Formation of Asiatic Society
William Jones took the initiative and in January 1784 sent out a circular letter to selected persons of the elite with a view to establishing a Society for this purpose. In response to his letter, thirty European gentlemen of Kolkata including Mr. Justice John Hyde, Henry Vansittart, Charles Wilkins, Francis Gladwin, Jonathan Duncan and others gathered on 15 January 1784 in the Grand Jury Room of the old Supreme Court of Kolkata. The Chief Justice Sir Robert Chambers presided at the first meeting and Jones delivered his first discourse in which he put forward his plans for the Society. He proposed to found a Society under the name of The Asiatic Society. All the thirty European gentlemen who had assembled accepted the membership of this Society.
Beginnings of Asiatic Society
In the first meeting, the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, a scholar and patron of learning, was elected its fist President and Sir William Jones the Vice-President. Warren Hastings greatly sympathized with the aims and objects of the Society. But he declined to continue in this post. On his request and advice Sir William Jones was elected President of the Society on 5 February 1784 and held this post till his death in 1794. The pioneering activity of the Society was praised abroad. But the first two decades of the Society's existence remained precarious. The original plan of holding meetings every week had to be discarded, and even monthly meetings were not possible. When William Jones died in 1794, till then the Society did not own any premise nor did it have any assured funds.
Building of Asiatic Society
In 1805 the Government gifted to the Society a plot of land at the corner of Park Street and Chowringhee, the present site of the Asiatic Society, to which was added later, in 1849, a small portion on the western side. The construction of the Society's own building on the plot was completed in 1808, and the books, papers and records that had accumulated over the years could get a permanent shelter. As late as 1961, with the help extended by the Government of India and the Government of West Bengal, the construction of a new building was started in the premises of the Society to solve the problem of space, and the new four-storied building was formally opened by Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the then President of India, on 22 February 1965.
Membership of Asiatic Society
Membership of the Society for many years remained exclusively European, and only in January 1829, on the suggestion of Dr. Horace Hayman Wilson, Secretary of the Asiatic Society, Indian members were for the first time admitted to the Society. The earliest Indian members of the Society were Prasanna Kumar Tagore, Dwarkanath Tagore, Russamay Dutt and Ram Camul Sen.
Organisation of Asiatic Society
In the beginning, the Society was very loosely organised and had no real Executive Body. It had only two important functionaries: a President who conducted meetings, and a Secretary who kept the minutes. Ram Comal Sen, the 'native' manager of Hunter's Press, later on became the 'native' Secretary of the Asiatic Society itself.
Publications of Asiatic Society
The Transactions of the Asiatic Society were first published under the title of Asiatick Researches in 1788, the subsequent four volumes being published in 1790, 1793, 1795 and 1797 respectively. The publications were very popular and even translated into French and German. Through its published Transactions the Society came in touch with several distinguished scholarly Associations abroad such as the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Society of Antiquities of England. From 1788 till its cessation in 1839 the journal Asiatic Researches ran into twenty volumes and was superseded by the Journal of the Asiatic Society, henceforth the official organ of the Society.
Asiatic Society Library and Museum
The nucleus of the Society's own library was formed soon after the building was completed in 1808. The Fort William College which was helped a lot academically by the Society, presented books to the Society from its own collection, and another valuable collection of books came from the Palace Library of Tipu Sultan in 1808. The Society also started a public museum under its own auspices in 1814 and its first Superintendent was Dr. Nathaniel Wallich.
The founding fathers of the Asiatic Society were responsible for the rediscovery of India and her past.
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