In 2008, I organized a panel at the Annual South Asia conference at Madison on vernacular histories. Our chair and discussant was Kumkum Chatterjee. Earlier that year, her article “The Persianization of Itihasa: Performance Narratives and Mughal Political Culture in Eighteenth-Century Bengal” had appeared in Journal of Asian Studies. Chatterjee did a reading of the Bengali Mangalkabya arguing that “the idiom in which the vernacular itihasa tradition represented by the Mangalkabyas sought to make space for the political issues of the time mirrored or reflected the ways in which a morally sanctioned, Islamicate structure of layered rule and over- lordship associated with the Mughals inflected the presentation of political morality among the rajas and landed magnates of Bengal.(p. 531). In her reading across genre and attention to the ways in which historical understanding was tied to the landscape (Bengal), this was an important paper for me. I was still struggling to finish the dissertation and I remember carrying the copy of JAS around Hyde Park for a few days, and marking and yelling at the paper. I thought that the framing of her piece was an un-necessary diversion from the richness of her argument.
In typical graduate student fashion, I sent her a 40 page paper from which I was going to present 12 pages on the panel. I emailed this to her two or so nights before the panel. When Chatterjee began her comments, I realized with a shock that she had read the whole damn thing. Carefully. I had never met her before seeing her at the panel and she was warm, kind and welcoming. After the panel, some of us met for dinner. In all of my memories of Madison, I have always held that dinner as a fondest one.
Over the years, I would see her at Madison or at AAS or at AHA and she would always greet me with smiles and ask about my well-being, the job, the writing. We exchanged some emails because she was thinking about working on the representations of the Mughals as demons in Bengali vernacular literature.
It is with an immense sadness that I note her passing. You can read her former colleague at PSU, Mrinalini Sinha, remembering Chatterjee’s scholarship and her warmth.