Awakin Calls » Ramachandra Guha on Dec 21, 2019

Gandhi's Biographer on Social and Environmental Movements

Our guest this week is an Indian-bred environmental historian who, despite his initial inclinations to write on other subjects, found that he had to reckon and "settle accounts with" Gandhi as he found himself drawn to environmental leaders who practiced Gandhian philosophy.  How have ideals of changing the world led you back to practices of changing yourself? Share Your Reflection »


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Call with Ramachandra Guha

Dec 21, 2019, 9:00AM PST


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Ramachandra (Ram) Guha is a world-class historian, biographer, journalist, and public intellectual who writes and comments on culture, history, politics, current affairs, and social movements. Among his most well-known works is a comprehensive (and many view as definitive) two-volume biography of Gandhi. The first volume, Gandhi Before India (Knopf, 2014), was chosen as a notable book of the year by The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. The second volume, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (Knopf, 2018), was similarly recognized by The New York Times and The Economist.  His earlier work on the legacy left by the subject of his two-volume work, India after Gandhi (Macmillan/Ecco Press, 2007; revised edition, 2017), was selected as a book of the year by The Economist, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and as a book of the decade in the Times of London.

The US magazine Foreign Policy named Guha as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world in May 2008.  He received the Padma Bhushan for 2009, India's third highest civilian award.

In the 1980s, trained as an economist, Ram studied the social history of forestry in Uttarakhand, focusing on the Chipko movement. He was deeply moved by leaders of the movement, who practiced Gandhian philosophy. In comparison to certain dogmatic Marxist views that were popular in parts of India at the time, Ram saw Gandhian philosophy as a healthier alternative. Ram did research on a variety of topics before focusing on Gandhi. “It just emerged over these twenty years of researching other subjects that Gandhi was with me everywhere,” he says to an audience at Yale University, “And I finally decided I must settle accounts with him.”

When writing the biography of Gandhi, Ram meticulously combed through millions of pages of archives that went much beyond the 100-volume Collected Works written by Gandhi, whose prolific, public career extended over 50 years across three continents. In search of traces of Gandhi, Ram took numerous trips to South Africa, Israel, UK, US, and various places in India, spending long days (if not months) in cold, grey archive buildings, tracking down Gandhi’s family, friends, colleagues, and rivalries, and deciphering thousands of handwritten letters and manuscripts that were never made public before. (Here is Ram’s reflection on his adventure and fascinating discoveries)

His earlier books include a pioneering environmental history, The Unquiet Woods (University of California Press, 1989), and an award-winning social history of cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field (Picador, 2002), which was chosen by The Guardian as one of the ten best books on cricket ever written.
Ram also writes for The Telegraph, the Hindustan Times, and The Indian Express. His large body of work, covering a wide range of fields and yielding a number of rational insights, has made him a significant figure in Indian historical studies, and Guha is valued as one of the major historians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The American Historical Association (AHA) in 2019 conferred on him its Honorary Foreign Member prize; he is the third Indian historian to be recognized by the association.

Between 1985 and 2000, Ram taught at various universities in India, Europe and North America, including the University of California-Berkeley, Yale University, Stanford University and at Oslo University (Arne Naess chair, 2008), and later at the Indian Institute of Science. During this period, he was also a fellow of Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in Germany (1994–95).
Guha then moved to Bangalore, and began writing full-time. He served as Sundaraja Visiting Professor in the Humanities at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in 2003. He is managing trustee of the New India Foundation, a nonprofit body that funds research on modern Indian history.  Guha was appointed the Philippe Roman Chair of International Affairs and History at the London School of Economics for 2011–12, succeeding Niall Ferguson.

He has been a frequent commentator in global publications on the current state of India’s democracy, and a critic of the agendas of the current Prime Minister of India and his political party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He has also recognized the perils historians face, cautioning that when practicing their craft, historians must not be vulnerable to the chauvinism of their discipline, or of method, identity and ideology. "A historian has beliefs and prejudices, which, like his or her personal identity, cannot ever be entirely suppressed. But one must continually be aware of them, and seek to limit their influence on one’s work," he has written.

Guha’s father worked at the Forest Research Institute, and his mother was a high-school teacher.  He grew up in Dehradun, India, on the Forest Research Institute campus.  He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from St. Stephen's College, Delhi, in 1977, and completed his master's in economics from the Delhi School of Economics. He then enrolled at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, where he did a fellowship program (equivalent to a PhD) on the social history of forestry in Uttarakhand, focusing on the Chipko movement. It was later published as The Unquiet Woods.  In 2014, Guha was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities by Yale University.

Ram is based in Bangalore, India. He is married to the graphic designer Sujata Keshavan and has two children.

Join us in conversation with this gifted historian and fascinating social commentator!

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