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Problem of the past

Tapan Raychaudhuri upended and clarified key debates of Indian history writing.

Written by Tirthankar Roy |
Updated: December 1, 2014 8:33:37 am

Tapan Raychaudhuri was born in 1926 to a landowning family in Barisal, Bangladesh. In the early years of his working life, he was director at the National Archives and taught at Delhi School of Economics. Later, he worked at Oxford and retired as professor in 1993.

Raychaudhuri is one of the most widely cited historians of India. He came to the field when some of the key debates in Indian history were taking shape — between the Cambridge school and the nationalists on the politics of colonial India, for example. He joined these debates. His criticisms were penetrating, constructive and acknowledged the strength of the opposition. But taken together, his published output does not represent any particular school of thought. His claim to intellectual eminence lies in the quality of his writings, which are marked by an elegance rare in academic history. He had great command over sources and made innovative use of them, especially in his little known first book, Bengal under Akbar and Jahangir (1953). And he wrote, in English and Bengali, with flair and a fine sense of humour.

Raychaudhuri was not a prolific writer by the standards of present-day academic professionals. But he produced works of lasting impact. Three of these works deserve particular mention. The book that brought him international recognition, Jan Company in Coromandel 1605-1690: A Study in the Interrelations of European Commerce and Traditional Economies (1962), was at one level a detailed study of the operation of the Dutch East India Company in India, and at another level, an argument that the Coromandel coast held a position of particular significance in the Indian Ocean trade of the 17th century. Later research on the Coromandel explored this significance, with attention to economic history, textile history and regional commerce. Raychaudhuri’s book is a pioneer in this scholarship.

In 1968, Raychaudhuri published a critical review piece that became mandatory reading for students of economics in India for more than a generation. The piece, one of three reviews of an article by the American historian, Morris D. Morris, was published in the Indian Economic and Social History Review along with the others. The journal had just been launched by a team of Delhi professors, including Raychaudhuri. Today, it is one of the few academic journals published from India that can claim an international reputation. Raychaudhuri’s piece in the symposium was speculative. But it raised important questions, a fact that Morris, his target, acknowledged. The symposium set out two distinct positions on Indian economic history. The first held that Indian underdevelopment was an outcome of colonialism. The other, articulated by Morris, held that the colonial state did not vitally matter to the pattern of economic change that India experienced in the 19th century. The debate has had a huge impact, though it delivered more heat than light.

His last substantial work to appear in print is  Europe Reconsidered. The book challenges a view, derived from Edward Said and then popular among cultural historians, that intellectuals in 19th-century India defined their role in society under the influence of British ideas about Indian society. In this way, they became tools of a colonialism that ruled through cultural domination of its subjects. Europe Reconsidered challenges this orthodoxy. It contains studies of three key figures of Bengal, Swami Vivekananda, Bhudev Mukhopadhyay and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, and shows that these individuals formulated their thoughts with reference to their own study of Europe. Their thoughts were not just a derivative version of colonial ideas. The larger thesis of the book is that colonialism did not just impose Western ideas on indigenous thought. Rather, the encounter between Western and Indian cultures occurred in the manner of a chemical reaction, leading to a completely new product. The book restores to these thinkers, and to the Indian intellectual world in general, an independence, a complexity and a capacity to produce surprises that the Saidian cultural history denied them. It could only be written by someone equally at ease with present-day debates and 19th century Bengali literature.

Raychaudhuri returned to his roots in the autobiography, Bangal Nama (2007). An entertaining and insightful account of his times, the book has become a contemporary classic. It reminds us that with the passing of Tapan Raychaudhuri, Indian history has lost a source-based historian and a prose writer of the highest calibre, already a vanishing breed.

The writer is professor of economic history, London School of Economics
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