Barun De (who died on Tuesday after a protracted illness) cannot just be considered a fountain of knowledge on the history of colonial India. He was a teacher who believed in the oral intellectual tradition of Bengal and one who provided a larger perspective on events, thanks to his training as a historian. So, his students, who had the opportunity to hear him speak, benefited the most from his deep erudition.
Personally, I feel Barun De was a great conversationalist and fully enjoyed a typical Bengali adda (informal chat sessions). I was never his formal student but I learnt a great deal from him in informal settings.
His work focussed on the British colonial rule during the 18 century and early 19 century. In the early part of his life, he wrote about the British colonial period particularly about a military leader, Henry Dundas. In the latter part of his life, he wrote essays on Bengal Renaissance.
His DPhil thesis in Oxford was on Dundas, better known for his role in Britain’s wars against France. It was Barun De who highlighted Dundas’s role in the British colonial conquest of India in the late 18 and early 19 century.
Barun De edited an important collection called “Perspectives in Social Sciences” and wrote essays in honour of Sushobhan Sarkar, who was his teacher at the Presidency College. Yet, he did not write or publish as much as he might have. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge and, as a teacher, was helpful to many budding historians.
In the latter part of his life, he wrote essays on the Bengal Renaissance. In Bengal, we tend to celebrate the great Renaissance of the 19 century. However, Barun De had a critical perspective on its colonial context from a Marxist point of view.
He had a sterling presence in the city’s intellectual circle. In addition to being a fine academician, he was also an institution builder, a rare quality among teachers. He was founder-director of two important institutions — one, the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, which he set up in 1973 and that we used to refer to as “Barun De Centre”; the other, the Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies, set up in 1993.
I have heard stories of how in the late 1950s, four major academic personalities — economist Amartya Sen, historians Tapan Raychaudhuri, Partha Sarathi Gupta and Barun De — travelled together in a ship headed to England. With the demise of Barun De, we have lost a key member of a galaxy of great intellectuals of that generation.
My first association with Barun De was when I was an undergraduate student at Presidency College. The last time I saw him alive was in January 2013 at the Sisir Kumar Bose Memorial Lecture, an annual lecture in the name of my father. He had come to listen to a lecture by the British historian Robert Travers on “Post-Plassey Bengal”.
As usual, Barun De stood up from the audience and asked the most intelligent and perceptive question and made the most insightful comment after the lecture.
(As told to The Hindu)