INDIA HAS REMADE ITSELF at least twice in the past 100 years. The economic and political character of the country, which was of a colonial-nationalist nature in the early 20th century, became Nehruvian-socialist after Independence and then shifted again toward globalising neoliberalism in the last decade of the century. An effective way to track the cultural effects of these very large shifts is to compare the trajectories of successive generations of Indians. The lives of the extraordinary father-son duo of Dharmanand Kosambi (1876-1947) and Damodar Dharmanand or DD Kosambi (1907-1966), both brilliant scholars and pioneers of entire fields of study, vividly illustrate the first great transformation of modern India, effected over the course of the 1950s and early 1960s, during three administrations under Jawaharlal Nehru.
The recent translation of several of Dharmanand’s Marathi writings, including his partial autobiography Nivedan (A Narrative): 1912-1924 (Permanent Black, 2011), and a broad retrospective exercise by a number of contemporary historians occasioned by Damodar’s birth centenary in 2007, allow us to follow Kosambi père and fils in some detail, and through them to view the changing historical contexts in which they were embedded. Dharmanand’s granddaughter and DD Kosambi’s daughter, Meera Kosambi, herself a sociologist specialising in urban studies and women’s studies, and an accomplished translator between Marathi and English, has in the past two years helped bring both her eminent forbears back into focus for students of modern India.
Father and son were polymaths, and in this regard they remind us of other talented public figures in South Asia prior to Independence, like the poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and the art historian Ananda K Coomaraswamy (1877-1947). Together and individually, the Kosambis also exemplify a confluence of intellectual streams that coloured the biographies of a large number of prominent Indians, men and women, in the first three quarters of the 20th century: Buddhism, Marxism, Gandhianism and Socialism. For reasons that remain culturally and sociologically under-studied and have as yet to get any sort of systematic treatment in the intellectual history of modern India, some blend of these ideological currents impacted a range of thinkers and leaders, from BR Ambedkar to Ram Manohar Lohia, Narendra Dev to Rahul Sankrityayana, Jai Prakash Narayan to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Vinoba Bhave to JB Kripalani.