Renowned historian Sir Christopher Bayly passes away

“For many years, Bayly’s works have been considered essential reading in universities all across the globe.”

By Wendy Lee

Sir Christopher Alan Bayly, one of the world’s most influential historians of India, passed away on April 20 of a heart attack. Bayly was appointed one of two of the University’s Indian Ministry of Culture Vivekananda Visiting Professors in 2013. Bayly revolutionized the field of world history by reshaping people’s understanding of India’s past. In 2007, Bayly was the first academic expert in extra-European history to be knighted, and he was also elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1990.

“Bayly stood out as an exception in the growing specialization in Indian historical research,” Sarath Pillai, one of Bayly’s history Ph.D. students, wrote in an e-mail. “His grip over Indian history and world history made us think about the possibilities of combining both…. Bayly taught us that generosity and humility were indispensable to a mentor/teacher. His generosity was legendary and perhaps the single characteristic of his persona unquestionable to anybody who came in contact with him. At his passing, we have lost a great historian, a kind teacher, and a charming friend.”

Bayly was born on May 18, 1945 in Kent, England. After attending The Skinners’ School, he went on to study at Balliol College and St. Antony’s College—both at the University of Oxford. He received his B.A., M.A., and D.Phil. degrees there. During his time at the University of Cambridge, Bayly was the Vere Harmsworth Professor Emeritus of Imperial and Naval History, the president of St. Catharine’s College, the director of the Cambridge Centre of South Asian Studies, and the co-editor of the New Cambridge History of India. In addition, Bayly was previously a professor at Queen Mary University of London and a Humanitas Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford. In 2006 Bayly was appointed the Library of Congress Kluge Center Chair of Countries and Cultures of the South, where he researched the emergence of liberal ideas in India and its effect on the country’s intelligentsia.

For many years, Bayly’s works have been considered essential reading in universities all across the globe. His early texts, The Local Roots of Indian Politics: Allahabad, 1880–1920 and Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire, are now considered classics in the field of history. His book Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars is standard recommended reading in Indian universities.

Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty worked closely with Bayly in the South Asian Languages and Culture department. In an e-mail, he wrote: “Chris…was a presence in my life ever since I came into the world of South Asian history…. The field was very divided along ideological lines…[but] in 1983, came Bayly’s masterpiece, Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars…that completely changed the face of 18th-century India…. Our academic community…loved him…a great scholar, a wonderful person, and an enabler of other, and especially younger, scholars.”

Bayly is survived by his wife Susan Bayly, who is a prominent historical anthropologist based in Cambridge. A memorial service will be held at the Franke Institute on Wednesday, April 29.