(12 May 1953-1 June 2020)
It is with a deep sense of sorrow that we record the passing of Professor Vijaya Ramaswamy of Jawaharlal Nehru University on June 1. An erudite scholar, Vijaya’s association with The Book Review dates back to her own student days in JNU. We carry below a tribute to Vijaya from her friend and colleague Professor Kumkum Roy.
We are also carrying, with a heavy heart, the last review she will ever write for us.
Uma Iyengar Chandra Chari
It is difficult to even begin to respond to the news that Vijaya is no more. As someone who got to know her almost as soon as I joined JNU as an MA student in 1977 and remained in touch ever since, and for many others, she will always be there in everything we think, say, write and do. For her, as indeed for many of that generation, the Centre for Historical Studies was the centre of an academic universe that she inhabited, rebelled against, shaped and nurtured in countless ways, big and small, even as she ventured far and wide, across the globe, from Australia to Europe and America, and throughout the length and breadth of the country, studying, lecturing, sharing her insights but always returning to touch base.
Vijaya was amongst the first students of the MA programme of the CHS, as I was reminded by Subbu, C.N. Subramaniam, my classmate, and one of Vijaya’s closest friends. She also went on to do her research and publish her thesis, in 1985, titled Textiles and Weavers in Medieval India. This remains a classic even after 35 years, and was remarkable for a variety of reasons. In many ways, it was symbolic of the success of the experiment that the CHS had undertaken, in breaking away from conventional historical studies, and charting out new grounds. In this work, Vijaya broke out of the classic chronological divide, ranging from the early historic and early medieval to the colonial context, tracing socio-economic changes that would have otherwise escaped analysis. Bringing crafts persons and technologies centre-stage would remain one of her many lifelong passions, and Vijaya was intensely passionate about whatever she did and wrote. Also, the work was remarkable for the range of sources Vijaya used—from Tamil texts, to inscriptions, to ethnographic accounts.t is difficult to even begin to respond to the news that Vijaya is no more. As someone who got to know her almost as soon as I joined JNU as an MA student in 1977 and remained in touch ever since, and for many others, she will always be there in everything we think, say, write and do. For her, as indeed for many of that generation, the Centre for Historical Studies was the centre of an academic universe that she inhabited, rebelled against, shaped and nurtured in countless ways, big and small, even as she ventured far and wide, across the globe, from Australia to Europe and America, and throughout the length and breadth of the country, studying, lecturing, sharing her insights but always returning to touch base.
From the 1980s, as feminisms and women’s studies began to gain ground, Vijaya developed an abiding interest in the field. She pursued these in two directions, or may be more, given her ability to straddle different domains with ease and enthusiasm. Her contributions to foregrounding women within different devotional strands were marked by deep empathy, and a willingness to embrace their diversities as well as identify with their quests that would remain a constant strand for the rest of her life. Her personal quest for spiritual insights enabled her to invest these investigations with an immediacy, far removed from the cut-and-dried vocabulary of ‘normal’ academic discourse. Walking Naked and Divinity and Deviance familiarized many of us with these worlds of protests, quests, and insights. And, with her unique zeal, Vijaya went on to organize a thought-provoking seminar on the theme of devotion and dissent, which laid the seeds for a course on these traditions, introducing students and researchers to a wealth of resources and ideas.
Vijaya also succeeded in combining her commitment to histories of work, evident in that on weavers, with issues of gender, which resulted in the anthology that she edited on Women and Work in Precolonial India. We often had arguments about how our understanding of work could be engendered, and we differed, but it is because of Vijaya’s doggedness that the issue acquired a certain visibility, and she spared no pains in unearthing references to the activities performed by women in virtually every field.
A third area, which runs through Vijaya’s works on crafts and on gender, was a systematic engagement with all things Tamil. Tamil was, for her, not simply a language—it was much more, in spite of, or because of its complexity, conflicts, and long history. It is this which enabled her to produce the Historical Dictionary of the Tamils, which became a model for those of us who were engaged in similar projects.
Vijaya combined her enthusiasm for academics with a fondness for her students and colleagues, and, when she became chairperson, a sincerity to try and do her best in extremely difficult circumstances. She was transparent, determined, if not stubborn, and compassionate. Her ability to extend herself to people in distress or difficulties was immense—in spite of the chronic health problems that plagued her. And, in lighter moments, her ability to laugh at herself and others, is something we will always cherish.
These are more personal reminiscences from a long association—sharing with all those whose lives she touched. I do not remember when I first met Vijaya—but my memories of sitting on the floor of the corridors in the old campus, outside the library, sipping tea, are interspersed with those of a figure who used to hop/ skip along, always bubbling and in a hurry—that was Vijaya.
We grew to know one another much better during the 80s. In 1983, when I began looking around for a teaching assignment, Vijaya was the teacher-in-charge in Gargi College, one of many places where I had applied—I was grilled by the interview board. There were 3 and ½ posts, and ultimately I qualified for the ½ post, a part-time position, to teach Social Formations. We managed to stay in touch even as our working lives drifted apart. We also had our differences, sometimes frivolous, and sometimes more serious. But, when we had these, we missed one another as well. I would look forward to formal occasions when I could legitimately offer an olive branch of reconciliation—birthdays, new years (Tamil, Bengali, English), and other festivals. Vijaya was far more flexible—she could call at any moment, and start off: ‘hey Kumkum’. The disarming directness of that moment would lead to an immediate restoration of bonds that ran far deeper than we sometimes publicly acknowledged.
There is so much that I will miss—phone calls at 6 am or 9 pm. Six am to check whether I was actually up, and 9 pm to check whether I was in bed. Nothing deterred her, certainly not the fact that she was generally wrong in her suspicions.
We also became part of one another’s families—she could call and announce, with characteristic directness: ‘Today I don’t want to talk with you, I want to talk with Aunty.’ And Sethu Mami and I, as well as my mother, also shared our exclusive moments. Vijaya loved our dogs passionately, and mourned with us when we lost them. Durga pujas were, for years, not quite complete without a visit from Vijaya, Ram and Krish, and we would also go over to see Aunty’s unique, imaginative, innovative displays for Navaratri, where dolls would come to life and little stories be woven around them, and of course to feast on heaps of goodies.
Over the lockdown, we stayed in touch on phone, whatsapp and email. Both Ram’s birthday (30th April) and Vijaya’s (12th May) were always marked in Ma’s calendar, which I now rely on. When Vijaya heard that I was translating Bengali short stories, she demanded that I send them to her. The translations had started as a means of circumventing futile lockdown induced anxieties, and I had been sharing them with some friends. I sent one, which was a ghost story, to her. She called back—this is scary, I believe in ghosts, you can send me other stuff. The last exchange we had was on Sunday, 31st May, typical low brow humour that both of us relished, a whatsapp picture of ducks holding a webinar in Lodhi Gardens, trying to figure out what to do when humans returned post lock down. I got a characteristic reply. The messages I sent yesterday, one feelgood, and the other an advisory for senior citizens, remained unanswered. One will have to wait.
By Kumkum Roy
2nd June 2020