Remembering Basudev Chatterji (1949–2017)

Basudev Chatterji was a historian and teacher who seldom allowed himself to become the victim of historiographical fads and counselled his students to mine books for information as much as for arguments.

The death of Basudev (Robi) Chatterji on 8 June in Guwahati brought to an end a somewhat turbulent and passionate life in which commitment to history as a discipline and teaching as a vocation stood out. Chatterji served as chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) from 2009 to 2014, and retired as professor in the Department of History, Delhi University. Chatterji’s main contributions to the literature on Indian history, though few, were marked by scholarship and imagination. His study of tariffs in the pre-independence era is an example of thoroughness and range, seldom found in studies of policy. It continues to be regarded among specialists as major critical engagement with the works of the Cambridge and imperialist schools of historiography. His selection of documentation for the “Towards Freedom” volumes allowed him to go further and stimulated controversy. Surrounding all this was a life lived out on its own terms, where there was interrogation of the foundations of history, regular acquaintance with revolutions in method, and determination to draw in students, friends, and colleagues into his concerns.

For serious students of history who passed through St Stephen’s College and Delhi University at different times during the past half century, the memory of Chatterji as a teacher will always ­remain. In the classroom and outside it, he repeatedly “modernised” his sense of the subject. Inclined to Marxism and a left disposition, he wholly rejected the doctrinaire and the groups and lobbies that went with a commitment to the left in India. He was deeply aware of the questions generated by economic and social history regarding simple nationalist readings of India’s past and he advanced on this through his personal engagement with the subaltern challenge, language issues, and culture. The latter developed partly through his personal relationships: the “designer eye” of his first wife, Ruchira Banerji, and the intellectual range of his second wife, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

But, as with much of Chatterji’s orientation, the focus became unique, blending with his passion for music and interest in philosophy. Significantly, this upgrading of awareness did not divert him from an interest in history as the grand timeline of experience. He seldom allowed himself to become the victim of historiographical fads and counselled his students to mine books for information as much as for arguments. This characteristic, a somewhat peripatetic career involving institutions that had no pedagogic edge, and a wide range of interests led to the absence of a student following or school in Chatterji’s life. He would inspire, rather than form and shape long-term research interests.

A Passion for the Past

Much of Chatterji’s approach to history came from his personal passion for the past. This passion grew from an acquaintance with the life of a host of towns in Uttar Pradesh during his father’s career as a civil servant, rather than his upbringing in an intellectual ambience, shaped by journals and debates. But, equally, he was pron to a compelling respect for the “intellectual” and the “aesthetic” that is often found among the probasi Bengali. However, he rejected narrow Bengali regionalism; an attribute that made him open to students from everywhere in India. Unlike most Bengali historians with a broad perspective, he never “returned” to themes in Bengal history, finding other Indian histories (of the North East) and large themes (such as Gandhism) more to his taste. Like most historians of his generation, he had a fascination for European history, and read British history as something more than the study of an imperial power. But, here, as with much of his term at the ICHR, he was not able to establish how this area of study could be made significant to history as a discipline in India, other than as a passing stimulus or as an exotic presence.

His personal involvement with the ICHR, which had been his place of work for a long period, was infused with a regard for the body as an institution, its staff, traditions and memories, but from a critical perspective. His years as chairperson were devoted to maintaining what was valuable, streamlining the body, and injecting a degree of decorum, grace and propriety into its public occasions. He ensured that organisations and individuals who had done sterling work on Indian history came to be associated with it. He valiantly struggled to make the ICHR a special combination of being a funding agency and having a research core, while being professional and effective, in tune with recent technology. He built on the initiatives of his predecessor, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, who took steps in the same direction and upgraded the journal. Chatterji’s own special contribution was the wholesale reform of the fellowship system.

Much of this activity was at variance with a personality that was habitually iconoclastic and was shaped by the anti-establishment debates of the 1960s; a contradiction that indicated an appreciation of order and the aesthetic, but a refusal to submit to their absolutist demands. The condition of the ICHR premises improved in his time as never before, giving an impression of genuine care and attention. His attempt to create a team, bringing together of the body and its administration, indicated a similar disposition.

Personally, Chatterji was often self-absorbed and even contentious. But he was capable of generosity and openness to an extraordinary degree which betrayed his natural sense of the idyllic. This natural tenor shaped the way he envisaged his “Indian” nature, without cultivated chauvinism. He looked back to the interlude between his Cambridge PhD and the Smuts fellowship as a time of special friendships, intellectual relationships and a road to a possible alternate life. But, he avoided the international academic circuit by and large thereafter. Here, he became an exception to the standard aspect of Indian academic conduct from the 1990s, even though his appreciation of scholarship outside India was considerable. There was a concern with self-respect and “patriotic affect” in this. These, among many traits, brought him esteem, ­affection, and achievement in a much varied life. 

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