Tapan Raychaudhuri

Tapan Raychaudhuriicon male small Tapan Raychaudhuri icon tree small Tapan RaychaudhuriBorn:
Father: UnspecifiedMother: Unspecified
Children: Sukanya Wignaraja
Siblings: none

He was the third son of Amiya Kumar Raychaudhuri, the Zamindar of Kirtipasha in Barisal, Bengal and a middle level leader of the Congress party there before 1947.  Kirtipasha was a substantial zamindari of Barisal district that came under the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793, which was abolished on the recommendation of the Floud Commission Report of 1939.  His family, adversely affected by the second partition of Bengal and the riots that followed it, moved to Calcutta permanently, leaving behind their home and lands in Barisal, in 1956. His uncle was Hem Chandra Raychaudhuri, Carmichael Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, University of Calcutta, and a son of the Zamindar of Ponabalia in Bengal. Debangshu Ray Chaudhuri,ARCA a well-known artist was his uncle. Another uncle of his was the prominent Congress politician, Kiran Shankar Ray, Home Minister of West Bengal from 1947–1948, and the Zamindar of Teota in Bengal.

He studied at Jagabandhu Institution and Ballygunge Government High School, Calcutta and then finally at Barisal Zilla School, Barisal, where he was transferred after his family had to move back to their family seat at Kirtipasha for purposes of rent collection, during a lean period in Bengal’s agrarian economy. In the early 1940s he returned to Calcutta to join Scottish Church College for his I.A. and stayed at Duff Hostel, the college’s hall of residence. Later he moved to Presidency College to complete his B.A. (Honours) and M.A. in History, with First Class Second in both the examinations. In his B.A. (Hons.) class he was a student of Professor Susobhan Sarkar, who greatly influenced his thought. He completed his first Ph.D. entitled “Bengal under Akbar and Jahangir” at Calcutta University as the last doctoral student of Sir Jadunath Sarkar, the eminent historian of medieval and modern India and himself the son of the Zamindar of Karchamaria in Bengal.
After a few years of teaching at Calcutta University, when he stayed with his uncle, Kiran Shankar Ray’s family, at their Calcutta residence on European Asylum Lane, in 1957 he went to Balliol College, Oxford on a Government of West Bengal scholarship to complete his second Ph.D. (D.Phil.) under the supervision of Dr. C.C. Davies entitled “The Dutch in Coromandel, 1605-1690”. Davies was then the Reader in Indian History at Oxford University, the post that Raychaudhuri later came to occupy.

In his long and illustrious career he has held several important academic posts: he started his career, before leaving for Oxford, as a Lecturer in the Department of Islamic History and Culture, at the University of Calcutta. After his return to India, he was appointed as the Deputy and then the Acting-Director of the National Archives of India, New Delhi, a post from which was soon forced to leave due to office politics. Soon after he became Reader and then Professor of History at University of Delhi. Later, he was appointed Professor of Economic History and Director of the Delhi School of Economics under Delhi University, at a time when his colleagues at the Delhi School included Amartya Sen, Manmohan Singh, Sukhomoy Chakravarty, Jagdish Bhagwati and Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri.[2] He was also the Founder-editor of Indian Social and Economic History Review a leading Indian history journal. In 1972, he however, he chose to leave India, to be able to succeed Sarvepalli Gopal as the Reader of South Asian History, St Antony’s College, Oxford. In 1991, just one year before his retirement from teaching service he was appointed as the Ad Hominem Professor of Indian History and Civilisation, St Antony’s College, Oxford. He has been a supervisor and additional supervisor of 26 students of Indian history at Oxford. His career as an additional supervisor, as well as that of a supervisor, ended in 2002. Presently, he is Emeritus Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford and was until recently the Editor-in-Chief of Autumn Annual, the scholarly journal published by the Alumni Association of Presidency College, Calcutta. He is now even a National Professor, an honour normally awarded to academics of Indian universities by the Government of India.

He has been a Guest Professor at numerous universities: they include the University of California, Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Yale University Collegio de Maxico, École pratique des hautes études, University of Sydney and University of Perth and a Visiting Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

He has also been a Founding-Member of the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi.

Excerpt from an article in the the Indian Express by Shahid Amin:

“[He] was an inspiring teacher. He would enter punctually, at 11.15 am, a classroom in the Delhi School of Economics, place his pocket watch on the table (just as our classical instrumentalists do before their renditions), and proceed to lecture brilliantly and effortlessly for the next 100 minutes, with just an occasional glance at his notes. And there were the hours of discussion over the drafts of my thesis, lips slightly pursed as he wrote his marginal comments on my drafts — mindful perhaps, from his own Oxford experience, how very difficult it is for a novice researcher to begin writing intelligible, footnoted prose.

As he later recounted casually in his memoir, his own sheaf of notes about the machinations of the Dutch East India Company on the Coromandel coast (several decades before Clive won both Madras and Calcutta for the English traders), were “the energising Benzedrine tablets” that had helped him string his thesis together in 1957. One fondly wonders if, during the initial years of a Ph.D indifferently supervised at Oxford, young Raychaudhuri had chanced upon Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (first hardback edition 1953), where James Bond is able to negotiate a coral reef off the coast of Jamaica, as if “the elation and clarity of mind produced by the Benzedrine were still with him…”

Behind the demeanour of an Oxford don, Raychaudhuri, who founded the flagship journal Indian Economic & Social History Review at Delhi while in his early 30s, barely concealed a strong sense of nationalism, scrupulous (not personal or ideological) academic rectitude and an almost impish sense of humour which those who knew him vouch for — from Amartya Sen, his junior by half a decade, to his last student, Mahesh Rangarajan, director of the Nehru Memorial Library. His memoir in Bangla and English (The World in Our Time) is a veritable biography of the life and times of that stalwart post-Independence generation of brilliant and committed scholars like Ranajit Guha, Partha Sarathi Gupta, Amartya Sen, MN Srinivas and Andre Béteille, who first put our history and social sciences on a firm footing in India and the world at large. To cull some vignettes from Raychaudhuri’s memoirs: during his sojourn at Delhi University, Tapanda with Andre Béteille would, in Chandni Chowk, “indulge in kimam, a tobacco paste enhanced into an experience of paradise by the addition of various spices”. Or this deadpan recollection of a visit to Gandhi at New Delhi’s Harijan basti in early 1947: “He was sitting on a quilt covered with a spotlessly clean white sheet. In a corner there was a Wardha charkha, and somewhat incongruously, a pot of Pond’s cream on the niche. I wondered if the Mahatma’s beautifully shiny skin owed its lustre to that foreign product.”

A firm nationalist, Raychaudhuri faced the slings and arrows of matter-of-fact believers in the goodness of Empire, and the racism of some Oxford colleagues, with dignity and a certain élan that seems missing from our current aggressive posture of wearing Bharatiyata on the sleeve of one’s kurta. Tapanda notes that the greatest “scandals in India’s academic relations with Oxford” was the denial of a D.Phil to SN Sen, a leading Indian historian, who was charged by the “admirable and charismatic Maulana Azad”, then education minister, to write an authoritative work on 1857 in its centenary year. Oxford tried to make amends by conferring belatedly a B. Litt honoris causa on Sen, but the damage had been done. As was the case when Richard Gombrich, the renowned Indologist, was denied the chair at Oxford that Radhakrishnan had once held, as he had successfully opposed the honouring of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by Oxford University, citing his inglorious role in triggering the 1971 war.

Ever cognizant of the positive aspects of the English connection and the contribution of British historians of India, Raychaudhuri was a polite yet firm critics of their epigones at his ancient university in England. “The pirate ship of empire has been never short of chaplains. Now the ship has sunk, but the unholy race of its propagandists still flourishes,” he wrote with controlled grace and flourish in his memoir.”

Article from an article by Amartya Sen,Nobel laureate in economics and Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University:

“Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri — Tapanda to many of us — who died in Oxford on November 26, was not only a leading historian, but a person of many different talents. He was an outstanding teacher, whose pedagogy extended far beyond those who were formally his students at Oxford or Delhi or Calcutta. I was never his student, and yet, thanks to our friendship over 62 years, I learned a huge amount from him on a large variety of subjects, including a great many things about history. Being of lazy disposition, I relished the fact that often enough, the most effortless — and quickest — way of learning something about the past was to ask Tapanda a question about it. He was an extraordinary believer in enlightenment and enjoyed learning about things that he did not know, but seemed to enjoy almost as much as sharing his knowledge with others.

Tapanda’s gifts as a conversationalist were exceptional. He liked being amused, and enjoyed amusing others. Some of the funniest stories I have heard in my life have come from Tapanda. However, he was never a believer in humour for its own sake — never a maker of stand-alone jokes. His stories and recollections informed us even as we were vastly entertained. He also had a deep sense of equity and justice. One of the many consequences of that general, though very implicit, commitment was that his humour was never at the expense of anyone in a tough position. His most amusing stories could, however, be devastatingly funny about the high and mighty. Tapanda’s humanity and sympathy were as striking as his magical ability to entertain and engage his friends.

Tapanda’s sense of justice found expression in his account of history, and even in his memoirs. His family belonged to the class of Hindu landlords in Muslim-majority East Bengal — what is now Bangladesh. He describes in his memoir, The World in Our Time, how outrageously the poor peasants and other rural workmen were treated by the land-owning potentates. His anger at the system within which he was growing up is as clearly articulated as his perceptive discussion of how this privileged class became increasingly trapped in self-doubt and bewilderment as political values changed in the course of the fight for Indian independence. As it happens, many young men and women who came from that exploitative background went on to become radical — sometimes revolutionary — leaders of the politics of emancipation.

Tapanda provides an insider view of the lives, thoughts and contradictions of this doomed social group of Hindu landlords of East Bengal, whose fortunes suddenly collapsed as they left for India at the time of Partition, to avoid being in East Pakistan. The overnight disappearance of the erstwhile tormentors of rural East Bengal is told with remarkable human sympathy, for all sides, as Tapanda recounts the history of that period, even as he vastly amuses the readers of his memoirs with the oddities and absurdities of Bengali political life.

Tapanda’s dedicated work in history, as opposed to his memoirs and his writings on contemporary literature, politics and culture, spanned many different historical problems. It included the history of Bengal, starting with his early work on Bengal Under Akbar and Jahangir, and his highly original investigation of Europe Reconsidered: Perceptions of the West in Nineteenth Century Bengal. It extended to his studies of European colonialism, including the history of British India, which gave readers the thoroughly researched Jan Company in Coromandel, and his highly original historical analyses in Perceptions, Emotions and Sensibilities: Essays on India’s Colonial and Post-colonial Experiences. He also edited, jointly with Irfan Habib, the first volume of The Cambridge Economic History of India.

These were powerful contributions to historical research, and yet I cannot help feeling that Tapanda was much more than a historian of distinction. He was very happy in his family life, with his wife Hashi, daughter Sukanya and granddaughter Lila. He was also unusually happy in the company of others. Tapanda had very important things to say on contemporary politics, society, literature, the magnificence of human beings, and the human follies that trap us into little corners. I was privileged to see him in various phases of his life. It began when we travelled together to Britain in August 1953 in SS Strathnaver — he was on his way to research at Oxford, while I was going to be an undergraduate in Cambridge. I had known — or more exactly seen — Tapanda in Calcutta before, but it was on the boat from Bombay to London that I suddenly discovered this astonishing intellectual from whose wisdom I would benefit for more than six decades.
The ship was full of colonialists (both reformed and unreformed), rather loud Australians (it was coming from Sydney), a huge number of Indian seekers of higher education in Britain, and the Indian women’s hockey team. Even though I could not persuade Tapanda that the hockey women were very agreeable company and great fun to chat with, he and I spent a lot of time together discussing every possible subject that human reasoning could encounter. While many of our compatriots were busy playing Bingo, which is an astonishingly efficient way of destroying time, Tapanda and I exchanged our views on Bengal, India, Asia, the world, the planetary system, and the universe.

We also discussed death. Two days after Tapanda’s passing away, I remember our conversation on the subject on a well-lit deck on SS Strathnaver. We agreed that there was no possibility of any kind of consciousness after that unfortunate event. It would have been nice if we were mistaken.”

Awards and honors

  • Watumull Prize awarded by the American Historical Association, 1982. (jointly with Irfan Habib) for the Cambridge Economic History of India.[3]
  • Doctor of Letters 1993, University of Oxford
  • Doctor of Letters honoris causa by the University of Calcutta
  • Doctor of Letters honoris causa by the University of Burdwan
  • Padma Bhushan in 2007 in recognition to his contributions to history.[4]
  • National Research Professor 2010

One thought on “Tapan Raychaudhuri

  1. You need to expand this page and with that a few more pages. Let the local zamindars of Bakarganj also find an honourable mention! Why should they be left out of the frame? Prove a famous book on medieval Indian history correct. We need to know the nature of the relationship between officials and landlords in Bengal, and not just in a territory that later became Awadh. Discuss how Frank Bell once visited a mansion in his district.

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