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Mainstream, VOL LII No 50, December 6, 2014

Tapan Raychaudhuri (1926-2014)

Sunday 7 December 2014

Two of his students offer their tributes to the distinguished historian, Tapan Raychaudhuri.

by Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Tapan Raychaudhuri died peacefully in Oxford on the night of Wednesday, November 26. He was born in 1926 in Barisal in what is now Bangladesh. He will be mourned across the globe by his many students, his admirers and by all those who enjoyed his and his wife Hashi’s outstanding hospitality and affection. The word ’affection’ is used advisedly, since the Raychaudhuris in Oxford took under their wing innumerable students, visitors and their families from South Asia. Their home became a haven of fun, stories and good food.

The mourning will go beyond the level of personal memories and recollections because Tapanda—and this is how he was fondly known across generations—was a pioneering historian whose contributions to the writing of modern Indian history straddled various aspects of history.

Raychaudhuri was a legendary student of his generation. He joined Presidency College as an undergraduate in the 1940s and was taught by Sushobhan Sarkar. He finished his MA from the University of Calcutta and then went on to do his doctorate with Jadunath Sarkar. He was only 23 years old when he finished his Ph.D and this work was to become his first book, Bengal under Akbar and Jahangir. After teaching in Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College), he won a scholarship to go to Oxford where he did a second doctorate from Balliol College. This work was on the trade of the Dutch East India Company and was later published as Jan Company in Coromandel. For his first doctorate Raychaudhuri had taught himself Persian and for the second he learnt Dutch.

His interest in Economic History continued after his return to India. He was a key figure in setting up the journal, Indian Economic and Social History Review. He taught Economic History at the Delhi School of Economics and in the Department of History of Delhi University. He edited with Irfan Habib the first volume of the Cambridge Economic History of India. In the 1980s, his interests shifted to the history of emotions and perceptions in 19th- and 20th-century Bengal. It was a massive project that began with a study of the ideas regarding Europe of certain key men of letters in Bengal. This was published as Europe Reconsidered.

What is important to note in this brief survey of Raychaudhuri’s major scholarly output is that at various points of time he opened up new fields of historical enquiry in India. In 1953, when he wrote his book on Bengal in the age of Akbar and Jahangir, it was not fashionable to write social history. But this is what Raychaudhuri chose to write at a very young age. Similarly, when he ventured into the history of trade in the Indian Ocean it was an uncharted field and the Dutch archives were unexplored. The history of percep-tions and emotions—a work that he left unfinished —is not a field where many have dared to tread even today. Raychaudhuri was thus a pioneer like his friend, Ranajit Guha, and a very patient one: not for him nor for Guha was there any rush to publish. He knew that Clio allows no short cuts.

Raychaudhuri’s intellectual attainments cannot be restricted to his scholarly publications. He also published in Bengali—he was part of a very distinguished lineage of bilingual intellectuals in Bengal, men of letters who wrote with equal ease and grace in English and in Bengali. Tapanda charmed his Bengali readers with two volumes of very different kinds of memoirs. One was Bangaalnama, a collection of stories and anecdotes that he had heard, overheard and perhaps even manufactured. It was a book full of fun and laughter through which the historian explored the world of the bangaal—the migrant from East Bengal into the city of Calcutta. The other book was an autobiography in the conventional sense of the word.

These two books revealed to readers a side of Tapanda that was known and loved by all those who knew him personally. He was an outstanding raconteur with an unforgettable fund of stories which he recalled with telling aplomb. He loved to tell stories and perhaps it was this love that drew him to the craft Herodotus first mastered. Tapanda was a man of immense erudition: he loved Rabindranath and Proust. I recall his once telling me that he was not a theist but he read a bit of Rabindranath every night: that was his act of worship.

That last sentence has inevitably introduced a personal element into this piece. Readers will forgive this lapse from objectivity. Tapanda was my teacher in the strict formal sense of the word. I can never forget the care with which he read the drafts of my Oxford D.Phil thesis. When I was no longer his student, he showered me with affection, often sharing and discussing his thoughts, sometimes reaching out to me from Oxford when he needed something in Calcutta. His and Hashidi’s home in Keyatola Road in Calcutta was for me a familiar port of call in the winter months. I mourn, of course, the passing of Tapan Raychaudhuri, the scholar and historian, but for me he was someone more than these. I will miss the ineffable warmth that he, with his characteristic indulgence, brought to my life.

(Courtesy: The Telegraph)