Bernard S. Cohn, 1928-2003:
Scholar, Democrat, Mentor, and Friend
Bernard S. Cohn, who passed away at the age of 75 on 25 November 2003 in his sleep at his home in Hyde Park, Chicago, was the greatest American scholar of colonial India of his generation, as well as one of the central figures in the debates animating the disciplines of history and anthropology in the second half of the twentieth century in the American academy. To his many students, friends, and even acquaintances, Barney (as he was known to his friends) was far more than a superb scholar, a caring mentor, and a figure of endless intellectual curiosity. He was a man of extraordinary wit, capable of both utter seriousness and hilarious irreverence, and above all he was a radical democrat who cared very little for marks of distinction, the pervasive hierarchies of the academic world, or the allurements of academic stardom. Thankfully, Barney rose to prominence before the star system, which has seduced real and alleged academic heavyweights into acting as little better than baseball players, traded to the most expensive or elite universities but with salaries that are little more than pocket money to star baseball or basketball players, had become fully established. After a short stint at the University of Rochester, Barney returned in 1964 to the University of Chicago, where he had spent a little time in the 1950s, and he remained there until his retirement in 1995. Barney held visiting appointments at the University of Virginia, University of Michigan, Australian National University, New York University, and the California Institute of Technology, but the University of Chicago was always his real home, and it is there that he guided nearly two generations of historians and anthropologists, many among them now occupants of key positions at leading American research universities.
Barney Cohn was born in Brooklyn on 13 May 1928, a little too late to be enlisted into the war effort against the Nazis and the Japanese, and it is there that he attended public schools. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1949; the doctorate in anthropology, from Cornell University, followed in 1954. Barney did his fieldwork in the Jaunpur district of eastern Uttar Pradesh, but many who came to know him later, such as the author of this piece, never heard Barney speak any Hindi, except, much like the colonial masters whom he was to study with such thoroughness, a few words of command or of prodding intent! “Chalo”, Barney would say. Barney served in the US army from 1954 to 1956, and short stints at Chicago, Rochester, and SOAS, as well as archival work in Britain and India in the late 1950s over something like a period of two years, preceded his permanent return to the University of Chicago in 1964. His period in India included some months in the Uttar Pradesh State Archives in Allahabad. It is, at any rate, to this second half of the 1950s that we owe a number of his essays (some published in the early 1960s) which, almost fifty years later, still appear fresh and are inescapably part of the reading that students of British India must do. “The Changing Traditions of a Low Caste” (1958), “The Pasts of an Indian Village” (1961), “From Indian Status to British Contract” (1961), “An Anthropologist among the Historians: A Field Study” (1962), “The British in Benares: A Nineteenth Century Colonial Society” (1962), and “Political Systems in Eighteenth-Century India: The Benares Region” (1962) readily come to mind. At Chicago Barney came to join what was then the most distinguished group of American scholars working on India, among them the anthropologists Robert Redfield and Milton Singer and the scholar of Bengali literature, Edward Dimock, as well as younger scholars such as A. K. Ramanujan who would soon go on to earn Chicago a reputation as the preeminent center of Indian studies in the United States.
There are already some assessments of Barney Cohn’s work, notably Ranajit Guha’s introduction to the huge collection of his essays, An Anthropologist among the Historians (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1987), and a very short companion essay on his work, “Bernard S. Cohn and Indian History in the American Academy”, appears on this site. Consequently, it is unnecessary to enter into a protracted discussion of his work at this juncture: Suffice to say: as has been remarked by more than one scholar, Barney initiated nearly every major development in the American academy’s engagement with colonial Indian history and society, and similarly Barney was among the very first scholars to bring some of anthropology’s concerns to bear upon the historian’s tendency to mark secular change. In his classic essay of 1980, “History and Anthropology: The State of Play”, he put forth, inimitably, the two models of “Anthropology” and “Historyland”. There he spoke, as well, of the new conquests of history and anthropology, of new historylands and anthropologylands. Colonialism, one might say, was never far from his mind. It is also entirely characteristic of Barney that he never spoke of the only book he wrote as such, India: The Social Anthropology of a Civilization (Prentice-Hall, 1971; reprint, with an introduction by Gyan Prakash, Delhi: Oxford UP, 1998?). He was, as he told me in the mid-1980s, not ready to stand by his book some years after it had been written. With his essays, Barney transformed entire fields; it is just as well that he did not write any books.
Barney’s playfulness, often on display in his scholarly writings, was almost always present in his interactions with students, colleagues, and others in the academy, and it is with some personal reflections that I wish to conclude this short biographical note. Though the somewhat mysterious illness that first afflicted him in the early 1990s had clearly caused some short term memory loss, Barney was long before that the embodiment of the cliched representation of the absent-minded professor. As one stood outside his office door on the third floor of Haskell Hall, he would twirl a bunch of keys around his finger and, often, try most of them before he would find the right one to unlock the door. Indian kids in America have gone on to monopolize -- well, almost -- the national spelling bee, but years of study of Indian society and history did not rub off on Barney at all if one is to judge him by his atrocious sense of spelling! But Barney had such an enduring sense of humor, and so strong was his radical commitment to fully democratic relationships, that one never felt uneasy or little around him. Who else but Barney could have dedicated his book on India (1971) thus: “To My Parents: Maybe It Was Not All For the Birds.”
As those who were close to Barney know only too well, he had a monumental interest in monuments, statues, and public memorials. There were many monument-hunting trips that we took together in Chicago, London, and Delhi. I recall a summer day in 1989 when Barney and I arrived together at the then India Office Library on Blackfriars Road. A sign on the doors informed visitors, "The Library is closed. There is no hot water." Barney looked at me and said, "Have we come here to take a hot shower?" We had, in any case, a wonderful afternoon at St. Paul's. We were supremely grateful that the IOL retained its third world inefficiency: on another morning that same year, the IOL was closed on account of some asbestos that had, so to speak, sprung loose. We were off on another monument-hunting trip.
Other memories of Barney are just as striking. On my first visit back to Chicago after leaving in 1992, our conversation over lunch veered towards the subject of the fall of the Soviet Union. With his usual candor, Barney remarked that many American political scientists, who made their living and killing from denouncing the 'evil empire', now had little reason to remain in the profession. If, as he told me, they had an iota of decency they would tender their resignation. On their last visit to Los Angeles some four years ago, Barney and his wife Rella, to whom he was married for over 50 years, graced our house with their presence. Our daughter was a little shy of two years. Barney grinned and said, "She probably thinks I'm a dinosaur." Over dinner, Barney launched into a withering critique of American social science and the immense pretensions of economics, and one would not have known that at this juncture, somewhere around the fall of 2000, he could no longer read or write. Nonetheless, his appetite for conversation, discussion, and argument remained as keen as it had been when I first met him in 1984. I am certain that Barney would have been sickened but not surprised by what is presently transpiring in Iraq. Looking at the looting of art and antiquities in Iraq under American eyes after the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003, Barney, whose work on the British in India still remains exemplary, would have been the first to understand the urge that drives colonizers and conquerors to begin with a clean slate. For scholars of colonial India, however, there can no longer be any clean slate, as the name of Bernard S. Cohn is inextricably etched on every historical meditation on colonial India.
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