Today, May 23, 2022, the eminent historian Ranajit Guha turns 99, marking the beginning of his centenary year. As of now, there has been relatively scarce acknowledgement about this impressive feat of longevity from the intellectual community or media at large in India, except this movingly personal tribute from his former student and collaborator Dipesh Chakraborty in Anandabazar Patrika. The newspaper, which is only marginally older than Guha, pitched the scholar’s centenary year being “historic for Bengalis.”
Perhaps there is a sense of cultural amnesia at play here. Guha is among our greatest living historians, but for more than two decades now, he has been living a life of quiet retirement in Austria after decades of active teaching at the Australian National University in Canberra. At the same time, his academic works have consistently found a solid readership in interdisciplinary spheres of universities across the world.
It is not possible to make even a broad assessment of these works in a single article. Instead, this is a tribute in the the form of a largely descriptive acknowledgment of how extraordinarily iconoclastic, profoundly unconventional, and radically counterintuitive Guha’s life and work have been. (It comes from an outsider, a student of history rather than of literature.)
Over the past decade or so, I have encountered Guha’s historical writings for a range of seminars on postcolonial theory or critical social theory, but my learning and insight has always been limited, as I am not trained as a historian. I have never attended an in-person lecture/seminar by him. This is a personal tribute.
A vast expanse of scholarship
In the scorching summer of 2009, similar to the current one in some ways, when I was profoundly questioning my decision to take up English literature, I read two back-to-back books by Ranajit Guha. Taalpata, a Kolkata-based publisher, had published a slim volume of Guha’s Bengali writings a few months earlier on the concept of the poetic persona in Tagore’s works, titled Kobir Nam o Sorbonam. In that same summer, Charchapad, then headed by the now deeply-missed Raghab Bandyopadhyay (1948-2017) published another slim study, this time of Tagore’s lyric, titled Chhoy Ritur Gaan.
Both books opened up a new horizon of critical thinking for my immature and impatient mind. Guha’s rare combination of referential breadth, analytical depth, and clarity made me rethink not only Tagore’s works but the very tradition of Bengali criticism itself. Since that summer, I have quite routinely followed Guha’s writings in Bengali, including a short monograph on Rammohan Roy published by Talpata, and other occasional writings published in Bengali periodicals like Desh, Anushtup, and Baromash.
It is fair to say that among the Bengali intelligentsia itself, Guha’s Bengali writings generated a renewed interest in his lifelong work, with Kobir Nam o Sorbonam receiving the prestigious Ananda Purashkar in 2010.
For an English readership, there has been some serious studies of Guha’s work. In 2009, He spoke about his early intellectual evolution quite extensively with historian Kris Manjapra (Tufts University) for the Bengali Intellectuals Oral History Project, including his prosperous family background in erstwhile East Bengal, and adolescent literary interests in DH Lawrence, Dostoyevsky, and the poetry of Michael Madhusudan Dutt.
There were shorter studies earlier, of course. The 8th volume of Subaltern Studies (1994) includes a brief sketch by Gautam Bhadra and Shahid Amin. Bhadra has also written a valuable essay concerning Guha’s village background and its impact on his political outlook for the Bengali journal Oitihashik. TV Sathyamurthy’s assessment of Guha’s work from the perspective of Indian peasant historiography, published in 1990, is more of a methodological survey.
Recently, there has been useful secondary works in Bengali as well. Scholars like Sukanta Chaudhuri and Biswajit Roy have written extremely insightful short pieces for a broader audience about Guha’s literary criticism. In the Autumn of 2019, the journal Anushtup published a long conversation between Guha and his Subaltern Studies Collective co-traveller Partha Chatterjee. It is probably his last long interview to date.
In the first volume of the recently published brick-sized set of Guha’s collected Bengali writings, brought out by Ananda Publishers in August 2019, Partha Chatterjee provides quite a remarkable intellectual context of Guha’s life, learning and scholarship. In two other relatively recently published Bengali memoirs: Apila Chapila (2003) by Ashok Mitra (1928-2018), and Bangalnama (2005) by Tapan Raychaudhuri (1926-2014), Guha commands significant entries.
Mitra and Raychaudhuri, intellectual giants both, remember Guha’s association with them fondly and refer to him with deep admiration and respect. Raychaudhuri more so, despite some occasional healthy scholarly distance between their methods, as documented in the memoir. These sources, considered together, considerably help us filling the void regarding Guha’s life and work as a historian and literary critic.
Education and political orientation
Ranajit Guha (Raychudhuri reminded us amusingly how particular Guha is about the pronunciation of his given name. RONO-Jit, not Ronjit, he would assert...) was born on May 23, 1923, In the Siddhakati village of Backergunge district (now in Bangladesh) in a family of Khas Taluqdars. His father shifted with his family to Calcutta in 1934, where he started practising as an advocate in the Calcutta High Court.
Guha passed his matriculation from Mitra Institution in 1938 and passed through the hallowed portals of Presidency College the same year. In the course of the next few years, he completed his post-graduate studies in history from Calcutta University, becoming deeply influenced by the teaching and scholarship of the legendary Susobhan Sarkar (1900-1982).
Guha has referred to Sarkar’s brilliance several times, and he dedicated his first book to his mentor. An interesting point about Sarkar’s work, mentioned by Guha and echoed by Raychaudhuri, was how, despite his being a deeply committed political worker, his teaching was scrupulously free of any ideological orthodoxy.
In his 2009 interview with Kris Manjapra, Guha mentions how formative Presidency college was to both his intellectual and political growth. He said, “I cannot think of myself as an intellectual without thinking of myself as an intensely political person and one who was always been engaged sometimes to the extent of relegating the academic aspect of the intellectual growth to the background. In Presidency College these two aspects come together in a formative way.”
By the mid-1940s, Guha was a full-time political worker and had joined the World Federation of Democratic Youth (established in London in 1945) as a representative of the Communist Party of India. A fundraising campaign was organised in Calcutta University to pay for Guha’s travel costs.
Over the next seven years, he was immersed in full-time party work, including liaising with leading communist functionaries from around the world. He returned to Calcutta in 1953 with the aim of concentrating on research. Within a few years, the Soviet aggression in Hungary consolidated his resolve to withdraw from political work.
Milestones in scholarship
He started teaching at Chandannagore College, and moved to the Central Calcutta College (now Maulana Azad College) in 1953. Today, folks who vilify the “progressive” hold on the Indian academic community often forget how in the 1950s, a tag of communist belief/work was enough to suspend a scholar’s career progress in the Bengal Educational Service. Guha soon lost his job when his incredibly impressive political work was brought to the notice of the “competent authority”.
Ultimately, he was employed by the fledgling Jadavpur University in Calcutta. Jadavpur’s pedagogical outlook and treatment of postcolonial legacy varied sharply from the world view of the behemoth Calcutta University. It was a great nurturing ground for academic radicals. A 22-year-old Amartya Sen, then finishing his PhD at Cambridge University, UK, had set up the economics department.
While teaching in Jadavpur, Guha renewed his contacts with old friends from university and formed new associations with contemporary intelligentsia. Raychaudhuri discusses their long and relaxed conversations at Guha’s small Fern Road residence, where Amartya Sen would drop by regularly while he was completing his doctoral dissertation.
However, Guha was not making much progress with his research for his PhD at Calcutta University, where his prospective guide, Narendrakrishna Sinha, was sceptical of his methodology. In 1959, he left for a fellowship at the University of Manchester, the fruit of which was The Rule of Property for Bengal (1963), Guha’s first major published work.
One of the many remarkable aspects of this monograph is how it does not stay limited as a historical investigation of the political economy of the Permanent Settlement (1793) in Bengal. Rather, Guha shows how the modes of colonial knowledge formation were deeply influenced by the notions of governance derived from the strands of post-enlightenment philosophical traditions in Europe. The philosophical foundations of knowledge production, from Socratic to phenomenological to Gandhian, continued to play a key role in Guha’s historical output.
Academic life and after
Today, humanities and social science departments of elite universities across the world are eager to embrace Guha’s scholarship, but at the beginning of his career, he had to face considerable academic marginalisation. In 1961, he submitted the study mentioned above as a dissertation to the University of Paris but it was rejected there as well. Ultimately, it was Daniel Thorner (1915-1974), economist and an avid India observer, who intervened, and Guha’s book was published by the Parisian publishing house Mouton.
From 1960 to 1980, Guha taught at the University of Sussex. Chatterjee writes that “during this time he did not publish any academic article or books, he would even largely avoid going to conferences. Basically, he was in a self-imposed exile from the professional community of historians”.
Yet, at the same time, Guha’s deep commitment to teaching, mentoring, and scholarship was unwavering. His first DPhil student at Sussex was Richard Price (currently at the University of Maryland). In a 2013 tribute, for Guha’s main English language publisher in India, Permanent Black, Price wrote:
“There was a spare asceticism to Ranajit’s intellectual being. I remember how he told me that he had spent one cold English Christmas shut away in his apartment grappling with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I was not surprised. Ranajit was perhaps the first person I met who privileged the world of the mind over virtually everything else; who demonstrated that being a historian was in itself a full-time profession. Related to this, was the independence of mind and position that Ranajit projected. He conveyed the importance of following one’s own star and standing as much apart as was possible from the seductions of professional pressures and fashions. Ranajit is one of the few people I know whose stature in the world of professional history has been attained entirely on his own terms. He has followed his own path throughout his life.”
In this period, Guha kept in touch with his contemporaries from Calcutta regularly and visited India in 1970-71 to study the Gandhian impact on Indian social movements, but soon his attention shifted toward peasant rebellions. This was the seed of the Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, published in 1983 by Oxford University Press.
Still, Guha did not waver from his commitment to thinking in Bengali. In 1982, He read an essay at the department of history at Calcutta University titled Nimnoborger Itihaash (The History of the Subaltern). This was soon published by Ekkhon, perhaps the most remarkable Bengali journal of the 20th century. Later, Guha dedicated Kobir Nam O Sorbonam to the memory of Nirmalya Acharya, the founder of Ekkhon.
I am not going into details of what followed in the next two decades, filled as they were with debates and counter debates. But suffice it to say this was the most prolific intellectual period in Guha’s life, if the number of publications is the chief criterion. Apart from the Subaltern Studies volumes, he also published books based on his other essays and lectures.
Guha shifted from Sussex to Australian National University in 1980, where he continued to mentor brilliant scholars, and finally retired from teaching in 1988. By the turn of the century, he and his partner Mechthild had moved to a leafy suburb of Vienna named Purkersdorf in Austria.
‘Going beyond one’s self’
But Guha’s interest in the intellectual history and literature of Bengal did not cease. In fact, it got a new lease of life. While Guha was shifting his focus to the study of German philosophers, he was still in touch with contemporary Bengali writers like Sunil Gangopadhyay, discussing the current developments in Bengali literature.
Within a few years, he announced, astonishing his fellows and friends, that from now on he would principally write in Bengali. This was not necessarily a difficult transition for Guha. He has always been a close admirer of the modern tradition of Bengali poetry preceding Tagore. One of Guha’s first published essays as a teenager was on the writings of Michael Madhusudan Dutt. For Guha, Tagore’s poetic sensibilities are intricately connected to his philosophical outlook.
Yet, the decision had deeper motivations going beyond individual interest. Drawing from the rich traditions of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, Guha explained to historian Milinda Banerjee in a 2010 interview:
“The going beyond one’s self, the ability to take on new selves, to reach the Other, to transcend: these are issues which, I think, are particularly visible in the realm of literature, whether in Tagore or in later Bengali poets. Literature offers insights, and modern Indian writers have been able to achieve new directions, which have neither been so articulated by the discipline of history nor by historians. By going into Indian literature and philosophy, these insights can be recovered, and also be made ready for use by new generations of scholars with eyes less jaded than those of their predecessors.”
I hope we get to read Ranajit Guha’s newly written or previously unpublished work. But I specifically hope that for young scholars, gazing at a bleak future of academia driven by neoliberal logic and narrowmindedness, Guha’s life and work continue to serve as an inspiration.
If the individual and collective life of a scholarly community is shaped by the experimental and radical turns it embraces and courageously recognises, then, come 2023, the past 100 years of Indian intellectual thought may well be marked as Ranajit Guha’s century.
- Ranajit Guha Rachana Sangraha, Ananda Publishers, 2019.
- Interview with Partha Chatterjee, Anushtup, Autumn 2019.
- Short Birthday Tributes to Ranajit Guha, May 2013, Permanent Black Blog.
- Interview with Kris Manjapra, Bengali Intellectuals Oral History Project.
- Apila Chapila, Ashok Mitra, Ananda Publishers, 2003.
- Bangalnama, Tapan Raychaudhuri, Ananda Publishers, 2005.
- Dharma ashole ‘bhalo itihasher notikhana’, Anandabazar Patrika.
- Sunil Gangopadhyay, Ordhek Jibon, Kolkata: Ananda Publishers, 2004.
- Milinda Banerjee. “In Search of Transcendence: An Interview with Ranajit Guha”University of Heidelberg, 2010.