Ray, Niharranjan (1903-1981) was one of the last of India's polymaths, having written extensively on a vast range of subjects including art, classical and modern literature, history, religion, politics and biography. He first made his name in the field of art history, a subject that became the basis for his experiments on an integrated approach to history. His quest for synthesis of political, cultural, economic and social aspects of human experiences culminated in his magnum opus, Bangalir Itihas (in Bengali). This classic work represents a momentous shift from the interpretation of history in political terms and is remarkable for making the common people the centre of the historian's attention. It is no less notable for its literary quality.
Niharranjan Ray enjoyed considerable variety in his professional life. He was for a time librarian in the University of Calcutta, and then Bagesvari Professor of Fine Arts and Professor of Ancient History and Culture. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha and of the Pay Commission of India. He was the founding Director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Simla. He served the administration of such institutions as the National Library and the Indian Museum in Calcutta.
He was a visiting Professor at a number of universities in India and abroad, was a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, the International Association of Arts and Letters (Zurich) and the Asiatic Society (Calcutta), and was the recipient of many prestigious awards such as the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Government of India's Padmabhusan.
Born in Mymensingh in 1903, Ray had his early education at the local National School, where his father served as a teacher. He studied ancient Indian history and culture at Calcutta University and got his MA degree in 1926. In the same year he won the Mrinalini Gold Medal for his article on the Political History of Northern India, AD 600-900. Between 1927 and 1933, he spent some time in Burma with his teacher, Professor Benimadhab Barua; the two of them carried out extensive research on Burmese temple architecture. This intensified his interest in art and also made him realise that art cannot be studied in isolation from society, the state and the broader culture to which it belongs. It was in Burma that he did the groundwork for the integrationist approach to history that he perfected in his Bangalir Itihas (History of the Bengali People) published in 1949.
On his return to Calcutta from Burma he learnt Burmese and Mon, and took up the study of the art and architecture of Burma seriously. He presented a dissertation on the subject at Calcutta University for their prestigious premchand roychand studentship (PRS), which was awarded in 1928. Having undertaken several study-visits to Burma between 1928 and 1933, he published his three books on Burmese art and religion: Sanskrit Buddhism in Burma, 1936; An Introduction to the Study of Theravada Buddhism in Burma, 1946 and Art in Burma, 1954. In 1933 Ray set out for Europe where he took doctorates in Letters and Philosophy from the University of Leiden and received a London diploma in librarianship. He returned to Calcutta in 1936.
In the Bengal of 1920s and 1930s, in other words during the formative years of Niharranjan Ray, the intellectual and emotional climate was one of liberal humanism; whatever concerned man and his environs in the world nearest to him seemed to have interested Ray, and fed and nourished him both emotionally and intellectually. Two of his great contemporaries, Bankimchandra and Rabindranath influenced him profoundly. In particular, the life and works of Rabindranath imbibed in him the spirit of liberal humanism. Tagore's wide universal interest articulated in diverse creative directions, seemed to have inspired him all through. His strong Brahmo family background contributed towards his orientation.
Ray actively participated in the politics of a militantly nationalist revolutionary party such as Anushilan Samiti, and later was active in the Indian National Congress. He also had links with such political groups as the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Communist Party of India. He was deeply influenced by personalities like Gandhi, Nehru and Marx. As a student of ancient Indian history and culture, particularly of the arts and religion, he was interested in the origin and evolution of India's traditional aesthetic, social and cultural patterns and values. India's speculative thought as articulated in the Upanisads and the Aranyakas, into which Ray dived later in his life, largely shaped his vision and imagination. Equally deeply and vitally, he was affected by nineteenth century European positivist and materialist thought, particularly the ideas of Marx.
In his school days he got involved in social service work carried out by well-known revolutionary parties like Anushilan and Yugantar. He retained a close association with the former as late as 1926. During his college days he joined the non-cooperation movement as a student-volunteer and became involved in Congress activities at the village level. He participated in the Congress Satyagraha movement of the early thirties and then again in the Quit India Movement of 1942-43. During the Quit India Movement, Ray was imprisoned in 1942. It was in the jail that he commenced his Bangalir Itihas. After independence in 1947, Ray lost the urge for politics and except for a spell of Rajya Sabha membership for eight years gave up active politics. However, participation in politics had given Ray an insight into his country and brought him nearer to its people. Politics took him from one corner of the country to the other and afforded him the opportunity of coming into actual physical contact with people at all levels down and enabled him to know the country comprehensively.
Consequently, his ideas on and approaches to history and literature underwent changes. These changes were reflected in his Rabindra Sahityer Bhumika (1939), in which he attempted to present Tagore's creative writings in their social settings and to analyse how the latter affected the ideas, themes, characters, forms and styles of the former. Ray's new approach and method became manifest in his Maurya and Shunga Art (1947) (a revised and enlarged edition was published in 1974 under the title Maurya and post-Maurya Art) and Bangalir Itihas (1949). In 1973 he published two more books: Nationalism in India, which happens to be an historical analysis of its stresses and strains, and Idea and Image of Indian Art, a study of 'the dialectical interrelationship between an abstract idea or concept and its concretised manifestation in a meaningful aesthetic form'. Other notable publications by Ray are Mughal Court Painting, 1974; The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Society, 1970; Dutch Activities in the East (Edited), 1946; And An Approach to Indian Art, 1974.
The tradition of Indian historiography within which Ray wrote his Political History of North India in 1926 was very much a Western tradition; history was written then from the top about great men and their deeds. As Ray was embarking upon his academic career, Bengali culture was taking something of a new direction. The arts, especially literature, were no longer the domain of the bhadralok, but were becoming increasingly concerned with the common people. Writers like Manik Bandyopadhyaya and Tarashankar Bandyopadhyaya wrote of the common people with great empathy; Painters like Nandalal Bose and Jamini Ray were now focusing their attention on ordinary men and women in fields and factories. There was also an element of nationalism in that period which was mixed with the quest for Bengali cultural identity, visibly reflected in the works of Dinesh Chandra Sen. The elevation of the common man and the cultivation of nationalism and Bengali cultural identity were very much the driving forces behind Ray's Bangalir Itihas, which is very much 'a nationalist statement with the common man as its focus'.
Niharranjan Ray's scholarship traversed varied fields. In more than seventy essays, articles and addresses published in English and thirty-six in Bangla, fifteen books in English and seven in Bangla, he wrote on history, the arts, architecture, anthropology, epigraphy, religion, literature, contemporary politics, leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru and Subhas Bose, and the life and works of rabindranath tagore. But his magnum opus, Bangalir Itihas, is a seminal work on the history of the Bengalis from the earliest times to the beginning of Muslim rule, and is indeed a path-breaking work, a cornerstone for an understanding of the social and cultural history of Bengal.
For more than 35 years Ray was associated with Calcutta University as Research Fellow, Lecturer, Managing Editor of calcutta review (the University's Journal), Chief Librarian, Reader and Professor. He came to the teaching profession by choice, leaving the world of journalism, where he had already got a foothold as the Literary Editor of Subhas Chandra Bose's English daily, Liberty. [AM Chowdhury]