IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 18 | Regions | South Asia

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Ashin Das Gupta (1922-1998)

A fine historian with an international reputation, an exceptional teacher, a beautiful stylist of written and spoken Bengali and English, a perfect gentleman with a keen sense of humour - one does not usually come across the combination of all these qualities in one person. Yet, those who knew Ashin Das Gupta would agree with me that he symbolized a rare combination of all these qualities.

By Bhaswati Bhattacharya

Das Gupta was educated at Presidency College, Calcutta University, and Cambridge University, was a fellow at Oxford and taught at Presidency College, Visva Bharati, Heidelberg, and Virginia among other places. Later he became the director of the National Library, administrator of the Asiatic Society, and before he fell ill, vice-chancellor of Visva Bharati. He was awarded the padma-shree, one of the highest honours conferred by the government of India.

Das Gupta was mainly a historian of Indian maritime trade and merchants. Inspired by the writings of the Dutch historians like Jacob van Leur and Mrs. Meilink-Roelofsz.(in his classes he would often refer to the latter as jhagrate mahila - someone who liked to argue), Holden Furber in America, and the English historian Charles Boxer, he, along with Sinnappa Arasaratnam (whom he met at the General State Archives in The Hague), Tapan Raychaudhuri, Kirti Narayan Chaudhuri, Om Prakash and others, used the hitherto unexplored records of the Dutch East India Company. The central focus of his research was the course of Indian maritime trade and the nature of the activity of Indian merchants in the eighteenth century.
Why did he choose maritime history? Answering this query, he said the day he was awarded his MA degree, he was asked by his guru, the historian Narendra Krishna Sinha, to 'get out'. So he got out of Bengal and started working on the coast. His first book on Kerala ('Malabar in Asian Trade', 1967) was based on the research he did at Cambridge under Eric Rich. This book is a marvellous portrayal of the impact of local and international politics on the merchants and trade of Malabar.'As I started working on the coast, I realized that in order to explain the coast, Indian developments were not enough-you have to go out of India. That was the beginning of my maritime history'. His second book, Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat, 1700-1750 (1979), in an attempt 'to understand the real reasons and...actual process of decline' of the port of Surat. The merchants of Surat, according to Das Gupta, had flourished contemporaneously with the great empires of the Mughals, the Safavids, and the Ottomans. There were extremely wealthy merchants in Surat. But whether big or small, all merchants were interested in making as much profit as possible within a short time. They were not interested in long-term investment, a reason why agricultural or industrial production did not benefit remarkably from the increase in their trade. There was no institution to protect the interests of the merchants who remained divided in their pursuit of personal fortunes. They were dependent on the state for their security and consequently, their trade was violently disrupted with the weakening of the great empires. India and the Indian Ocean 1500-1800 (1987), a volume he edited with Michael Pearson, following Fernand Braudel's example of the Mediterranean, tried to see the Indian Ocean region as a unity and brought together essays on different parts of the region by scholars from various countries.
Das Gupta believed in the tradition of narrative history. His book on Surat is an example of his beautiful narrative style. History to him was placing an individual in the context of his times, an attempt to explain the life of a man as part of the society. This human aspect of history, he said, was absent in the works of social scientists, because the social sciences do not say anything about the special contribution, the role of the individual in the society. He was sceptical about the use of statistics and theories in writing history. He reassured his students about the necessity of being able to think independently and reconstruct the past on the basis of asking questions and answering them in a simple way, grounding temselves on a critical study of the sources.
His method of teaching made his classes very special. He would identify the problem, present the arguments and counter arguments, and analyse them with the help of relevant facts in a simple manner. Whether his lectures were on Gandhi, or the Indian Ocean trade, it was a pleasure to listen to Das Gupta speaking. At Visva-Bharati many people from the campus would unofficially come to attend his classes on Gandhi. He had great respect for Gandhi's ideology. 'But' he would say, 'Gandhi was asking for the impossible. India would always admire Gandhi but India would never follow him. This admiration....makes Gandhi relevant to India at all times'.
During the last few years we have seen how gracefully he and his wife, Dr Uma Das Gupta, accepted his crippling illness. Friends, students, and well-wishers all were welcome. Ashinda received everyone with a tired but unfading smile. Sitting in the wheel chair he kept on dictating papers, articles, and book reviews, both in English and Bengali, almost till the end. The study of history, specially Indian maritime history, will be poorer without Ashinda.
Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a former Ph.D. student of Professor Ashin Das Gupta and is currently attached to the Kern Institute, Leiden University. She can be reached at: bijlert@letmail.let.leidenuniv.nl.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 18 | Regions | South Asia