Remembering Barun De

Anup Sinha

Barun De passed away on July 16, 2013 in Kolkata. He was well known as a historian and an institution builder. He received his education in some of the finest institutions: St. Xavier's School, Presidency College and Oxford University. He had taught in Calcutta and Burdwan Universities, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta and was the founder director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He was also the founder director of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies. He had an enormous reputation as a teacher and a scholar. What struck this writer as remarkable was the wide range of students who thought that his lectures and conversations were intellectually stimulating and rewarding. This included students of history, students of management, and students from a variety of social sciences. Students who had met him even for a very short period of time hardly ever forgot him. Barun De also had an astonishing memory as far as students were concerned.

I never studied history formally. I belonged to a class of undergraduate students he taught for a few months in Presidency College. I think it was his only stint at undergraduate teaching. I was in the first year Economics Honours class in the autumn of 1969 when Professor Nabendu Sen was transferred to Bengal Engineering College. Professor Tapas Majumdar came to our class one day and introduced Professor Barun De from the Indian Institute of Management. He would teach us Indian Economic History instead of Professor Sen. I heard the name of the Indian Institute of Management for the first time in my life. I also saw Barun De for the first time. He was a tall and well-built person, and we were utterly amazed to find that he, within five or ten minutes from the start of his lecture, actually sat on the teachers table and after a few minutes put both his feet up too. We did not know how to react. Other professors in our department were very proper and formal.

As far as I was concerned, I did not have to think about the appropriateness or otherwise of his sitting position. I was getting too involved in his descriptions and his arguments. After a few lectures I was not sure whether he was teaching us Indian Economic History or the history of the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe. For me it was a kind of revelation—he was seamlessly connecting a large variety of events of history across the world into a single picture of change. I remember he was the first professor I ever had, who assigned a piece by Marx for reading.

After the first (half-yearly) examination we had, he called me to Professor Tapas Majumdar's office (which Professor Barun De would share on the two days of the week he came to the college). He said that he was very pleased with the answers I had written and suggested that I could read some more books and articles. However, he looked at Tapas Majumdar and added hurriedly that I should also study all the mathematics that would be part of my economics syllabus. Professor Nabendu Sen (another outstanding scholar) returned to Presidency and Professor Barun De discontinued his teaching.

I met him again at Professor Asok Sen's house where I used to go and bother him quite often to talk about economics and politics and the growing trend of ultra-left politics in Bengal. The Centre for Studies in the Social Sciences became the hub of intellectual activity in the social sciences and I continued to meet Professor Barun De there in seminars and lectures. I was also, for a brief period, a research assistant to Dipesh Chakrabarty, and on many occasions we would have long discussions on what Professor Barun De had to say on some aspect of Dipesh's work.

When I was completing my post- graduation in 1974, Professor Barun De was aware that I needed a job badly since my family was going through some difficulties. He successfully convinced me to apply for a job in Metal Box (a private sector firm). I was hesitant—but I remember we had a long conversation about why my obligation to support my parents was in no way less important to pursue further studies to become an academic. I was not finally selected for  the job, but the conversation with him changed the way I thought about individual priorities in life.

Much later when I joined IIM Calcutta, I found that he would never miss reunions and Founder's Day functions if he was in Kolkata. On many such occasions ; I would invariably have the opportunity to have short but insightful conversations on the state of management education. He loved to meet his old students. I was quite surprised at the extent of his popularity with the students he had taught in the late 1960s and the very early 1970s. Many of them had become senior corporate managers. Most of the alumni remembered his course on the history of Indian business as being much more relevant than anything they had learnt in lectures on marketing, operations or on finance.

The last time I heard him speak was on the occasion of the golden jubilee of IIM Calcutta in 2012. He spoke for an hour or so. It was with amazing dexterity and fluency he connected little anecdotes of events and personalities at IIM during his days to the bigger picture of why management education began in India and what role it was supposed to have in nation building. It was a masterly recollection of the journey of an idea that had lost its way. It was always a pleasure to listen to him talk, whether from the lectures or from across a coffee table.

I realize now that almost all my favourite teachers were people who never lost sight of the big picture of society and history. Maybe that is why I admired them. His departure is a personal loss. To the younger generation of scholars and students I can only say that they do not make them like him anymore.

Vol. 46, No. 5, Aug 11-17, 2013

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