Richard Drayton, In search of Christopher Bayly,” keynote, for the Memorial Symposium for Sir Christopher Alan Bayly St Catharine’s College, Cambridge May 21, 2016
‘Va, pensiero, su alli’ dorate’ – ‘Fly thought on wings of gold’, spread from a small choir to a crowd of thousands in Paris on the night of April 30, the 30th night of the “Nuit Debout” occupation of the Place de La Republique.1 The “Song of the Hebrew slaves” from Verdi’s Nabucco, once the anthem through which Garibaldi and Mazzini’s followers had lamented Austria’s Babylonian tyranny, became a symbol in 2016 of a month’s defiance of the French state’s proscription of public protest.
In Berlin in 1989, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy had spread its wings of optimism over the throng beside the broken wall. Here, in a kind of coda to the unfulfilled promise of that European moment, a crowd which had faced days of tear gas and beatings from the CRS, turned to the lyric of a nineteenth-century liberal— ‘Oh mia patria! Si bella e perduta’ — ‘Oh my country, so beautiful and so lost’ to express twenty-first century hopes for justice and a different world. It is perhaps with a vignette such as this, that Chris Bayly in 2025 would have opened his Twenty-First century sequel to the book which is now to appear.
While he was never, shall we say, a man for the barricades, ‘Va pensiero’ was precious to him, as much for its politics of patriotism and liberty as for its luminous evocation of loss and resilient hope. And thus Susan chose it as the exit music for the farewell ceremony we shared a year ago. But what is certain is that it is in our efforts to write history that we can best remember him, and so Chris I bring this gift in homage to your cast of mind and style. II. In search of Christopher Bayly, we reach first through his writing. Writing was at his centre. He wrote daily, especially on holiday, using scraps of time to play with a paragraph. Those of us whom 1 The night I refer to is available here- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwCMitZ14f4 (accessed May 1, 2016). The first performance was, however, as early as April 9: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDIEuHNbYCs (accessed May 1, 2016). 2/12 he trusted to read his drafts- Susan over 30 years, Tim Harper and Chris Clark for 20, Faisal Devji and Shruti Kapila for 10 – will remember how rough they were, how he was willing to risk the loose threads of a thought to which he would later return.
As Clark has captured it, Bayly thought through writing, he explored his position and occupied it with pen in hand, through cycles of rethinking. Writing was both a profoundly solitary business and something which, as an act of communication, filled him with delight, through which he reached out to the world. He would leave Cafe Nero before 9 to stride up King’s Parade to his study with a gleam of malice in his eye, knowing he had two hours to write before a lecture. Bayly liked to reach towards his readers’ minds through vivid word pictures where he knew reason and imagination might meet. These were sometimes grotesque events such as the many burials of Santa Anna’s leg, more often it was the evocation of predicament, of the facts on the ground which constrained those who were making history. He was profoundly curious about how and why people thought and acted, as curious about the crowd as the individual.
One of the reasons he loved opera he explained to me was its confrontation of this problem of how individuals were both unique and strange, and yet swept up in tides of shared values and sentiment, that tension which Mazzini framed in his paradox of the “individualità collettiva”, collective individuality. Bayly’s constant reading of anthropology, sociology, political economy and in particular his attempt to marry Marx and Weber was always in service to this challenge of understanding how people made history, even if, not always, exactly as they chose, as individuals and as crowds, parties and social movements. Take the opening of his masterpiece Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: The valley of the river Ganges was the main axis of Britain’s Asian empire. Along its length ran Kim’s Grand Trunk Road which linked British Bengal with the cities of Mughal India and pointed northward to the high regions of Central Asia. Down the river in the course of the nineteenth century were transported huge quantities of cotton, opium and indigo bound for China and Europe to balance the books of Britain’s whole oriental trade. By 1880 a railway ran along the river bank speeding Lancashire goods to their mass market in 3/12 the interior but also bringing the angry young men of Bengal into contact with the conservative leaders of the Hindu and Muslim heartland.2
With great economy, only a little more than 100 words, Bayly has set the scene for the making and unmaking of British power in India, evoking both a material and imaginative landscape, and introducing the forces which made that power possible and whose effect would, in a sublime dialectical way, unleash the energies of political nationalism, unravelling, or perhaps subsuming, that power. Bayly’s history as much as his politics was based on the view that human beings around the world were fundamentally the same. And the implications of this were that the historian might use patterns seen in one part of the world to understand another. From that early moment, in which he turned from Russia to India, transferring from central to south Asia a set of research questions about the local as a crucible for historical change, his method was comparative. In a passage from Rulers, Townsmen, as interesting for its sociological nous as its comparative spirit he argues for the role of elite consumption in driving economic change in North India: The composition of aristocratic demand in India is a largely unexplored field. It represents an important line of connection between the economic historian and the historian of ideas. . . In most societies kings are great spenders, Lucknow only seems unique if we forget its contemporary, Versailles….. [Sombart] claims that in the west, luxury consumption was a product of ‘sensuality’ which arose from the secularisation of love at the end of the European Middle Ages and the rising role of women in society.
This is not irrelevant to the case of North India.3 Admire Bayly’s epicurean manoeuvre, by which luxury consumption, which Victorian moralists treated as a sign of Mughal degeneracy, is transmuted into a sign of economic and social vigour, with desire and pleasure and taste as drivers of history. He moved easily from that macro scale of analysis to the problem of the individual.
Examine how he takes us in Forgotten Wars, with Tim Harper’s help, into the predicament and mind of Nehru in 1949: 2 RTB, p. 1. 3 RTB, p. 58. 4/12 Jawaharlal Nehru lived in Parliament Street, New Delhi in the very house that had once been occupied by the commander-in-chief of the old colonial army. Nehru’s moments for reflection were few in the early months of 1949, though the anniversaries first of Gandhi’s assassination and next of Subhas Chandra Bose’s birthday punctuated his heavy workload. Linked by an accident of chronology, the memories of India’s apostle of non-violence and the warrior martyr were to march in unlikely companionship into India’s future. Nehru’s education as a world statesman had been brutal. Less than five years earlier he had been writing Indian history in a British jail [note how many temporal juxtapositions are compressed in that sentence: ‘Less than five years earlier he had been writing Indian history in a British jail’]….. Historians sometimes write as if a sturdy and reliable British Raj had been transformed overnight into an equally dominant Indian secular state. Nothing can be further from the truth.4
Notice how Bayly has set up a wobble between two times – colonial and postcolonial – then, sat Nehru at the crux of an antithesis between the non-violent and violent fathers of the Indian nation, which he seals with two abrupt Tacitean sentences which, repeat the wobble, and frame Nehru as the prisoner of events, then retreating to analytical safety. There is much thought in these sentences about how to communicate how people make, and are made, by history.
Explaining human predicament may be the central task of the historian, and to it Bayly brought learning and imaginative compassion. And such poise. III. Poise, balance, control, measure, these characterised how Chris inhabited his body and not just his paragraphs. I think of how he kept space in his room C3 in the Main Court of this college where I met him a quarter of a century ago when I was elected a Research Fellow of St. Catharine’s, and through keeping space, kept company, generating a gift-giving game of exchange with his interlocutors. You sat here, he sat there, surrounded by his objects, the Turkish hammam slippers, the Gandhara head, his father’s master mariner’s compass, the portrait of the youth elected to the Indian Civil Service, and space was kept in the rhythms of conversations, a discipline of listening carefully, measured silence, and careful response, arched if possible around a joke. How he kept his own boundaries and used his strength allowed others to find their own. This was his genius as a teacher, and his gift as a friend, never to force his views onto us, but by his respectful attention, 4 FW, pp. 460-1. 5/12 listening hard and telling us what he thought we were saying, to allow us to find the logic in our own positions.
What Bayly wrote of Eric Stokes, his mentor and friend, might equally be said of him: ‘His influence ..was accomplished . .not with domineering patronage, but through humour, self-deprecation, and intellectual inquisitiveness.’5 Bayly did not look for acolytes, for people who simply agreed with him, he sought out strangeness and difference, and the better you knew him the more forcefully he would disagree with you. He might even reveal a capacity for anger and the passions he kept behind a mask of English austerity. His deep self-containment was visible in his mastery of the arts of the committee. Chris would listen conspicuously and quietly as the debate evolved, with only the occasional chuckle or grunt of affirmation, waiting, waiting, until matters appeared to be leaning slightly in one direction, then intervening with the minimum force necessary to complete the victory of a position he supported, or to swing a minority view into a position of strength.
Chris fought the good fight, but he did not seek out administrative glory. He refused, for example, many invitations to stand for the mastership of Oxford and Cambridge colleges. He had not even sought the Vere Harmsworth Chair until, after the deadline had closed, its Electors, as Barry Supple will remember, invited his application. He never applied for large research grants, and only took offices, such as convening the main M.Phil or the Center for South Asian Studies, where he saw intellectual opportunity. He had the greatest contempt for audit processes like the REF which he saw as encouraging a bureaucratic corruption of the university, the mass production of worthy but forgettable scholarship, and even the risk of the ascent of mediocrity. He scorned metrics, recalling how Eric Stokes, whose intellectual impact on three sides of his discipline was fundamental, had yielded his first monograph only when 35, and his second when 54. He surrendered instead to the pure flame of intelligence, with that weakness, which only the strongest have, towards forms of intellectual power different from their own. He divided academics into those whose thinking was 5 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/61613. 6/12 always likely to surprise you, and those whose skill lay in tending assembly lines, and kept the first close to him. He knew that their independent strength would add to his own impetus. He feared what he called “the rise of the robots” in the university, as productive but derivative minds gathered productive but derivative minds into an all conquering army, Max Weber’s ‘specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart’. One of the keys to Chris, his self-mastery, a certain caution, and his hatred of bullying, is he never forgot what it was like to be vulnerable. So high and brilliant was Chris’s star in the last twenty years of his life, that it it is often forgotten that he spent his first fifteen years in Cambridge without a History faculty post, as a college lecturer here at St Catharine’s. This precarious situation meant a higher teaching load and lower status. Chris carried this experience with him, as Bayly told Clark, ‘it put the iron in my soul’. Every once in a while, particularly if helping a friend nurse the wound of some humiliation, he would share a memory of something unpleasant, of being ignored or excluded from the sunshine of preferment, of being condescended to by a contemporary. He was particularly conscious, how, in a way now unimaginable, some people once presumed that to work on India he could not be quite good enough to work on Britain or Europe. This propelled his later strong support of juniors, in particular those without tenure, and those who took the risk of research in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. He lived with a measure of pain in that body. He was never wholly well again after the years of research in India, where he had chosen to live modestly and had been seriously ill several times. The aches of bones and teeth, which may be the price of wisdom, were combined in his sixties with eruptions of gout. But he powered through it all, ordering strategies of self-management. He kept time: on the frame of the academic year, he built his own rhythm, varieties of company and solitude, engagement and retreat, his battered little red Cambridge diaries always in the pocket of his jacket, an annual cycle framed by matriculations and examinations and the annual summer 7/12 retreat to Venice with Susan, with a daily cycle between research and lecturing in the morning, meetings or research in the early afternoon, and supervising or seminar later, with, if possible, a drink with friends before dinner. His favoured medicine was the company of friends. The most common phrase I find in his emails is ‘shall we have a drink?’. We tried to meet for drinks and dinner on summer and winter solstice nights. In late December 2011, for example, he wrote, “Why not come about 6.30 to my room. We will need to find somewhere to eat thereafter. Browns? I’ve checked the Trinity party goes on after 9pm. The invitation says ‘Family members welcome’, so I guess you can come along as part of my scholarly tariqa. I won’t be wearing a tie”.6 He wrote me on Christmas morning that year: I came into the old South Asian Centre to look at my email, but it’s a strange feeling to be here alone without the library with nere another human being in sight adding, lest I worry about him, I shall shortly take off for a glass of champagne with friends.7
And in July 2013, when he was forced to leave his beloved C3, I proposed a two-stage evening in which his tariqa would carry the flame across to his new base in Malcolm Place, he replied: Which Roman Emperor was it, in his last hours, who said ‘I feel myself becoming a god’? When my friends begin to organise rituals for me, moving fires to various tirthas and defending my reputation in their ‘histories’, I begin to feel the same. . . But would be delighted to raise a glass with you all on Sunday night in Caths and then MP. As [Clark] knows, MP 35 is now crammed with Georgian and Victorian chairs so perhaps four [people] is the ideal number- any more might also give rise to dali-dali (Shruti knows what I mean…), but we can discuss that PAX Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, Imperator8 A glass or two was not just a sacrament to be shared over conversation, it played a role too in how he managed himself when alone, he stilled his body’s mind with wine in order to occupy his mind’s body. In that stillness he dreamed, listened to music on a tiny stereo, and explored countless paths into the world through his reading and writing. 6 cab1002 to rhd1000, 20 December, 2011. 7 cab1002 to rhd 1000, 25 December 2011. 8 rhd1000 to cab1002, 16 July 2013. 8/12
These internal journeys had an outer life. He played no sport but was a keen walker, beating regular routes from City Road through town to St Catharine’s, through the back gate over to Laundress Lane to the Centre for South Asian Studies, across Silver Street or King’s to the Faculty or the UL, out to the Anchor, the Eagle, the Granta and the Garden House, during which he was not unknown to converse with stray dogs, cats and ducks. When alone in C3, he strolled thinking, back and forth, looking out the windows, so that as you looked over from Corpus, he seemed like a captain pacing the deck of his ship. And he spliced new roads with old ones.
In a memoir of Stokes, he described Eric leading him down the alleys and byways of London which lead from Liverpool Street to the India Office Library at Blackfriars. I have seen him open similar systems of walking, in Oxford when he came to give the Radhakrishnan Lectures in 1996, in Charlottesville in 2001 when he gave the Page-Barbour, and in Belfast in 2007 when he gave the Wiles.9 And to see him 100 metres away, wrapped in his brown raincoat and his thoughts, moving with a slightly rolling gait, gave one an immense sense of comfort, the world was safe where he walked. These peregrinations, at once highly regular, but punctuated by exploration, the outer double of how he occupied a piece of writing through adventures of naming and description, retracing the routes of ideas he valued, was linked to Bayly’s profound interest in place.
Place mattered. He repeatedly advised students that, they should not write about somewhere without visiting it, even if its archives were in the UK. It had been his own experience – it was an overland trip as a undergraduate to India, via Turkey, Iran and Pakistan which had set him on his road, and it was through sipping tea on the Ghats of Benares, through a research technique as ethnographic as it was archival, that he had found his way to some of his most important sources. The importance of localities, of holy places, of the imagination and naming of places, of places as the drivers of 9 Somehow it happened that I was present at the both the inaugural seminar he gave at Cambridge in 1993-4, the valedictory seminar of 2013-14, and at his last undergraduate lecture in Lent 2014, and in Oxford when he gave the Radhakrishnan (out of which came the Origins of Nationality in South Asia). Ajay Skaria and I, both then in Charlottesville, were however responsible for him giving the Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia, and Chris was responsible for my being in Belfast for his Wiles Lectures in 2007, both of which were stages towards Recovering Liberties. 9/12 economic, cultural or intellectual exchange, is a recurrent theme in his work from his first work on Allahabad to his last on Indian political thought.
And he sought in Venice – which as I teased him once, he liked because it was the Benares of Europe– later in the Reform Club, and later still in Copenhagen and Chicago, places to travel to, from which to see and write. IV. But there was a centre, from which he travelled, and to which he always returned. This place was that region of England bounded by the Kent of his childhood to its south, where he learned to love fields, rivers and ruins, and to hate organized religion and sport10, his mother’s later perch to the west, and Oxford and Cambridge to its north. One secret to his fecundity is his roots grew untroubled here for six decades.11 Three years ago, in May 2013, Chris and I spoke at an event in Oxford, and we went to dinner at Balliol, where he had matriculated 50 years earlier in 1963, and I in 1988.
Beside that raffish portrait of Christopher Hill, he reflected on how he had really discovered history at Oxford over his seven years. As Boyd Hilton has put it to me, in those days one went to Cambridge history for facts, but to Oxford for ideas. In one direction, Bodley, the India Institute and the King’s Arms, in the other St Antony’s and Nuffield, it was a space of conviviality and intellectual daring, where historians like Keith Thomas reached towards anthropology and sociology, while economists and sociologists reached towards history. There was great proximity between teachers and students- I remember his memory at the opening of his first Radhakrishnan lecture in ’96, of a summer day 30 years before, exactly there at the Examination Schools, when Richard Cobb and Jack Gallagher, had greeted the Balliol boys after their last exam with champagne. Cobb and Gallagher taught how 10 Although there are questions about his much professed hatred of sport, in his reading each day of multiple newspapers he seemed to garner quite a lot of news about tennis and cricket. 11
I do wonder if he had been encouraged by the university to keep his chair until 70, and had been allowed by his college, which he had served for over 40 years, including serving as its President [which means in St Catharine’s as in Corpus the presiding fellow vs. the Master, who is the ‘head of house’], to keep C3, whether we would not still have him with us. 10/12 thinking and sociality went together, and how style was the servant of historical argument. And at King’s London in 2012, he acknowledged how Sarvepalli Gopal, the key mentor of his doctoral years, helped him to discover how Indians viewed their own history.12
But Cambridge was his home from 1970. The impact on him of the so-called ‘Cambridge School of Indian History’, against which he made his own road, is well-known, and marked the body of work which ran from the Local Roots of Indian Politics of 1975 to Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars of 1983. He gained much stimulus from his exchanges with Tony Hopkins, the Africanist and historian of globalization, who as Smuts Professor was his most important senior colleague, and from Megan Vaughan. Less understood, though, is how much Chris responded to the life of non-Indian history in the Cambridge Faculty on Bayly. A careful reading of Imperial Meridian (1989) reveals the impact on him of Beales and Blanning on eighteenth-century Europe, John Morrill’s four kingdoms view of British history, of Boyd Hilton, and even the Peterhouse School of History. His St Catharine’s colleagues John Thompson, Hans van der Ven and Chris Clark were a constant source of stimulus, and he delighted at Eugenio Biagini leading him towards Mazzini. His rejection of that bureaucratic idea of the university, meant that he read all his colleagues’ work. He had the mental horsepower not to need to hide behind the excuse of ‘not my period’ or ‘not my part of the world’. His intellect had the capacity to bring the Faculty together. Few realise, too, how important for Chris’s turn to global history was his teaching of the ‘Expansion of Europe, 1500-1914’ paper, rightfully described by Ronald Hyam as the jewel in the crown of the Tripos. You have heard of research-led teaching, this was teaching-led research. In later decadent days, many refused to teach topics outside their regional specialities. But Chris taught the entire span, as I did, helping the student understand the whole sequence of global conjunctures, while equipping himself to think about comparisons and connections between China, India, Iran and Turkey, as per Imperial Meridian, and even India and Latin America. For Bayly’s category of 12 http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/sga/kii/documents/Bayly-lecture.pdf. 11/12 ‘humoural patriotism’ in the Origins of Nationality in South Asia (1998), for example, was sparked, in part, by the arguments about creole nationalism in Mexico he met in David Brading’s The First America, while teaching. The Birth of the Modern World (2003) was also built on the frame of Paper 21, for which almost half of the topics were Nineteenth century. Cambridge’s intellectual life was also fundamental to that second great arc of work, in which he looked at the intellectual interactions of India with Britain and the West which culminated in Empire and Information (1996), The Origins of Nationality (1998) , and Recovering Liberties (2011).
On the one hand, from the early 90s when I met him, he sniffed the wind coming from Free School Lane, reading new work on science and empire, responding to Richard Grove’s work on conservation and European empires, and Simon Schaffer’s turn to the global history of measurement. On the other, his turn to global intellectual history clearly responded to the work of Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and Gareth Stedman-Jones and the other ‘Cambridge School’. Although we might also see Bayly’s attempt to take seriously the entire spectrum of Indian intellectual life from the astrologer to the political theorist, and in particular to address how Indians’s responded in a muscular way to European ideas, as a reply to those who had sought to reduce Indian political thought to manipulative or mimetic posturing, that is to say against both ‘Cambridge School of Indian History’, which had viewed Indians in a neo-namierite way as purely instrumental actors, and to the Subalternists who had treated nationalism as a ‘derivative discourse’.13 V.
Bayly was also very much a man of a time. Only very late in our friendship did I learn how much Chris loved science fiction, thus his dark ‘rise of the robots’ quip, and in particular that liberal epic of the parliament of man displaced to outer space which we call Star Trek. He quietly cultivated a set of utopian hopes for the twenty-first century world grounded in the optimism of the moment of Decolonization, mass democracy and the welfare state. Except for his taste in music, he was very 13 I was pointed towards this insight by Shruti Kapila. 12/12 much a 1960s man. He tended to avoid wearing a tie. He liked informality, and I recall he chose to give inaugural and valedictory seminars rather than lectures. He was not unaware of the pleasures of what the Saddhus call bhang. He responded to feminism, and was part of that generation of senior scholars, which includes Quentin Skinner and Richard Evans, who were determined that the university would treat women and men equally. He pushed for racial diversity in the academy. He treated people as equals. VI.
Chris returned to Benares for the first full moon of 2015. I am profoundly grateful that so many of us were able then to celebrate his life with him, three moons before his death. In my contribution, I began with the mystic sanyama of rivers at Allahabad – the Triveni Sangam – where the Yamuna, and the invisible Saraswati river merge into the Ganges, a sacred place where the ashes of Gandhi and Nehru were scattered, and where bathers, such as Chris in his 20s, are released from the cycle of rebirth. This meeting place of water and memory helps us think about the philosophy of history, and in particular about the hybridity of time, about how the historical event might be thought of, as confluence rather than conjuncture. Through the lens of the conjuncture, the Yamuna dies at Allahabad. But the Yamuna dies only in name. Its particular burden, the silt and sum of its journey from the Himalayas, changes the meaning of the Ganges. The change is incomplete, with many competing eddies and incomplete engagements, with the event of the meeting expressed in a system of unresolved turbulence, over episodes which cascade through time. Even when the Ganga meets the sea, pockets of sweet water survive unmixed in the Bay of Bengal. So it is with those to whom our lives are profoundly connected by kinship, love, and work. Chris had no faith in divine immortality. His generous life was completely focussed on the care and enjoyment of here and now. But in that focus he met and mixed with us, and will be present forever as our provocative companion, his flood in our rivers,and enjoyment of here and now. But in that focus he met and mixed with us, and will be present forever as our provocative companion, his flood in our rivers, his questioning compassion, if we allow it, our own, Va, pensiero, su alli’ dorate’.
1 The night I refer to is available here- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwCMitZ14f4 (accessed May 1, 2016). The first performance was, however, as early as April 9: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDIEuHNbYCs (accessed May 1, 2016).
2 RTB, p. 1.
3 RTB, p. 58.
4 FW, pp. 460-1
6 cab1002 to rhd1000, 20 December, 2011.
7 cab1002 to rhd 1000, 25 December 2011.
8 rhd1000 to cab1002, 16 July 2013.
9 Somehow it happened that I was present at the both the inaugural seminar he gave at Cambridge in 1993-4, the valedictory seminar of 2013-14, and at his last undergraduate lecture in Lent 2014, and in Oxford when he gave the Radhakrishnan (out of which came the Origins of Nationality in South Asia). Ajay Skaria and I, both then in Charlottesville, were however responsible for him giving the Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia, and Chris was responsible for my being in Belfast for his Wiles Lectures in 2007, both of which were stages towards Recovering Liberties.
10 Although there are questions about his much professed hatred of sport, in his reading each day of multiple newspapers he seemed to garner quite a lot of news about tennis and cricket.
11 I do wonder if he had been encouraged by the university to keep his chair until 70, and had been allowed by his college, which he had served for over 40 years, including serving as its President [which means in St Catharine’s as in Corpus the presiding fellow vs. the Master, who is the ‘head of house’], to keep C3, whether we would not still have him with us.
13 I was pointed towards this insight by Shruti Kapila.