Sunday, Feb 05, 2023

His Story of India

Chris Bayly challenged many of the conventions of Indian history writing.

Christopher Bayly For a historian of such eminence, Bayly was not only unassuming, if strongly principled, but also a scholar who unusually refused to reproduce himself intellectually or, indeed, set up a ‘Bayly School’ to replace the Cambridge one he so disliked. (Source: Youtube)

Affectionately called Chris by those who knew him, Professor Sir Christopher Alan Bayly died unexpectedly on April 18, just short of his 70th birthday. He was about to finish his stint as the first Vivekananda Professor at the University of Chicago, a position that should have been unthinkable for him to hold. For there exists a famous rivalry between the postcolonial school of Indian history that dominates the American university and the imperial one long prevalent at Cambridge, where Bayly was Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History.

But then Bayly spent much of his career doing the unthinkable, remarkable for someone widely regarded as a true representative of the academic establishment. Early in his career, for example, he abandoned the so-called Cambridge School, which saw Indians as motivated by interests rather than ideas, and studied them as if in some behaviourist experiment.

Having freed himself from one kind of orthodoxy, Bayly went on to challenge many of the conventions of his field, but with such grace and erudition that he never received a reputation for radicalism or even provocation. There was, for instance, his 1997 book, Origins of Nationality in South Asia: Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India, in which Bayly looked at the way in which pre-colonial forms of belonging and identification in northern India went into the making of South Asia’s nationalisms.

His efforts to recognise the role of Indians in their history sometimes resulted in Bayly being accused of making South Asians responsible for their own colonisation. However, this would mistake the tenacity with which he worked to make visible the complex, if hierarchical, interconnections that shaped not only India, but Europe and the world as well. His 2004 book, The Birth of the Modern World: Global Connections and Comparisons, 1780-1914, rewrote world history to make precisely this point — there exists no linear trajectory of historical influence or agency.

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Having ranged in his interests from the merchants of Benares in Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1780-1870, to the control of information that made colonial rule possible in Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870, in recent years, Bayly had turned to both a study of the world and of postcolonial India. The latter subject he pursued through the medium of intellectual history.

The result was a series of extraordinary essays on the making of independent India that focused on men like Madan Mohan Malaviya and S. Radhakrishnan, Radhakamal Mukerjee and his own supervisor at Oxford, S. Gopal. His last book, published in 2012 as the 100th volume of the prestigious Cambridge series in political thought, Ideas in Context, was Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire. It brought Bayly’s scholarly career to exactly the opposite position from where it had started, looking at the importance of ideas in the history of the Indian republic.

For a historian of such eminence, Bayly was not only unassuming, if strongly principled, but also a scholar who unusually refused to reproduce himself intellectually or, indeed, set up a “Bayly School” to replace the Cambridge one he so disliked. Instead, he sought to get the best out of his students, many of them distinguished scholars in their own right, whatever it was they wanted to do. This was a mark of Bayly’s intellectual confidence, generosity and openness to new ideas.


One evening last year, when his Cambridge colleague, Shruti Kapila, and I were planning a conference celebrating his life and work, we dined with Bayly. He said two things that reveal something about his character. He didn’t want the event to be about him, but preferred a conversation with friends and students about their own work — the event was to be, he repeated often, an anti-festschrift. The second remark was on the practices to which he attributed his own achievement. Always make time for your students and peers, Bayly said, and rarely for your superiors.

The writer is University Reader in Modern South Asian History and fellow of St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford, where he is also director of the Asian Studies Centre.

First published on: 02-05-2015 at 00:00 IST
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