Motilal Seal’s Legacy

Mutty Lal Seal’s Legendary Charity

The Hindu Intelligencer described Mutty Lall Seal as the “richest and most virtuous Baboo” and the Hindoo Patriot commends his celebrated munificence saying that “his munificence was not stimulated by the love of fame or by the flattery of those who benefited by his gifts.” Seal himself sums up his view on life best when he speaks against the orthodoxies at the Dharma Sabha conducted in the 1830s:

“I see around me rich men, possessing large funded and landed property. What I ask them is not to deprive themselves of their necessaries and comforts, but spare an infinitesimal portion of their luxuries for die homeless and the foodless. If they have ten carriages and pair, I ask them not to deprive themselves of all their equipages and cattle, but to keep nine carriages and nine pairs, and dedicate the sale proceeds of the remaining carriage and pair to the relief of the poor.”  (Mitter 1869:35)

This is the ethos that seems to have driven him towards his many charitable deeds that have helped establish the city of Kolkata in its present form. The map on this website will show the extent of Seal’s properties in Calcutta and outside; it will also give an indication as to the global reach of his mercantile ventures. The timeline, online exhibition and the biography will doubtless tell a more detailed story to any visitor who chooses to explore the site. Let us, however, start with a small part of the story of Mutty Lal Seal – for some, it is almost a legend.

Photo: bust of Motilal Seal

Mutty Lall Seal

Kissory Chand Mitter recounts incidents where Seal  forgave the debts of his ryots (agricultural landholders) and a Brahmin when he realised they were too indigent to pay. Similarly, there are the stories of his daridranarayan sheba (practised by his scions even today) where the needy are given free meals at the two thakurbaris and athitishalas (translated by Mitter as ‘alms-houses’) that were built by Mutty Lall Seal. What many do not know is that the very ground on which the Medical College is built was donated by Seal who also gave twelve thousand rupees towards its construction. Subsequently, he paid a 100,000 rupees (a lakh) for building a maternity hospital inside the Medical College. One of the few champions of women in the orthodox Hindu community, he declared he would pay 1000 rupees to any widow who was married and he also inveighed against the practice of sati (suttee) despite intense objection. George W. Johnson attests to this in his A Stranger in India: Three Years in Calcutta, “Witness the examples of Baboo Dwarkanath Tagore, and Mutty-loll Seal […] the latter the offerer of one thousand rupees to the first Hindoo widow who shall have the courage to break through her nation’s ancient prejudice, shall remarry” (Johnson 1843: 188). Seal also started a ‘Widow and Orphan fund’.

The Free College

One landmark that very few commuters on Kolkata’s Central Avenue fail to miss is Mutty Lall Seal’s Free College. Started as a venue for providing cheap education that was free from the proselytising of the missionary schools such as that of Alexander Duff, the Seal’s Free College was initially under the management of Jesuits. The school opened with a grand ceremony attended by the leading Indian and European luminaries of the city. As the Bengal Spectator (March 1843 pp.72-3) reported:

OPENING OF SEAL’ S COLLEGE On Wednesday morning (10 O’clock), March the 1st, a very numerous and highly respectable gathering of European and Native gentlemen (including several Ladies) took place at the house of Baboo Mutty Lal Seal, for the purpose of formally opening the college, which the worthy Baboo in his munificence, has founded for the education of the Hindoo youth; the number receiving education at one time, to be limited to five hundred. The institution will be under the entire management of the Directors of the Parent College of St. Xavier; arrangements had been made at St. Xavier’s College for affording the pupils in Seal’s College the benefit of the instructions of their various professors. The prospectus of the new college states that—The object of this institution is to provide for the education of Hindoos so as to fit them to occupy posts of trust and emolument in their own country. The course of education will comprise English literature in all its branches, History, Geography, Elocution, Writing, Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, and the higher Mathematics, the Philosophical Sciences, and the practical application of Mathematics. Among the party assembled at the opening ceremony were the Chief Justice, Sir J. P. Grant, the Advocate-General, the Principal members of the Bar, Baboo Dwarka Nath Tagore, Captain Birch, Rev. K. M. Bannerjee, George Tompson Esq., the Professors of St. Xavier’s College, J. Pattle etc., etc. (Laha 1940: 11)

Subsequently, the Jesuits were removed from the management of the college and Captain Francis Palmer was made the Principal. The College then started offering free education and functioned as a school. Its illustrious alumni include eminent linguist, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee and the founder of ISKCON, Swami Prabhupada.

The ‘Rothschild of Calcutta’ and the Deed of Trust

Seal was also an important influence on national debates such as the one on the inclusion of Indians in legislature and that on the introduction of railways in India. He lent his full support to the former and although he declined to be part of any committee, he saw the advantage of introducing the railways in India. He was also the first Indian to buy a steam-tug and promote steam navigation (Dwarkanath Tagore later formed the Steam Tug Association). A mentor of Baboo Ram Gopal Ghosh, Motilal Seal was an important member of the Agro-Horticultural Society and a founder- director of the Assam Tea Co. He also founded the New Oriental Insurance – the first company to underwrite insurance claims for Indians.

At the end of his career, Mutty Lall Seal was “the wealthiest native of Calcutta”, as the English newspapers described him, or as his biographer, K.C. Mitter, described him, ‘the Rothschild of Calcutta’. He owned numerous tracts of land and also many buildings; today, besides his bathing ghat (Mutty Seal’s Ghat, right next to the Armenian ferry ghat), we also find ourselves walking on more than one Moti Sil (or Motilal Seal) street or lane or passing by Seal’s Garden. A very lasting legacy of philanthropy is the Mutty Lal Seal Trust that he founded in 1848 dedicating all his properties inter alia to benevolent activities. His sons, Heeralal Seal and Chunilal Seal have also donated part of their wealth towards public causes. The Seals are part of the larger suvarnabanik community.