Christopher Alan Bayly (May 18, 1945-April 18 , 2015), who has died suddenly in Chicago, was a virtuoso historian, perhaps the most gifted of his generation anywhere in the world. His work exhibited a prodigious thematic variety – crossing economic, social, political, cultural, and intellectual history, the histories of the visual arts and the natural sciences, of intelligence and war, of development and the Indian economy, of global intellectual history – as well as an exceptional chronological reach and global extension.

In his first body of work, in particular Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, published in 1983, Professor Bayly changed how we think about the local roots of the origins and end of British rule in India. From this he developed in Imperial Meridian of 1989 a new interpretation of the transition between the First and Second British Empires. He went on, in a trilogy of key works – Empire and Information (1996), The Origins of Nationality in South Asia (1998), and Recovering Liberties (2011) – to examine how British Imperial power in India brought the intellectual worlds of Britain and India into dialogue. He changed how we understand how Indians responded as active agents to western science, nationalism and liberal political and economic thought.

He was also a brilliant global history comparativist who, in a series of connected monographs, in particular The Birth of the Modern World (2004), offered influential reinterpretations of the patterns of convergence in world history between 1750 and 1900. His work was throughout characterised by a quality of synthetic imagination, a capacity to spot unexpected connections, and a delicacy and wit of exposition.

A great teacher

Professor Bayly’s impact as a scholar, teacher, and colleague on history and the social sciences can scarcely be measured. His generosity with students is legendary, and the wealth of collaborations he has enjoyed with colleagues in India, the United States, continental Europe and Australia are tokens of the respect in which he is held.  He treated his younger colleagues and students as equals, and had a quality of attention to each of them which is rarely found even in the best graduate teachers.

In February 2014 he gave his last undergraduate lecture on Indian history, after over 40 years of teaching at Cambridge. For the students, it was simply a survey of “The emergence of 'mass politics’ in India”:  an exploration of classic themes – tensions between local, regional and national politics in the 19th and 20th century, religion and politics, the evolution of nationalisms, the impact of World War I and World War II, the breakdown of British power, the origins of Partition, the timing of Independence. But, more quietly, through his discussion of the historiography, Bayly reflected on his own almost five decades in the field.

He began with explaining, and distancing himself from, the old "Cambridge School of Indian history" with which he once did business, explaining the limits of its focussing on the impact of the colonial government, on caste and regional difference, and its vulgar and instrumental focus on Indian political action as driven by office-seeking. He discussed the old Marxist interpretations which looked at political nationalism as driven by a frustrated Indian capitalism seeking a new economic order. He then offered a deft critique, amusingly from the Left, of Subaltern Studies, urging that the category of the “subaltern” while making some phenomena visible, led to a failure to differentiate between a variety of interest groups, and of levels of political activity.

Exploring new work

With great care he then set out some of the newer terrain of interpretation as it has emerged over the last decade: he discussed Andrew Sartori's neo-Marxist interpretation, Brian Hatcher's “Bourgeois Hinduism”, the exploration of the relationship between religious and political thought of Shruti Kapila, Ajay Skaria on Bhils, Ajay Skaria, David Hardiman and Faisal Devji on Gandhi, Devji on Jinnah and the politics of Pakistan, the new work on the impact of international revolutionary anarchism, and on Indian participation in forms of idealist/romantic political thought.

His style of delivery was very matter-of-fact, he spoke while seated, “and another aspect we should consider is....”, less a formal soliloquy than a system of interventions, but cumulatively it was a tour de force, a masterful discussion of the past and present of his subject. What I will always admire in Christopher Bayly was his capacity of response to new ideas, his almost animal instinct for something stirring in the bushes, and his extraordinarily capacity to integrate new work into his repertoire or adapt what he was doing to engage with it.

Professor Bayly was a Fellow of the British Academy and was Chairman of its Modern History Section from 1997 to 2001. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Royal Society of Literature, and also a member of Academia Europaea. He received the 2005 Wolfson Prize for History, for his entire body of work. In 2007 he became the first academic expert in extra-European history to be knighted. He became a Trustee of British Museum in 2008 and he was awarded the Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 2009.  He was made Doctor of Letters honoris causa of King's College London in November 2014.

A great scholar, a fine human being, a mighty oak has fallen.

Richard Drayton is the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King’s College London.