On 15 May 1958, an eighty-eight-year-old Jadunath Sarkar in Calcutta wrote the following lines from the English poet Tennyson to GS Sardesai in Kamshet, a small village near Poona. The occasion was Sardesai’s forthcoming ninety-fourth birthday on 17 May.

Since we deserved the name of friends, 
And thine effect so lives in me,
A part of mine may live in thee
And move thee on to nobler ends.

Sarkar died at his home in Calcutta after four days and GS Sardesai a year and a half later.

Their friendship and association had extended over half a century – beginning when both were relatively obscure scholars (and few would have even termed Sardesai a historian in the early twentieth century) and continuing into the 1950s when both, in differing measures and from different quarters, were regarded as sage-historian-scholars of their times.

The correspondence between Jadunath Sarkar and GS Sardesai began in 1904 following an introduction through Gopal Rao Deodhar who suggested that their association would be mutually beneficial: to Sarkar for Maratha documents and to Sardesai for Persian and Mughal sources. Sardesai was later to relate how Deodhar encountered Sarkar by chance “sweating over the Persian manuscripts of the Khuda Baksh Library and incidentally mentioned me [ie, GS Sardesai] and my work to him”.

Recalling the first letter he had received from Sarkar some half a century earlier he said: “Sometime in the year 1904 a letter in an unknown handwriting indicating vigour and precision and with contents securely formal and business-like, took me by surprise at Baroda. The name of the writer did not solve the mystery as I had not till then heard of him.”

What the letter offered was a “honourable bargain”: that Sardesai supplement Sarkar’s considerable Persian collections with Maratha sources. This was, Sardesai recollected, “like a divine windfall” as he himself was feeling the need for Persian sources and did not know Persian. In short, the letter became, “the pledge of future cooperation between the Mughal and the Maratha.”

Sarkar and Sardesai met for the first time in 1909. The occasion was a Maratha Literary Conference organised by the princely state of Baroda. Sardesai was the secretary of the conference and had the “long sought opportunity to meet and know at close quarters Jadunath after four years acquaintance through correspondence”. Sardesai wrote later that the Baroda conference gave him “an All India Outlook in letters” and “a more valuable acquaintance, namely, Jadunath’s personal friendship”.

The Baroda meeting went well since we have letters exchanged soon thereafter describing time spent together. In November 1909 Sarkar wrote: “You may come here and pass a week with me...The shortest route would be Baroda–Ratlam–Ujjain–Bhopal–Itarsi–Jubbulpur–Allahabad–Mughal Sarai– Bankipore.” The two met regularly – at least once every year afterwards for the next four decades – and in between these meetings, as Sardesai wrote, “We have built a historic bridge of letters concealed as yet from any fifth eye.” The frailty of old age prevented meetings thereafter but the correspondence continued till Sarkar’s death.

The third figure in this triad is Maharajkumar Raghubir Sinh, scion and heir to the throne of the small princely state of Sitamau in central India. Born in 1908, he came to Sarkar’s and subsequently GS Sardesai’s attention on account of his research that culminated in his thesis submitted to the Agra University in 1936 titled “Malwa in Transition or a Century of Anarchy (1698-1766)“. Raghubir Sinh was introduced to Sarkar by Dr JC Taluqdar of St John’s College, Agra, as a possible D Litt student.

Sarkar does not appear to have required much persuasion – the idea of having a Rajput scion with a serious interest in history as a student would have been appealing. The heir to a princely state wanting to write a serious research dissertation was certainly unusual for the time. Despite the almost forty-year age gap between them, a close relationship developed between the two.

The association continued for the next three decades as the younger man, nurtured and encouraged by Sarkar, was admitted into a small but elite circle of his former students who now comprised some of north and eastern India’s best–known historians. “I am very glad indeed,” wrote Sarkar to Raghubir Sinh in September 1933, “to learn that you intend to continue your historical researches. It will be no trouble to me, but a pleasure rather, to render you any assistance in my power.”

Raghubir Sinh was by no means the best known of JN Sarkar’s many students, but he was clearly one of his favourites. He was also one of the few who combined a keen interest in historical research with a public career not directly related to research or teaching history. In 1936, Sarkar forwarding his report on Raghubir Sinh’s thesis “Malwa in Transition”, wrote to Sardesai: “The candidate’s work gives me much hope of his future, as a worthy recruit to our campaign of sound historical research.” GS Sardesai and the English historian P.E. Roberts were the other examiners of Raghubir Sinh’s thesis.

Historian KR Qanungo, Sarkar’s senior-most student, was later to write: “One of the greatest services rendered by Sir Jadunath to the cause of historical research is to pick up a Dara Shukoh from among the common run of Murads of the decadent ruling houses of Hindustan. This prince is Maharaj Kumar Raghubir Sinh of Sitamau. Dr Raghubir Sinh spent almost his whole fortune like Dara in building up a splendid research library at Sitamau.”

Raghubir Sinh was soon to graduate from his status as a student of Sarkar to an equal participant in his and Sardesai’s endeavours. As his mentors aged and their influence declined he was to emerge as the person who would carry their legacy forward and complete tasks they had left unfinished. Till his death in 1991 he was a devoted researcher and a prolific writer but best known as the prince who became a historian.

What animates this unusual trio, this triadic association of shared research interests, a commitment to writing history accurately and a close supportive friendship, is also their long, fascinating and detailed correspondence.

Almost from the very beginning both Sarkar and Sardesai, perhaps independently of each other, decided to retain their letters and a substantially full record survives. Raghubir Sinh kept all the letters Sarkar and Sardesai wrote to him for a quarter of a century from about 1933 till they died in May 1958 and November 1959 respectively. Raghubir Sinh outlived them by over three decades, he died in February 1991.

Their correspondence concentrates primarily on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as each scholar explored his personal interest: Rajput and Malwa history in the broad context of the Maratha-Mughal interface in central India in the case of Raghubir Sinh; Maratha ascendance and decline in the case of Sardesai. Sarkar explored both these along with other issues including the historical drama in the life of Aurangzeb and Shivaji and the grand theme of the fall of the Mughal Empire and the simultaneous decline of other Indian powers during the eighteenth century.

All three had a voracious appetite for unearthing hidden facets of history and a near-obsession with establishing factually correct chronology through primary sources. The quest for different documentary sources predominates as a unifying theme in all the letters but there are other themes also – advancing historical scholarship through mutual support, friendship and loyalty.

Throughout this long period, the three met regularly, toured widely as they pursued remnants of old and once prominent families in search of documents, to see forts and palaces, establish routes taken by armies, or tramp over battle sites. The inevitable long gaps between these meetings were addressed by a regular exchange of letters. The bulk of the correspondence emanated from the three corners of a triangle – Jadunath Sarkar in Calcutta and Darjeeling, Raghubir Sinh in Sitamau and GS Sardesai in Baroda and then in Kamshet, a small village near Poona.

Around the nucleus of Sardesai, Sarkar and later Sinh was a broader congregation of historians. These included students and associates of both Sarkar and Sardesai, many of whom were prominent historians in their own right. Names such as KR Qanungo, AL Srivastava, Hari Ram Gupta, NB Roy, VG Dighe, SR Tikekar among many others surface frequently in the correspondence and provide glimpses of the conscientiousness with which different research interests were pursued and arguments regarding received wisdom, or with other historians, engaged in.

This association was important for itself for varied reasons: financial or moral support, locating new sources, sharing knowledge and above all exploring the interconnections of the Mughal-Maratha-Rajput interface of the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the process, a feeling of fraternity and a sense of solidarity about pursuing shared goals were established.

Excerpted with permission from History Men: Jadunath Sarkar, GS Sardesai, Raghubir Sinh And Their Quest For India’s Past, TCA Raghavan, HarperCollins India.