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Tribute: Sipra Sarkar

Friday 11 July 2008, by Kunal Chattopadhyay, Soma Marik

Sipra Sarkar passed away on the night of June 24, 2008. Born on May 30, 1931, the daughter of Susobhan Chandra Sarkar, the eminent historian and teacher, Sipradi was educated at St John’s Diocesan School, and subsequently at Presidency College and Calcutta University, standing First in the First Class in her BA History (Hons) (1950) and MA History (1952) examinations. She joined work in Surendranath College for Women and worked there till 1957, when she joined the newly founded Department of History, Jadavpur University. She taught there till 1991 and retired at 60. With the advent of Right-wing economic policies that affected retired people, she once joked: “If I had foreseen the Manmohan phenomenon, I might have taken two years of re-employment.”

Sipradi was a phenomenal teacher. For three-and- a-half decades, students in Jadavpur University heard lectures that were lucid, coherent and remarkably rigorous. Western political thought perhaps never had a better teacher in the city. The only paper she carried into the class was a small black notebook, with a list of books and articles, which she would mention in her first lecture of the course. This would be followed by lectures that combined extraordinary knowledge, with a presentation that made it all seem so easy, as well as a completely non-jargonistic, non-dogmatic materialist interpretation of history. A student recollected that three lectures in which Sipradi had taught her class Marx’s labour theory of value and the concept of surplus value remained unforgettable.

No less outstanding were her lectures on the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the economic history of early modern Europe. With no written outline, she would teach the subject in lively manner, introducing students to cutting-edge research on the subject. With ‘Early Modern Europe’ becoming a compulsory paper in BA courses in Bengal, students who studied it with her have opted whenever possible to teach it, the best tribute a teacher could ever have.

When, in 1979, a Russian history teacher left the Department, Sipradi agreed to teach it as a special paper. For the next few months, on every trip to the National Library, we could see her studying there. And this was not for one year. Till her retirement, she remained abreast of the latest publications in English on her subjects.

A fair examiner and teacher, she never sought popularity, and genuinely remained unaware how popular she was. The most famous (though probably apocryphal) story about her as an examiner was one, according to which, a student had copied verbatim from Skinner in a tutorial. The script came back with the comment: “Skinner gets 7 out of 10, you get 0”.

A member of the CPI for many years, Sipradi had taken party classes with tram workers. She had been part of the minority in West Bengal that eventually remained with the CPI after the split, and was involved in the publication of what was originally a factional weekly paper, Kalantar. In it, she contributed a series of essays on contemporary international affairs. She was also involved in the effort made by Susobhan Sarkar to organise discussions among Marxists regardless of party position, through the Marx Club. In 1971, CPI leader Mohit Sen and she authored a semi-official party position on the emerging Maoist movement in India, published as Pratap Mitra and Mohit Sen, Communist Party and Naxalites.

A critic of Stalinism, she was one of the Indian Communists who condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. At the same time, she was involved in the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association, and also in resisting violence on campus. When Ranajoy Karlekar of the Department of English was likely to be murdered for his Naxalite leaning by thugs belonging to a Left party, Sipradi was among those teachers who saved him. For this, her name appeared in a hit list, but she never stopped going to the university for a day.
With Prof Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyay, Sipradi set up, in the 1980s, the Jatibhed Birodhi Samity. It carried on anti-casteist campaigns and published a bulletin called Sharosdandhan for almost a decade.

Teaching having never been the main factor in promotions, being a good teacher fetched her no recognition from the administration. She was to be promoted to Reader after two decades of service, and she retired in that position. She was reluctant to take on Ph.D candidates, because she insisted that Ph.Ds in India could be no less rigorous than elsewhere.

(Courtesy : The Statesman)

The authors, who teach in Jadavpur University, Kolkata, are both students of Sipra Sarkar.

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