Last rites for ‘people’s historian’ today

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, May 27, 2015

The last wish of the greatest historian of the modern era, Sir Christopher Bayly, is that his ashes be consigned to the River Ganges. He is to be cremated in Cambridge, England, on Wednesday (today).

Sir Christopher Bayly died of a heart attack in Chicago. The 69-year old Cambridge historian, who refused to recognise traditional boundaries to his discipline, was once described as the “guru of global historians”. As a historian of India while a graduate student at Oxford, he did his DPhil in 1975 with his thesis being ‘The Local Roots of Indian Politics: Allahabad, 1880-1920’.

When his book was published it not only paid close attention to verifiable evidence, but was free of any ideological stance and free of bias for or against any person or party. This was the beginning of ‘people’s history’ as it came to be recognised.

He further cemented his reputation by continuing his research on Allahabad and in 1983 produced the classic: ‘Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1780-1870’, a pioneering study that proved that colonialism was based on strong existing networks of towns, rural bazaars and merchant communities, meshed with colonial trade and administration. This work endeared him to most Indian academics and scholars.

His amazingly detailed trilogy of works, namely ‘Empire and Information’ in 1996; ‘The Origins of Nationality in South Asia’ in 1998, and ‘Recovering Liberties’ in 2011, explored how both Britain and India cemented their intellectual dialogue.

From the theories he expounded he came up with ‘Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945’ in 2005, followed by ‘Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia’ written in 2007 with W. Harper. But then came his masterpiece: ‘History of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons in 2004. This work is considered as the beginning of ‘the people’s history’ era.

In 2013 Sir Chris Bayly retired from Cambridge and took up an appointment as Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London and an Indian Ministry of Culture Vivekananda Visiting Professorship at the University of Chicago. A Fellow of the British Academy, he was knighted in 2007 for services to history, the only scholar to be so honoured. His wife, Dr. Prof. Susan Kaufmann, who is a Reader in Historical Anthropology at Cambridge and a fellow of Christ’s College, will be bringing her husband’s ashes to India next week.



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