Maier Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (2016-2021), she has published Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience (New Delhi: Roli Books) and the digital project B is for Bapu: Gandhi in the Art of the Child in Modern India (https://sites.duke.edu/bisforbapu/ ), and is co-editor with Monica Juneja of Heidelberg University of Motherland: Pushpamala N.’s Woman and Nation (New Delhi: Roli Books, forthcoming in 2021). She is currently working on a new project on educational philanthropy in British India.


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