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Mainstream, VOL LII No 50, December 6, 2014

Master Raconteur

Sunday 7 December 2014

by Shahid Amin

Born into a landed family in present-day Bangladesh, Tapan Raychauduri, one of the top historians of modern South Asia, succumbed to a second cerebral stroke in Oxford, the English University town where he was a Professor of Indian History and Civilisation and Emeritus Fellow, St. Antony’s College.

Trained under Sir Jadunath Sarkar, the founder of modern historiography in India, Raychaudhuri earned his laurels early. At 25 he had already pocketed a D.Phil degree from Calcutta University and also published Bengal Under Akbar and Jahangir (1953)—a pioneering social history of Bengali society and culture, based on both Persian and Bengali materials.

From 1953 -1957 Raychaudhuri worked on a second D.Phil at Balliol College, Oxford and at the archives of the Dutch East India Company at the Hague, published subsequently as Jan Company in Coromondel, 1605-1690. A pioneering attempt at studying the interrelations between early modern Europen commerce and local politics and regional coastal economies of pre-colonial India, Jan Company firmly established Raychaudhuri as a leading economic historian of the subcontinent.

He was at the Delhi School of Economics at Delhi University from 1959 to 1970, the golden years of that institution which boasted of economists Amartya Sen, K.N. Raj, Sukhamoy Chakravarty and M.N. Srinivas, the father figure of sociology on its faculty. It was from D School that Raychudhuri launched single-handedly the quarterly journal Indian Economic and Social History Review in 1962, the leading international journal in this field till the present.

In 1970-71, Tapanda, as he was known to his students, moved to become the Head of DU’s History Department. In that one year he fathered a most ambitious programme of interdepart-mental, interdisciplinary studies, much talked about these days, when he devised and taught a set of courses enabling graduate students of both History and Economics Departments of the University to earn a specialised degree in Economic History.

Early 1973 saw Raychaudhuri move to the University of Oxford where he presided over the teaching and research of South Asian Hisory for the next 22 years. Back at his alma mater, Tapanda really came into his own. He overhauled the antiquated courses on Indian history (there was a special paper till then just on the impeachment of the Governor-General Warren Hastings at that ancient seat of learning!).

He now began publishing on a wide range of themes—the history of interactions between European and Indian sensibilities, cultural history of colonial Bengal, including an engaging essay on Bengali cookbooks. It was from Oxford that presided over and jointly edited with the famous Aligarh-based medievalist, Prof Irfan Habib, the authoritative Cambridge Economic History of [pre colonial] India.

A master raconteur, and a stylist of limpid Bengali prose, Raychaudhuri produced his ultimate social history in the shape of serialised articles in the Bengali magazine Desh (2007), which inverting the opprobrium attached to people from erstwhile East Bengal, he called Bangaalnama, translated beautiful by him as The World in Our Times (2012). At Oxford Tapanda supervised a string of high-octane students who will carry his name for many more years to come. Prof Raychauduri is survived by his wife, ’Hashidi’, daughter Sukanya and grand-daughter Leela.

(Courtesy: The Times of India)