Three Lives in History



A professor, a tutor and a prince met on the road to becoming historians, befriended one another, collaborated and shared scores of letters that now form a ‘historical bridge’ connecting us with them and our shared heritage.

Their letters reveal their passion for history, their thirst for accuracy and the unique expertise each brought to the table. Who were these men? Prof Jadunath Sarkar from Calcutta was an expert in Mughal history; his contemporary, G S Sardesai from Pune was an expert in Maratha history; and Sarkar’s protégé Raghubir Sinh was actually a part of history – a minor royal from Sitamau in Central India, with a passion for the history of the Rajputs.

As they stitched their specialties together, through hundreds of letters sent between 1904 and 1959, they realised early on the significance of what they were doing, and preserved almost every letter they exchanged. A new book, History Men (HarperCollins, 2020, by T C A Raghavan), draws on their letters to look back on “the unbreakable friendship that resulted from a shared commitment” to bringing Indian history to life.

Here’s an excerpt on how it all began.

Jadunath Sarkar (extreme left) with GS Sardesai (in cap) at a meeting of Workers in Indian History at Kamshet, October 1938 
Jadunath Sarkar (extreme left) with GS Sardesai (in cap) at a meeting of Workers in Indian History at Kamshet, October 1938 | Harpercollins India  

Sarkar and Sardesai met for the first time in 1909. The occasion was a Maratha Literary Conference organized by the princely state of Baroda. Sardesai was the secretary of the conference and had the ‘long sought opportunity to meet and know at close quarters Jadunath after four years acquaintance through correspondence’. Sardesai wrote later that the Baroda conference gave him ‘an All India Outlook in letters’ and ‘a more valuable acquaintance, namely, Jadunath’s personal friendship’. The Baroda meeting went well since we have letters exchanged soon thereafter describing time spent together. In November 1909 Sarkar wrote: ‘You may come here and pass a week with me … The shortest route would be Baroda–Ratlam– Ujjain–Bhopal–Itarsi–Jubbulpur–Allahabad–Mughal Sarai– Bankipore.’ The two met regularly — at least once every year afterwards for the next four decades — and in between these meetings, as Sardesai wrote, ‘We have built a historic bridge of letters concealed as yet from any fifth eye.’ The frailty of old age prevented meetings thereafter but the correspondence continued till Sarkar’s death.

The third figure in this triad is Maharajkumar Raghubir Sinh, scion and heir to the throne of the small princely state of Sitamau in central India. Born in 1908, he came to Sarkar’s and subsequently G.S. Sardesai’s attention on account of his research that culminated in his thesis submitted to the Agra University in 1936 titled ‘Malwa in Transition or a Century of Anarchy (1698—1766)’. Raghubir Sinh was introduced to Sarkar by Dr J.C. Taluqdar of St John’s College, Agra, as a possible D. Litt student.7 Sarkar does not appear to have required much persuasion — the idea of having a Rajput scion with a serious interest in history as a student would have been appealing. The heir to a princely state wanting to write a serious research dissertation was certainly unusual for the time. Despite the almost forty-year age gap between them, a close relationship developed between the two. The association continued for the next three decades as the younger man, nurtured and encouraged by Sarkar, was admitted into a small but elite circle of his former students who now comprised some of north and eastern India’s best–known historians. ‘I am very glad indeed,’ wrote Sarkar to Raghubir Sinh in September 1933, ‘to learn that you intend to continue your historical researches. It will be no trouble to me, but a pleasure rather, to render you any assistance in my power.’

Raghubir Sinh was by no means the best known of J.N. Sarkar’s many students, but he was clearly one of his favourites. He was also one of the few who combined a keen interest in historical research with a public career not directly related to research or teaching history. In 1936, Sarkar forwarding his report on Raghubir Sinh’s thesis ‘Malwa in Transition’, wrote to Sardesai: ‘The candidate’s work gives me much hope of his future, as a worthy recruit to our campaign of sound historical research.’ G.S. Sardesai and the English historian P.E. Roberts were the other examiners of Raghubir Sinh’s thesis.

Historian K.R. Qanungo, Sarkar’s senior-most student, was later to write: ‘One of the greatest services rendered by Sir Jadunath to the cause of historical research is to pick up a Dara Shukoh from among the common run of Murads of the decadent ruling houses of Hindustan. This prince is Maharaj Kumar Raghubir Sinh of Sitamau. Dr Raghubir Sinh spent almost his whole fortune like Dara in building up a splendid research library at Sitamau.’ Raghubir Sinh was soon to graduate from his status as a student of Sarkar to an equal participant in his and Sardesai’s endeavours. As his mentors aged and their influence declined, he was to emerge as the person who would carry their legacy forward and complete tasks they had left unfinished. Till his death in 1991 he was a devoted researcher and a prolific writer but best known as the prince who became a historian.

What animates this unusual trio, this triadic association of shared research interests, a commitment to writing history accurately and a close supportive friendship, is also their long, fascinating and detailed correspondence. Almost from the very beginning both Sarkar and Sardesai, perhaps independently of each other, decided to retain their letters and a substantially full record survives. Raghubir Sinh kept all the letters Sarkar and Sardesai wrote to him for a quarter of a century from about 1933 till they died in May 1958 and November 1959 respectively. Raghubir Sinh outlived them by over three decades, he died in February 1991.

Their correspondence concentrates primarily on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as each scholar explored his personal interest: Rajput and Malwa history in the broad context of the Maratha—Mughal interface in central India in the case of Raghubir Sinh; Maratha ascendance and decline in the case of Sardesai. Sarkar explored both these along with other issues including the historical drama in the life of Aurangzeb and Shivaji and the grand theme of the fall of the Mughal Empire and the simultaneous decline of other Indian powers during the eighteenth century. All three had a voracious appetite for unearthing hidden facets of history and a near– obsession with establishing factually correct chronology through primary sources. The quest for different documentary sources predominates as a unifying theme in all the letters but there are other themes also — advancing historical scholarship through mutual support, friendship and loyalty.

Throughout this long period, the three met regularly, toured widely as they pursued remnants of old and once prominent families in search of documents, to see forts and palaces, establish routes taken by armies, or tramp over battle sites. The inevitable long gaps between these meetings were addressed by a regular exchange of letters. The bulk of the correspondence emanated from the three corners of a triangle — Jadunath Sarkar in Calcutta and Darjeeling, Raghubir Sinh in Sitamau and G.S. Sardesai in Baroda and then in Kamshet, a small village near Poona.

Around the nucleus of Sardesai, Sarkar and later Sinh was a broader congregation of historians. These included students and associates of both Sarkar and Sardesai, many of whom were prominent historians in their own right. Names such as K.R. Qanungo, A.L. Srivastava, Hari Ram Gupta, N.B. Roy, V.G. Dighe, S.R. Tikekar among many others surface frequently in the correspondence and provide glimpses of the conscientiousness with which different research interests were pursued and arguments regarding received wisdom, or with other historians, engaged in. This association was important for itself for varied reasons: financial or moral support, locating new sources, sharing knowledge and above all exploring the interconnections of the Mughal—Maratha—Rajput interface of the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the process, a feeling of fraternity and a sense of solidarity about pursuing shared goals were established.

Jadunath Sarkar was the centre and of this triangular association with the bulk of the extant correspondence consisting of letters between him and G.S. Sardesai on one axis and with Raghubir Sinh on the other. We have fewer letters between Raghubir Sinh and Sardesai. Sarkar, apart from being the dominant personality in the triad, also was a very dedicated conduit, so information flows were frequently and in a very real way triangular.

The earliest surviving letter is from Sarkar to Sardesai, dating back to June 1907. Letters written by Sarkar prior to this and those by Sardesai before February 1914 (and some also before 1924) appear to have been destroyed, though the later ones are preserved — in all 625 letters of Sarkar and 770 letters of Sardesai. The Sardesai—Sarkar correspondence evidently had a value which both correspondents realized very early. Sardesai was later to recall how the letters were preserved: ‘Years after when I happened to tell him [Jadunath Sarkar] that I had carefully preserved all his letters written to me and valued these as a precious treasure, he gave me a more pleasant surprise by saying that he on his part had been preserving every letter I wrote to him.’ The possibility of these letters being published was also something both considered from time to time. In January 1956 a very frail and ill Sardesai, possibly convinced that he was dying, wrote to Sarkar:

Our personal correspondence of nearly 50 years is a unique store of historical questions and their development and deserves being preserved. It is rare in the annals of any nation. The Maharajkumar was arranging to publish selections of this store in the Punjab University under the editorship of Hari Ram Gupta. I do not know whether at all such a publication is likely to be ever completed .… Such historical cooperation as yours and mine is a consummation of rare occurrence in any nation. In view of my declining health, the subject must be quickly decided.

In 1957 a very detailed and selected extract from these letters was published by the Punjab University in Hoshiarpur. This formed the bulk of the first of a two–volume commemoration book titled Life and Letters of Sir Jadunath Sarkar. The editor, Hari Ram Gupta, a former student and a lifelong admirer of Jadunath Sarkar explained:

I have endeavoured to include the extracts which narrate day–to–day life with the play of light and shade and show the development of Sarkar’s intellect and character, with the least possible interruption of comment. Each letter has been pruned of everything that seemed to me irrelevant to my purpose and of everything that I thought Jadunath would have wished to be omitted. No single letter is printed entirely from beginning to end.

For the students and admirers of Sarkar and Sardesai, publishing this correspondence was an idea dating back to at least 1940. All the extant letters from Sarkar up to 1935 had been typed into a transcript by S.R. Tikekar, a close associate of Sardesai. Possibly he may well have wanted to edit the entire collection but Hari Ram Gupta and the greater resources of Punjab University were able to undertake this task. In the event, Tikekar was to deposit in the National Library in Calcutta his typescript of the correspondence supplemented with many other later letters of Sarkar to him and to others. The National Library has also the original two–way correspondence but the additional letters in the Tikekar typescript are of value for underlining how very important this correspondence was for the Sarkar—Sardesai circle.

Raghubir Sinh also collected and preserved most letters Sarkar wrote to him. These were published in 1975 by the Maharashtra state archives as Making of a Princely Historian — the reference being to Sarkar nurturing the love of history and history–writing in the heir to the Sitamau throne. This is a full collection of the 329 letters from Sarkar — the first dated 20 September 1933 and the last 15 March 1958. Their publication was largely the effort of S.R. Tikekar who was the editor of the volume. In addition, Raghubir Sinh, being the careful historian he was, also kept — and these remain wonderfully preserved in his library in Sitamau — all the correspondence centring around his joint endeavours with Sarkar and Sardesai as also his correspondence with many of their other students and admirers including Tikekar. Letters to and from Raghubir Sinh with other interlocutors but pertaining to pet projects or unfinished works of Sardesai and Sarkar are similarly available and these illustrate how much Sinh saw it as his responsibility to carry forward this legacy of scholarship of which he had been a part.

The Sarkar—Sardesai correspondence — and Sarkar’s and Sardesai’s letters to Raghubir Sinh — cover a period of over half a century. They are quite obviously representative of an age that is now almost entirely past. The letters valuable in themselves, however, acquire their real value in supplementing and illuminating the friendship their authors forged amongst themselves, the controversies and polemics they engaged in and most importantly the histories they wrote and brought to life. This is what I seek to sketch out in the pages that follow.

I should add by way of disclaimer at the outset — this is by no means a triple biography. A full life of each of them would encompass territories that I have not touched at all and especially a great deal of their personal lives, except when they choose to reveal it to one or other of the other correspondents. Secondly, a very large part of each of our subjects’ lives was largely of no great concern to the other two — Sarkar’s Bengali universe, Sardesai’s Marathi world and Raghubir Sinh’s Hindi realm. Finally, this is also not an appreciation or a critique of their work in history or of its value today. This book largely limits itself to revealing the intersection of these three otherwise separate lives and the unbreakable friendship that resulted from a shared commitment to writing Indian history.

Cover of the book
Cover of the book|Harpercollins India

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