Obituary: Professor Ashin Das Gupta

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ASHIN DAS GUPTA was a leading historian of modern India with a formidable reputation as a scholar of international standing. His very first book, Malabar in Asian Trade 1740-1800 (1967), based largely on the hitherto unexplored records of the Dutch East India Company, was recognised as a major contribution in the tradition of Jakob van Leur, W.H. Moreland and the pioneers of Asian economic history.

In the 1950s, a number of scholars had worked on the Dutch records for the history of Asia's trade with Europe. But Das Gupta moved away from the format of trade history and reconstructed from the scattered and elusive data a clear picture of the traders and the traders' socio-economic milieu. He presented it in a compelling narrative which bestowed a human face on his framework of analysis.

Das Gupta is counted among the handful of modern historians who never lost faith in the relevance of narration and thus helped revive the tradition of narrative history. His analysis was sharp, but he remained sceptical about the use of tools borrowed from the social sciences, especially the use of statistical method where the data were far from dependable.

In his first work, as in his work of mature scholarship, his 1979 monograph Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat c1700-1750 and his numerous articles on trade and traders, Das Gupta proved his point: he showed how significant historical insights could be accessible without sacrificing literary elegance or borrowing from other disciplines - which can mislead when used without due care.

He explored from different angles the history of trade and traders in the 18th century, focusing on particular ports and regions: Malabar and Surat were followed by Masulipatam and Hugli. But his plans were derailed by the onset of a cruel illness.

The relevance of politics to the ups and downs of a country's economic life, especially trade, and a detailed awareness of the global context of international commerce inform his writings. Following Fernand Braudel's famous 1949 work on the Mediterranean as an economic region, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, a historical movement focused on the Indian Ocean began in the 1970s, bringing together scholars from various countries.

Das Gupta played a leading role in this enterprise. A volume he edited with M.N. Pearson of Sydney, India and the Indian Ocean 1500-1800 (1987), is recognised as an important contribution to this new field of study. So are his dozen or more articles published in a range of edited volumes, products of international collaboration.

There was an outburst of intellectual and literary activity in 19th-century Bengal which the region's intelligentsia fondly described as the Bengal Renaissance. That description has been voted out of court as too flamboyant for a very limited class phenomenon. Perhaps rightly so. But, whatever the correct nomenclature for that splendid efflorescence of creativity, it produced a particular type of individuals and intellectual ambience. Serious scholarship combined with wide interests, social concern and sociability and a strain of unobtrusive scepticism which could acquire heroic dimensions, were among the hallmarks of Bengal's intellectual culture in the 19th century. Ashin Das Gupta was among the last representatives of that tradition.

Educated at Presidency College, Calcutta and Fitzwilliam Hall, Cambridge, sometime Fellow of St Antony's, Oxford, and Visiting Professor at several American and Australian universities, Das Gupta was completely at ease in the world of international scholarship. Yet he remained actively involved in the cultural life of his region to the end. He published regularly in Bengali on matters literary and historical and above all, on the questions of the day.

He was old-fashioned enough to retain a faith in the relevance of Indian nationalism and the viability of secular democratic values. In the days of the Maoist (Naxalite) movement, he used his acid wit to play terrible games with his own safety. His name was high on the hit list of the revolutionaries. As forces of communal hatred moved to the centre stage of Indian politics, he wrote profusely on its destructive implications. A series of articles on Gandhi in Bengali make perhaps the most intelligent contribution to an understanding of that baffling personality.

Like his 19th-century forebears, Das Gupta felt a commitment to public duty. In 1984 he left his Chair in Indian History at Viswa Bharati to take up the post of Director, National Library of India (1984-90), and then Vice-Chancellor, Viswa Bharati (1990-92). The severe demands of these offices damaged his health.

There was a certain grandeur in the way he and his remarkable wife, Uma, a scholar in her own right, faced up to the great tragedy of their lives - a disabling and painful illness which destroyed him slowly. He continued to write as long as he could and then to dictate his polished and precisely worded lectures and articles. His wit and sense of fun never deserted him and his house remained open to friends and visitors as always. In his life and his courageous journey to death, he became a cult figure in Bengal.

Tapan Raychaudhuri

Ashin Das Gupta, historian: born Calcutta 22 August 1931; Director, National Library of India 1984-90; Vice-Chancellor, Viswa Bharati University 1990-92; married Uma Roy (one son); died Calcutta 4 June 1998.