• Sucharita Sen

From a Student’s Pen – The Story of a Revered Professor

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay at 6th Annual Indian Newslink Sir Anand Satyanand Lecture, held on 25th July, 2016. Photo provided by author.

The Boeing-777 battled its way through the turbulent currents. I looked through the porthole to be enchanted in the splendour of Wellington, a city which was to be my new home for the foreseeable future. My transition had been radical, from a sultry thirty-six degree to a freezing four degree. Some Antarctic winds were on a short visit to Wellington, drastically scaling down temperatures. Arrival in New Zealand’s little capital drenched me in excitement. But more than anything else, the supervisory arrangements which I had succeeded in securing inflated my enthusiasm. The idea of approaching Professor Sekhar Bandyopadhyay for supervision germinated in classes at Presidency University when my Professors drew upon Bandyopadhyay's contributions. Throughout the process of doctoral admission, they offered their support, inspiring me at every stage to fulfil my ambitions, giving wings to my desires. So, off I went to fulfil my dreams.

Three hours after landing, I ran down Kelburn Parade, a sylvan hilly path leading to the History Department. My first destination was Bandyopadhyay’s office. As I stood facing the man who had till then reached me through his writings, I found a father-figure in him. Even for trivial matters on how to resolve the issue of my heater declining to warm my room to my decision to shift houses, Bandyopadhyay’s advice gradually became indispensable before any decision.

Prof. Bandyopadhyay’s personal recollections have always been happy interludes amidst the otherwise serious academic discussions. Bandyopadhyay stepped into the world of academics with a strong legacy. His father was an erudite scholar, an award-winning professor and a painter. In every way, Bandyopadhyay mirrors his father, a simple man of unparalleled intellect and strict principles. Bandyopadhyay’s earliest memories are nestled in Chuchura (Chinsurah), a historic Indian suburb with a colonial past. As a little boy of barely four years, he dreaded the arrival of Holi, when a scary bunch of his father’s students arrived to sprinkle coloured water on him, defying all protests.

A village school introduced him to the academic world. Walking through the extensive paddy fields, Bandyopadhyay made his way to this school. After a brief life in Kolkata, Bandyopadhyay moved to a life amidst the panoramic hills of Darjeeling. Soon he picked up his love for table-tennis, a game which he continued with success in his college days. With many friends from the local communities, Bandyopadhyay spoke fluently in the Nepali language. The little boy who had walked for miles through the paddy fields, now trekked along the meandering mountainous slopes. Horse-riding added to the mirthful juvenile years.

The fun-filled life at Darjeeling Government School gave way to a life of rigorous discipline at Sarisha Ramakrishna Mission Shikshamandir. He enjoyed the last few years of school life, dividing his time between his studies and social welfare activities in rural Bengal. When the school arranged public lunch for the villagers, he toured the villages, collecting subscriptions. As part of a voluntary students’ fire-fighting group, Bandyopadhyay visited villages with his group to combat the outbreak of fire. They extinguished fires not with water canons but tackled them with buckets of water. On one such occasion, this enthusiastic group of thirty students were returning after a fire service. Around midnight, the boys had to traverse a bamboo bridge on a creek. The not-so hardy bridge had the capacity to withstand a maximum of four to five people. The group, rejoicing their recent accomplishment, together climbed on to the poor bridge, which soon collapsed under their weight. Off fell the thirty excited achievers into the stream, struggling their way through the cold water, a solvent which a little while ago had been of great assistance.

Bandyopadhyay’s transition from boyhood to manhood coincided with an exciting and exceptional period in West Bengal’s politics. In the late sixties, a peasant rebellion in a quiet village in North-Bengal suddenly assumed a pan-Indian character. The Naxalbari uprising crystallised in Kolkata’s colleges, where young students were ideologically attracted to the idea of socialism. Campuses became the base camps of guerrilla warfare. State power retaliated with a disastrous toll on student casualties. The movement espoused the cause of the downtrodden, who had, for generations, endured exploitation at the hands of the richer sections. The Presidency College became the hub of the Naxalite movement. Students increasingly identified themselves as Marxist-Leninists, a variant and offshoot of the then fissured parent Communist Party.

Bandyopadhyay entered Presidency College’s historic campus at 86/1 College Street at this juncture. It was a not so ideal first day at college. Uninterrupted spells of torrential rains had transformed the streets near the college into muddy pools. Disregarding all odds, Bandyopadhyay made his way to the classroom, as a student of History, not by choice but by chance. He was desirous of studying literature but missed the entrance examination for English, propelling him towards his second choice. Towards the final days of his first year, classes became irregular. Frequent college shut-downs disrupted education and extended the undergraduate days beyond the standard three-year period, exacerbating uncertainty among the college students. The Naxalite movement had doctrinal commitments which could be too revolutionary to some, yet ideal to others. Bandyopadhyay, a sympathiser of the Naxalite movement, found an opportunity to work towards village reconstruction. But the movement’s gradual drift to violent tactics disillusioned him. Particularly, he disliked the attacks on libraries.

The tumultuous undergraduate years gave way to a peaceful two-year period at Calcutta University. Parallel to a vibrant academic life at the University, Bandyopadhyay was actively involved in amateur theatre, performing at Kalamandir, Rabindra Sadan and the Academy of Fine Arts. He became associated with eminent figures like Badal Sarkar who was then experimenting with ‘Arena Theatre’, involving productions in open-spaces, away from the proscenium stage. Bandyopadhyay became an enthusiastic participant in Sarkar’s workshops.

His association with theatre was short-lived. In two years, Bandyopadhyay prestigiously graduated with a gold medal. Eventually, he commenced his doctoral research at the University. Thus, began a career in academics, one which would become the most sustained and glorious phase of his life. In those days, research methodology followed a pre-scheduled flowchart, which began with visiting the archives, finding a research area, formulating questions and finally framing the hypothesis to be tested. An enormous corpus of archival material, hitherto less explored, gave him the idea of his thesis. ‘Caste matters in Bengal’s life’ – was the hypothesis which Bandyopadhyay proved in his doctoral thesis, leading to the publication of his ‘caste trilogy’ and numerous other articles. Much in focus have been the Namashudras (considered outside the four-fold caste system). Caste, according to Bandyopadhyay, sustained its dominance by marginalising every voice of dissent. In the works of Bandyopadhyay, these multiple voices, often peripheralized as dissentious come to the forefront, challenging any claims of uniformity.

Bandyopadhyay began his teaching career with lecturing positions in his hometown. Then a faculty member at Calcutta University, he became the first recipient of the prestigious Charles-Wallace postdoctoral fellowship at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, a prelude to the world recognition which was deservingly in store for him. The future unfolded to provide him with a well-deserved acknowledgement on the other side of the imperial capital. Bandyopadhyay applied for a lectureship at Victoria University of Wellington. On the day of Mahalaya, he gave a telephonic interview. His appointment letter reached him when Kolkata was celebrating Lokkhi Puja.

Professor Bandyopadhyay at his University office. Photo taken by author.

Within a few years of commencing lectureship in Wellington, the University offered Bandyopadhyay a permanent position with a handsome promotion. The bulk of his scholastic contributions (five of his six monographs, among other academic contributions) appeared during his tenure at Victoria University of Wellington. Bandyopadhyay’s books are loved by the academic community. As a budding student, I was drawn towards From Plassey to Partition and After – A History of Modern India, which caters to readers with less or no prior knowledge of history. Plassey to Partition was a distinct break from his earlier works, which were carried out at the archives. New Zealand was far away from Kolkata and London. Distance was a major impediment in accessing the archives in India and the United Kingdom. But Victoria University’s library, being a part of the inter-library loans system, left an enormous number of books at his disposal. At this time, Orient Longman invited Bandyopadhyay to author a book on Indian History. Out of his classroom lectures emerged Plassey to Partition, which would soon become the bible for the students of Modern Indian History.

His 2009 monograph Decolonization in South Asia won him the esteemed ‘Rabindra Smriti Puraskar’, given by the Government of West Bengal. Bandyopadhyay ventures beyond the historic boundary of 1947, analysing regional politics, all of which had hitherto remained under-researched. From the poor peasant in a paddy field to a refugee in the borderland, the less-privileged recurrently feature in his works. The much-desired Indian freedom in 1947 was, in part, marred by the partition which accompanied it and the violence that ensued. But what meanings did such words have for a farmer, a street-dweller or an agricultural labourer who had suddenly found in the partition, an outlet for freedom from the oppressive landowner? Bandyopadhyay answers these intricacies of Indian history, while analysing the politics of West Bengal in the years following Indian independence. His works explore various social categories through the perspectives of the marginalized.

Selected books. Photo taken by author.

In a fascinating dozen of edited and co-edited collections, Bandyopadhyay collated the contributions of both eminent and emerging historians, reflecting on political economy, society and religious-identity in India. In one volume (a personal favourite of mine), Bandyopadhyay, with his co-editor Tanika Sarkar, another leading historian of modern India, explored the history of the city of Calcutta, the epicentre of politics and culture, during the tumultuous, yet creative decades of the 1940s and 1950s. The editors blended poetry with historical writing, retaining the quintessential beauty of both genres. In an impressive span of twenty-one papers, the historic city emerges, blossoming creatively from its turbulent past.

New Zealand, Bandyopadhyay’s present homeland, has occupied much of his field of inquiry. In his twin sets of books and articles, Bandyopadhyay explored the possibilities of bilateral relations between India and New Zealand. A forum to facilitate India-New Zealand dialogue emerged when the New Zealand and Indian governments signed a treaty of collaboration. The New Zealand-India Education Council came into existence, leading to the foundation of the New Zealand-India Research Institute in 2012, with Bandyopadhyay as its inaugural Director. In tandem with the directorship of the institute, Bandyopadhyay held other administrative posts at Victoria. He has always been a scholar-administrator, intellectualizing his administrative duties. In 2009, Bandyopadhyay was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, a befitting reward for his contributions. As a pivotal leader of the New Zealand delegation in three rounds of ‘India-New Zealand Track II Diplomatic Dialogues’ in 2016-18, he secured a place in the Indian Weekender’s List of the ‘Twenty-five Most Influential Personalities in India-New Zealand Relations’.

Over the years, Bandyopadhyay’s scholarly-leadership has reached monumental heights. For me, success is being selected by Bandyopadhyay as his student. His prudence, admirable discretion and temper compound the generosity, so unique to him, with his humility complementing his achievements. As I continue my interactions with Bandyopadhyay, I discover every moment, the magnanimous personality he embodies.

Often, I look behind, recollecting the journey I have travelled so far. My professors at Presidency laid the foundation of the best future I could have wished for. Victoria University of Wellington gave me the best supervisor I could have ever hoped to have worked under. Researching under Bandyopadhyay’s guidance continues to be a fascinating experience. The secret to a peaceful PhD life is his support, kindness and integrity.


Note of gratitude

I remain eternally indebted to all my Professors at Presidency University, Kolkata, particularly Abdus Samad Gayen, Pradip Basu, Rajat Ray, Zaad Mahmood, Nandalal Chakraborty and Madhura Shamkant Damle for introducing me to many of the academic contributions of Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and for supporting me throughout my postgraduate days and beyond.

The author is pursuing her PhD. on Colonial Relations in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century British India, at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Currently she is a Junior Correspondent at Organization for World Peace, New Zealand Division.

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