29 May 2013

Shahid Amin and Chris Gregory on Ranajit Guha

90th Birthday Tribute to Ranajit Guha
Chris Gregory

Chris Gregory is Reader in Anthropology at the Australian National University

I was postdoctoral student in anthropology in Cambridge when Ranajit and his team launched their critique of elitist historiography in 1982. Ranajit was based in Canberra. When I returned to Australia in 1984 to take up a junior lecturing position in Anthropology at ANU I was looking forward to making his acquaintance because, among other things, my area of interest had switched from Melanesia to India.  I knew little of Indian history and I figured it was wise to swat up on his writings before I made his acquaintance; after all, his reputation in Cambridge was formidable.

I began with Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency (EAPI), a book that bowled me over in much the same way that reading Marx’s Capital and Lévi-Strauss Elementary Structures of Kinship (ESK) had.  Like Capital and ESK, not only did the richness of the concrete empirical detail presented in EAPI reveal aspects of the human condition hitherto hidden, I was struck by the skills of the artist who created the work. EAPI, like Capital and ESK, is a work of great rhetorical beauty.  If Marx is a sculptor and Levi-Strauss a musical composer – Mythologiques is consciously modelled on musical forms – then Ranajit is a painter.  Look at the Epilogue to EAPI where the ‘common form’ and ‘general ideas’ of insurgency are likened to the ‘hues’ of a ‘visual pattern’ whose elements are in ‘agreement’ but which also ‘clash and contrast’. EAPI is quite literally the work of an artist.

But what struck me most forcibly about EAPI, and the essays that followed soon after, is that Ranajit is as much an anthropologist as an historian for his work contains a radical critique of anthropology in general and Levi-Strauss’s theories of myth and kinship in particular.  The first sentence of his article on the myth of Rahu boldly declares that ‘Religion is the oldest of archives on our subcontinent’.  This leads him to reformulate Lévi-Strauss’s proposition that ‘the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction’ concretely and historically as ‘many a myth can be identified as ... a figure of some ancient and unresolved antagonism’. When it comes to kinship Lévi-Strauss’s abstract study of elementary structures becomes the concrete analysis of the pragmatics of elementary forms.  For example his analysis of Chandra’s death gives new meaning to the notion a ‘joking’ relationship. Chandra as salhaj (WBW) had a joking relationship with her nandai (HZH) that went too far; he got her pregnant and made her pay for the breach of morality of which he was equally guilty. 

Ranajit’s work also contains a fundamental critique of the anthropologist’s comparative method.  The ahistorical nature of this method has long been critiqued but whereas the turn to history has seen many anthropologists forsake the field for the archive to become narrative historians, the paradox of Ranajit’s method is that he forsakes narrative history for the comparative method but one that is historically-informed.   Ranajit, in true Malinowskian style, is concerned with the ‘native point of view’ on insurgency and he found that many words from different languages and different places in India expressed that idea: bidroha, dhing, fituri, hool, ulgulan. His historically-informed comparative method revealed the ‘common form’ and ‘general idea’ behind these regionally-specific terms.

My understanding of Ranajit’s work was half-baked in the mid-1980s when I wrote to him to arrange a meeting. I remember well our first meeting.  I found him to have an avuncular tolerance for the raw naiveté of juniors but little time for cooked dogmatism of his age-mates upon whom he would have no hesitation to pounce if provoked. Our meeting was the first of many memorable meetings over the next fourteen years.  We developed the habit of long lunches on Friday afternoons, usually at his favourite Tandoori restaurant where Prem, the owner, would spoil Ranajit, treating him, Indian-style, as a very special honoured guest.  Ranajit loves to think aloud and has an extra-ordinary capacity to do so in well-formed sentences.  He had in me a raw young scholar who was not only prepared to listen but felt incredibly privileged to be able to do so.  I do not know how it happened but after some years it only seemed right to both of us that a tape recorder be present at these sessions. (I am now in the process of digitizing and transcribing these.  When finished they will, as per Ranajit’s wishes, be deposited with his other papers in the Austrian Academy of Science in Vienna.) Our conversations ranged over many topics: Gramsci, Marx, Heidegger, Levi-Strauss; Rahu, Pather Panchali; fate, death, god, language; caste, class, power.  I never had any prepared questions.  Indeed, I rarely asked a question.  The mere mention of the name of a person, place or idea would begin a train of thought that might go on for an hour or so.  

          I was privileged, too, to be a frequent visitor to his home where I learned more about his love of painting and anthropology, and where I met Mechthild, herself a PhD in anthropology.  The walls of his house contained some of his abstract paintings, the product of a period of his life when ‘he learned to see’, as he put it, and put down his pen and picked up a brush.  His interest in anthropology was not just with the history of ideas but also with the ethnographic nitty gritty.  He is keen student of Malinowski’s Coral Gardens and their Magic and is the only anthropological colleague of mine I know who is able to discourse for hours on how a Trobriand Islander uses a digging stick. 

Ranajit, it was a sad day for me in 1999 when I took you and Mechthild to the Canberra airport,  but it makes me very happy to see you reach 90 and to start writing and publishing in your beloved Bengali language.  I remember well when you told me ‘I can’t explain the urge to want to write in Bengali’.

90th Birthday Tribute to Ranajit Guha

Ustad Ranajit Guha

Shahid Amin

Shahid Amin is Professor, Department of History, 
University of Delhi

I first met Ranajit Guha in Delhi in1970. I was an undergraduate  reading History; on  leave from the University of Sussex,  Ranajitda was at Delhi School of Economics to research a book on Gandhi. I did not know about A Rule of Property for Bengal then. Dubbed a difficult text concerned with arcane matters, it was not much talked about by our teachers. What really pulled us radical students to Ranajit Guha was his iconoclastic Marxism. We  often gathered at his flat in  Riveria Apartments on Mall Road and subsequently at  24 Cavalry Lines,  where we would  parse an important article from Samar Sen’s Frontier, the fearless weekly  published from Calcutta. ‘On Culture and Torture’, Frontier, January 1971, was my first encounter with Ranajitda’s astringent prose.

             As a Ph.D. student  in England I met Ranajit Guha frequently. Two conversations from the mid-1970s  are still fresh in my mind. I was waxing expansively one evening  about my proposed thesis on  peasant economy and peasant politics in colonial North India. Ranajitda waited for the clatter of the Brighton-Lewis train that passed by his house on Egginton Road to die down. ‘But aren’t you ignoring the ornaments worn  by the women of the region?’ he responded with mock seriousness. ‘Why do you want to do a flabby thesis? Why not focus on  one   important crop, and see where it takes you?’ Collecting  a large amount of   material at the India Office Library and the provincial and district repositories was difficult enough; writing a connected narrative seemed like an impossible task. Thesis-writer’s cramp had set in. Ten pence coins on  the ready, I dialled Ranajit Guha  from a telephone booth. ‘Ranajitda, I have been trying very hard but I just can’t write.’ ‘That’s good, it means you have something to say’, were Ranajit Guha’s reassuring words.

            I converted  the thesis into a book manuscript and sent it to Ranajitda for his comments. Here are excerpts from a three-page letter that I received  in the spring of 1981:

I do think it is necessary to introduce in our work concepts … which can add  rigour to the writing of history. In fact I am sick of the cult of comfortable prose, the one that flows like sugarcane juice, and makes up Indian historiography the feeding bottle on which to suck infantile academic minds and put them gently to sleep … No, I am not asking you to indulge in comfortable prose … We do need conceptual rigour … But however rigorous the thinking, hence the writing, it can hardly dispense with the need for lucidity. 

In guru-shishya tradition I pass on the same advice to my Ph.D. students at Delhi University.


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