ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Barun De: Situating an Eminent Historian Historically

Barun De was a fine historian who retained a regard for evidence and a finely balanced empirical approach to research. He was also a diligent institution-builder who marshalled a number of institutions with distinction.

Barun De, historian of early modern India, passed away in Kolkata on 16 July 2013 after a brief illness. He was 80 years old. The age of 80 might have been considered very old in the year of his birth, 1932, when average life expectancy was 32 years in India; today life expectancy is 65 years – one of the many indices of the historic changes he saw in his lifetime. He was quite active intellectually till the end, except for the last two months when cancer affected his brains. An obituary in the Economic & Political Weekly, which carried some of his writings over three decades, will be eminently appropriate. Such an obituary, unlike those published recently in the newspapers, might attempt to look at his life and work in the light of the history of his own times.

Barun De’s lineage included a long line of civil servants. In the online world there is a sort of obituary that emphasises this aspect, but his claim to recognition does not rest on his genealogy. At the same time, that background does matter if one looks at his social location in the Indian middle class of the metropolitan cities. The Kayastha tradition of serving the state and their entrenched position among the elite of the capital city Calcutta are relevant. So is the fact that Barun De’s grandfather was one of the early Indian entrants into the Indian Civil Service (ICS) in Bengal. The point, however, is that Barun De chose a career path different from what one might have expected, given his social background. He made a bold choice in opting for an academic career.

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