Obituary: Professor T. V. Sathyamurthy
Monday 14 September 1998
He was the originator, sustainer and editor of the landmark series Social Change and Political Discourse in India (1994-96) which refocussed understanding of the political cultural of the subcontinent. Yet this concentration on the study of India came late in his life, was by no means exclusive even then, and it followed much journeying, both physical and intellectual.
A compulsive writer (abstinence for any length led to withdrawal symptoms) Sathyamurthy was the author of several books and a long stream of articles. His intellectual span was remarkable; included in the range were developmental studies, international relations, political anthropology and extensive area studies. All these were seen in a rich interdisciplinary context.
He was born into a Brahmin and civil service family in Madras, in 1929; his life was a complex rejection and affirmation of its values. The anti- Imperial ethos of the late Raj endured with him for a lifetime, yet his 31 years in Britain acclimatised him in every respect (an English heatwave became something of a burden).
As a student at the Benares Hindu University, his quick intelligence distinguished him, and (more importantly) his abilities opened up prospects of greater personal freedom. His subsequent choice of an academic life was the embracing of his natural milieu and the key to liberation. Still, even in his sixties in his (rare) moments of introspection there was a note of enforced self- justification about the path of life he had chosen decades before. Nonetheless, the culture and rigour of his upbringing was the basis of his subsequent achievement.
Sathyamurthy's university education was in the sciences; his first postgraduate research was in Chemistry at Benares. In the 1950s he moved geographically to the American mid-west and intellectually to the study of politics, taking his doctorate in social sciences at the University of Illinois.
The wide humanism of his temperament and the exactness of his scientific training combined to make him critical of the pretensions of the dominant modes of thinking in American political science and, after a year lecturing at the University of Indiana, he left the States in 1963.
For the next few years Sathyamurthy worked at the University of Singapore and at Makerere University, Kampala. His work was broadening into the general field of developmental issues; his book, The Political Development of Uganda: 1900-1986 (1986) was the later fruit of his time at Kampala.
In 1967 came the move to Britain - after a year at Strathclyde University he established his permanent base at York University. From that base he globe-trotted, keeping up his contacts in the mid-west, in India, establishing links in Norway, Paris, Hawaii among many other places. An indefatigable conference attender, his restless gregariousness, his inexhaustible energy and extroversion formed an extensive network of collaborators and acquaintances. He made a priority (totally congenial to his spirit) of keeping friendships in constant trim.
Sathyamurthy's intellectual and political affiliations were broadly Marxist. His sympathy for the downtrodden and his contempt for the shams of the self-satisfied were heartfelt and abiding. He was a well-versed connoisseur of the many and varied political and cultural environments in which he lived: among them was a year in Santiago, Chile (1970-71), when the Allende phase was turning sour.
Sathya's chief delight was the human comedy. He had an enormous sense of humour and child-like capacity for fun. Academic life was oxygen to him - his curiosity about his human habitat knew no bounds; filed in his capacious memory were countless anecdotes, tales of feuds, mishaps, indiscretions and entanglements (he candidly confessed to more than his fair share).
Even by academic standards his capacity for gossip was impressive. He could transmute this, by a higher art, into a wonderfully funny cartoon- like narrative. He was best as he approached the edge of mere fantasy. Sarcasm was entirely foreign to his character.
He rated his teaching as highly important, and intensely personal. His many doctoral students were subjected (among other things) to Sturm und Drang ("I get nowhere with them until they've cried"). All his teaching was extemporaneous, from a retentive memory and ready store of knowledge. He was impulsive, mercurial, expressed his feelings and had an ability rapidly to scan the feelings of others - reserve was practically beyond his command.
Sometimes prone to exasperate others, Sathya (as he was universally known) was also quick to mollify with his disarming openness. The hieroglyphic signature, the loud shirts, the mannerisms (thanking the photocopier), Thurberesque traits (the freezing office was because he insisted - on hearing there was asbestos in a far part of the building - that the central heating be shut off), the corridors ringing with his greetings and laughter; all these will be sorely missed.
Although Sathya gained widespread recognition in many parts of the world, his elevation to a chair at York in 1996 took decades; his Inaugural Lecture was also a Valedictory Address. In the last phase of his career he went from strength to strength. His sudden death was a shock to all who knew him; he was genial, active and engaged with the world to the end.
Tennalur Vengara Sathyamurthy, political scientist; born Madras, India 29 October 1929; Lecturer in Government, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana 1962-63; Lecturer in Political Science, University of Singapore 1963-65; Senior Lecturer in Political Science, Makerere University, Kampala 1965-67; Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics, Strathclyde University 1967-68; Lecturer, Department of Politics, York University 1968-71, Senior Lecturer 1971-96, Professor 1996-1997 (Emeritus 1997); married 1963 Carole Methven (one daughter); died York 25 August 1998.
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