In memoriam

Ravinder Kumar 1932-2001

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IT is difficult for me to know what to say as I feel overwhelmed by the sadness of Ravinder’s passing away and am still shattered by the suddenness of it. He came for dinner together with some other friends the day that he suffered a stroke. The evening began with the kind of thoughtful gesture one has always associated with him. He brought a bouquet of white gladioli, and then asked in a slightly diffident way whether I had any objections to white flowers on social occasions. And I said the flowers were so lovely that of course they were acceptable. He smiled and said that he was never clear about the precise meaning of rituals. When I think back on it, both his bringing flowers and asking if they were acceptable, was so much the Ravinder that one knew: he was concerned that he shouldn’t transgress the sensitivities of other people.

The sadness that overwhelms me lies in the experience of seeing a friend, a good friend, just slip away. And our utter helplessness that evening in the face of this inevitability, no matter what we did to try and stem it.

We’ll all remember Ravinder for many things. For me he was a person who had the ability to empathise with so many people. Each one’s point of view had to be heard, perhaps accommodated and possibly refuted. But it was the hearing that was important, because in Ravinder’s way of life, one did not dismiss people. Only the fraudulent were to be dismissed. I used to often marvel at his patience.

And then one remembers him as a scholar and a historian. What was so rare about him was that he combined the finest scholarship with the greatest sensitivity for other people. We all have some of this and some of that, but the combination of both in him was exceptional.

One forgets that he first took a degree in chemistry and then chose to switch from science to history. So history did not come to him accidentally; the choice was a deliberate one. Even when he was writing history, his training in science hovered in the background. The choice was not out of a purely intellectual interest, but was as much conditioned by trying to understand how Indian society had functioned in the past and how the past linked to the present.

When I met him in the early ’60s, he was working on social history. Although his focus was on western India in colonial times, he had a Braudelian sweep in integrating the early and later periods. We would compare notes on the recent and the distant past. Nevertheless, I was surprised to hear that he had joined the excavation at Ujjain and spent a season at the dig. Excavations in the ’60s were tough going, involving living at a level of minimum comfort often in biting cold weather. He had recognised that archaeology would play a major part in providing data on early social and economic history and he wanted to get a hang of the discipline and its application. For a modern historian this was quite extraordinary. This sense of searching for the tangible reality of evidence from the past stayed with him in much that he subsequently thought and wrote.

For the historian, archaeology provides an immediate link between the past and the present in a manner more insistent and direct than other kinds of source materials. I recall that in my first serious experience of excavation at the Harappan site of Kalibangan in Rajasthan, this link was almost exhilarating. One was actually touching, feeling, handling the objects that people had handled four thousand years ago – the pottery, the mirror in the hand of a woman buried in a grave, a brick with the finger marks of the mason... The historical fact was not an abstraction. There is in this link a long distance view of Indian history in which the past assumes an immediate presence. I am not suggesting that his sensitivity to Indian social history was because of his experience of digging at Ujjain, but possibly it reinforced the need to see connections that historians tended to ignore and that help towards more incisive readings of the texts. Equally, somewhere in his subconscious it nurtured the notion of the multiple cultural levels of societies in India.

His understanding of social history was wide-ranging in terms of what went into its making, but at the same time the questions implicit in his research were very focused. His interests ranged over many themes: the role of colonialism in creating a rich-peasant society in western India and the ensuing politics, as also the impoverishment of peasants who were not kulaks; the essay on the tensions in the urban history of Lahore just prior to the Rowlatt Act, which has since become a classic of historical writing; and the theme that I was especially interested in, namely, the idea of India as a civilisation-state as counterpoised to a nation-state. Had there been a formal Annales School in India, Ravinder would have been its doyen. I did try and persuade him to write the replacement volume for Percival Spear in the Penguin History of India, but did not succeed. His interests had by then moved to contemporary studies and he was contemplating a two volume history of the last fifty years.

His historical analyses, drawing on liberal and Marxist traditions, grew out of his readings but perhaps even more fundamentally were rooted in his reflections on life in India and the possibilities of improving the Indian human condition. This was, therefore, not only an ideological commitment. For him, as for thoughtful Indian liberals, the understanding of Indian society was a necessary precondition to changing it. Which is why he was impatient with those who fostered the illiberal.

Beyond this perhaps the single most striking feature of Ravinder’s thinking was the obvious pleasure he took in exploring ideas. I have sat in on conversations where one saw his mind move like the game of a chess player, generally a few moves ahead. But where he was checkmated he acknowledged it gracefully. But this is at best a limited analogy, because he didn’t see himself as a contestant, but literally as an explorer. He was fascinated by the degree to which, and the directions in which, one could push ideas. Some people found this a little excessive. But the exploration was in good faith, because he paid no obeisance to intellectual fashions and came down heavily on jargon – whether Marxist or post-Modernist. What mattered was the argument and the ideas it evoked. His critique of post-Modernists was on occasion quite devastating. But at the same time he was willing to listen to the best of them and engage them in discussion. This was evident in the talks that he organised in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Intellectual freedom was the hallmark of these, but Ravinder did insist on speakers having intellectual credentials. Teen Murti was not open to pretenders.

His appointment as Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library turned out to be a major contribution to the development of the discipline of history in contemporary India, and widened the horizon of this institution. The foundation had already been laid in the form of a fine archive and library. He extended this by making it into a major centre for discussion on history, the social sciences and contemporary culture.

It was a pleasure to work in a well-serviced library, possibly the only one on such a large scale that worked so well in the capital city. New histories of considerable quality are being written on the modern period and much of the credit goes to the emphasis that he gave to coordinating the library with current research interests. The impact was not restricted to history. He included within it the Centre for Contemporary Studies, which brought together scholars and intellectuals ranging over many disciplines. At the formal level this occasioned some fine seminars on a variety of themes, and at the informal level converted the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library into an advanced centre of writing and research.

The legacy that he has left to this institution is daunting, and one hopes that it will be nurtured and will grow. One is apprehensive now, given that we are witnessing the closure of minds in so many institutions. Doubtless those of you who are at the helm of affairs here will ensure that the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library will remain a centre for free and open thinking and discussion, and will also maintain the intellectual standards set by Professor Ravinder Kumar.

Romila Thapar

* From the condolence meeting for Professor Ravinder Kumar held at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 11 April 2001.


AT a small farewell organized by his erstwhile colleagues on the occasion of his retirement from the Directorship of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in 1999, Professor Ravinder Kumar’s speech was brief and the tone as always gracious, but one point stands out in memory.

He gave us a rare insight into his personal philosophy, which in my view was crucial to his success in making the Library a centre of excellence. How did he prepare himself for the task of the Directorship, a post for which he reminded us he did not have the requisite experience? At the time, he had taught in universities both in Australia and India, but he had not taken charge of any large organization. He was aware that he was stepping into the shoes of a giant, B.R. Nanda, a distinguished scholar of Indian nationalism. But prior to taking up the appointment, he asked himself which institutional model the Library ought to emulate. Searching through memoirs and writings of those who had established academic institutions for research, he was drawn to the case of two German institutes that had provided excellent conditions for scholarly work over a long periods. The key was to bring together the best people in the field, provide a congenial atmosphere, encourage original research and then to leave them alone.

He resisted with all the force of his personality (though with a charm that was his enduring trait) any attempt to impose time schedules on the Fellows or to make it mandatory that they attend seminars or talks. When a senior author of a fine monograph complained that there had been too few people in the room for her talk, he explained that, ‘The day we have to use a stick to bring people into the room, we might as well close the place down.’ The effort was to open the door wide in the realm of ideas, but not constrain scholarship in any way. This had a major positive spin-off, as the Fellows, none of whom were permanent, included people of diverse disciplines and ideologies. The liberality of outlook that he practiced extended beyond administrative issues to the core of disciplines.

As a young colleague (along with Dilip Menon) among the clutch of those who got Fellowships in 1994, it was a pleasure to find the door always open if one wanted to discuss not only on-going research but any contemporary subject or interesting idea. Even a simple event like handing over an invitation for his daughter’s wedding became an occasion to discuss the contrast between bourgeois civility in India and the West. Far more than many peers, he was open to new currents of historical and contemporary research. An articulate critic of post-modernism could rub shoulders with one of its defenders; an unreconstructed Nehruvian who celebrated industrialization sat cheek by jowl with the Dalitist author of Why I am not a Hindu. A critic of positive discrimination could speak one week, a cricket historian the next. Such breadth of mind is indeed rare in academia, both among the now ascendant Right and the now depleted Left. No wonder he often remarked that his brief stint as Chair of the Indian Council of Historical Research had been more trying than his 17 years at the Nehru Museum. The former had the sort of entrenched salariat that he had denied space to grow in his beloved Teen Murti. He had expended more in terms of effort, but accomplished far less.

Though often referred to as a liberal, Professor Kumar always described himself as a ‘social democrat’, one who wished to draw on the best in both the liberal and radical projects, both of which had a long way to go in India. In his own way, he achieved more than he had set out in the Museum. It became more than a place for South Asian history, a hub of fine scholarship on the social sciences in general. Following the establishment of the Centre for Contemporary Studies, he even helped specialists on other countries to gain access by arguing that the phrase in the objectives statement of the Library ‘India in its widest sense’ could not exclude the rest of the world.

In framing an epitaph of his life one may compare him with other significant figures in the historical profession. His own works, especially those on the Rowlatt Satyagraha anticipated and prefigured the revolution in writing histories of society. What he did not do is equally significant, for it shows up the road he preferred not to take. Unlike Ranajit Guha he did not found ‘a school’ of his own; in contrast with S. Gopal he did not author a major, definitive biography. And unlike some others, he did not carve out the academic equivalent of a jagir or feudal estate, complete with yes-men, ‘jesters’ and fellow travellers. If pinned down in a discussion, he would attempt to go beyond the immediate polemic to locate the issue in a wider, historical context. While his scholarship was impeccable, it is as an institution-builder that he will stand out. Not the banyan tree that Nehru was likened to, but a man who had the vision to make a library more than a place of bricks, books and mortar.

Somewhere along the way he paid a price. He often quipped that his CV was incomplete, for his two decades in administration had not given him the time to do the two books he ought to have written. From 1999 on, as Director of the Nehru Memorial Fund, his workload was considerably lighter. There was one suspects a sense of release, for he set out on a new project – a two-volume history of contemporary India. His spirit was willing, but the flesh was not. The end, when it came, was untimely.

Mahesh Rangarajan