Passing away of scholar and teacher Prof Bhairabi Prasad Sahu a great loss for academic fraternity

Delhi University historian and much respected scholar of ancient and early medieval India, Professor Bhairabi Prasad Sahu passed away on Thursday

Passing away of scholar and teacher Prof Bhairabi Prasad Sahu a great loss for academic fraternity
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Raziuddin Aquil

Delhi University historian and much respected scholar of ancient and early medieval India, Professor Bhairabi Prasad Sahu passed away on Thursday, 3 March 2022, following multiple ailments aggravated by post-Covid complications over the past several months.

Much reputed as an eminent scholar, a fine teacher and conscientious academic administrator, Berhampur, Odisha-born and Delhi University trained Professor Sahu had emerged in a leadership role within the fraternity of historians, following a distinguished career in the University, teaching since 1982 and as Professor in the Department of History since 1998.

Professor Sahu authored and edited nearly ten books, including the recently published History of Precolonial India: Issues and Debates (with Hermann Kulke) (2018) and The Making of Regions in Indian History: Society, State and Identity in Premodern Odisha (2020).

A couple of other collections of essays were being prepared for release over the next few months. Some details of these volumes were circulated by him by email to colleagues just last month.

Professor Sahu also published over fifty articles in journals such as Studies in History, Indian Historical Review, Economic and Political Weekly, Studies in People’s History, and Social Scientist, besides chapters in festschrifts and other edited volumes. He had also been on the Editorial Board of the Indian Historical Review, Studies in People’s History and the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress.

Professor Sahu's service to the discipline of history and academic administration in general included a number of positions he held as Head, Department of History, University of Delhi (2004-2007), Dean International Relations, University of Delhi (2007-11), Secretary, Indian History Congress (2006-09) and Council Member, Indian Council of Historical Research (2008-14).

He was associated with the German Research Council’s (DFG) Orissa Research Project (1999-2005). He served as President, Ancient India, Indian History Congress (2003) and at several regional history congresses.

Deeply grounded in empirical research, based primarily on a close reading of inscriptions from the early medieval period (600-1200), Professor Sahu worked as part of the larger quest for local and regional processes of the kind explored by historians of the stature of Professor BD Chattopadhyaya and Professor Hermann Kulke. The latter has been a close collaborator in research projects relating to early medieval Odisha.

Professor Sahu's work on regional historical trajectories offered important synthesis on continuities and change, both in terms of historical processes and appreciation of this by mapping historiographical trends in the past four-five decades; showing how the historiography of early medieval India is not caught in a time warp as is the case with the later period. And much as the nation needs a glorified historical narrative of great achievements, regions and their little aspirations are significant in themselves.

There is generally a bit of an ignorance about regional historical developments of crucial import, which we should otherwise know for some completeness in our understanding of the past in all its complexities and divergences, or towards an understanding of alternative histories, as Professor Sahu would like to put it.

Reviewing a book by Professor Romila Thapar on India's cultural heritage, published in Economic and Political Weekly in 2019, Professor Sahu offered in his signature style a fine summary and synthesis - highlighting the significance of the changing contours of cultural accomplishments of the subcontinent, with varied influences and connections across time and regions.

Despite everything we are currently witnessing, this cultural complex or heritage in all its diversity cannot be undone.

The unfortunate 'shudra-isation' and 'chandal-fication' of the politically misfit 'others' also has a long history, so is the question of women, who were sought to be placed outside the jati/varna matrix in ancient and early medieval India. Some of these struggles will continue.


Professor Sahu also pointed to an interesting lead Professor Thapar has given for the benefit of those who take pride in the greatness of India's ancient past, but have no sense of history: Medieval Arab and Islamic interpretations of ancient Greek and Indian sciences have served as the strong foundation of modern scientific developments led by the Europeans since the early modern era.

Ancient Greek and medieval Arab scholarly genealogies have been systematically traced by the scholars.

The Indian party can also invest in excavating those foundational connections with modern sciences.

However, irrational bigots are not imbued with rational intellectual capacity and patience for a lasting research endeavour - the primary objective of which should be to explore the significance of the lost frontiers and not any misplaced sense of the past for some quick political gains.

Happily, there is so much to learn from our three-four millennia of history behind us. Political calamities can be traumatic but are transient. On the other hand, the history of cultural excellence with diverse influences and wide impact is of enduring, almost structural, significance.

The key here is: intelligent political handling and resolution of vast traditions and amazing cultures. If you cannot amicably manage and resolve inherent contradictions or contradictory strands, you cannot rule for long, nor leave anything to be cherished in posterity.

Insights of this kind made historians of the stature of Professor Sahu as intellectual leaders we look up to for dealing with our current socio-political concerns.

The passing away of such a scholar and teacher is both a moment of loss for the academic fraternity and for reflection on how socially and politically concerned teachers in our universities intellectually intervene in a subtle manner, through their rigorous research and systematic training of the next generation of sound scholars, away from the cacophony of popular politics of the public domain.

Professor Sahu did all these with his soft-spoken, kind, generous, and graceful demeanour. He will be much remembered for the fine body of work and contributions he has left behind.

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