Vijaya Ramaswamy Taught Her Students Both History and How to Live With Joy

Ramaswamy was an exemplary historian and inspiring public academic, unafraid to bridge rival perspectives.

Vijaya Ramaswamy, retired professor of ancient Indian history at the Centre for Historical Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), passed away on June 1, 2020 in New Delhi, due to pneumonia and myocordial infarction. She was 67.

Since 2019 and until the time of her passing, she held the Tagore fellowship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla. She was also the recipient of several other prestigious fellowships like the Commonwealth and the Fulbright. She taught economic history and the history of religion at JNU, and before that at Delhi University.

Her areas of research specialisation included gender, religion, economic history, and the history of labour, migrants, craftspeoples, and especially the weaving communities of south India. Ramaswamy’s publications include Textiles and Weavers in South India (1985, 2006), Divinity and Deviance: Women in Virasaivism (1996), Walking Naked: Women, Society, Spirituality in South India (1997, 2007), Re-searching Indian Women (2003), A Historical Dictionary of the Tamils (2007), The Song of the Loom: Weaver Folk Traditions in South India (2013), and In Search of Vishwakarma: Mapping Indian Craft Histories (2019), among others.

The arc of her career challenged the conventional periodisation of Indian history. As a scholar, she excelled in both ancient and medieval history, but was also knowledgeable about themes in modern history. She demonstrated an equal facility over a range of intellectual traditions: her expertise in the writings of twelfth century figures like Akka Mahadevi and Basavanna was matched by her knowledge of the thought of 20th century thinkers like Antonio Gramsci.

Ramaswamy was one of those illustrious scholars and rare teachers who enjoyed not merely her students’ respect and admiration, but also managed to win their love and adoration. The following tributes by only some of her students are shared here with the aim of bringing comfort to those mourning her loss, but also in the hope that they will inspire those reading, and communicate something of the extraordinarily kind, warm, passionate, high-spirited yet grounded, generous, and joyous soul that Vijaya Ramaswamy was.

Dr Kavita Gaur, who teaches at Delhi University, says, “Ma’am was not just a mentor but a mother who guided me academically as well as personally in my dark times. She provided me immense strength and courage in every meeting I had with her. She always said to me: ‘Do you work honestly and be truthful and leave aside worries.’ She had more faith in me than I myself had and was a source of inspiration for us. She was so grounded, generous, cheerful, and even childish–the most unique personality I have ever met. I will always cherish her positive outlook, vibes, love and affection. Her persona will remain alive in her students wherever they go.”

According to another student, Dr Nisha Thakur, who teaches at Adamas University, “Recounting the journey with Ma’am over the better parts of a decade is like documenting how the earth, sky, and everything I see have evolved. I can never forget how she fashioned a complete and confident human being from the scattered bits that I was constituted of before I met her. Whenever she allowed me to enter her cabin, it was like I crossed a threshold of my depressive world. Her room – filled with books and a fragrance that I can still feel – was my temple. Her blessings helped me survive in my most difficult times and only when I became a teacher did I understand what she always saw in me. As the only source of knowledge and faith in my life, she was the most important person to leave an imprint on me.”

Dr Anna Varghese who teaches at Christ University Bengaluru, writes, “Prof.Vijaya Ramaswamy was more than an M.Phil and Ph.D supervisor to me. She introduced me to the nuances of reading and interpreting epigraphic sources, the significance of analysis in research and the value of perseverance and consistency in work. She had been a constant source of support and inspiration. Once I was going through a very difficult time and I had not submitted any draft to her in months. She embraced me, saying, “Don’t worry, Anna. Don’t think of work now. Go home and rest well!” I can till date remember the warmth of her hug. When I met her after my Ph.D submission, she told me that she is going to ask a gurudakshina from me: that I would remain happy always and never let life pull me down. Over years now, every time I feel like I am falling down the pit of despair I remember my gurudakshina to her, that I need to remember that ‘happiness is my right.’ I am going to miss her energetic voice, her counsel and the comfort of her hug; but I know that she is there as a divine presence who will forever be there to guide me.

Also read: Different Strokes: Women in the Tamil Mahabharatas, by Vijaya Ramaswamy

Dr. Abhishek Anand who works at IGNOU, New Delhi, recalls his time as Ramaswamy’s student, “Many of my peers were from prestigious institutions and spoke better English than many of us hailing from smaller towns. However, Ma’am treated all of us equally. She encouraged our nebulous thoughts and helped shape them into concrete ideas. She was like a mother in an otherwise strict and rigorous academic environment. I once approached her during a time of personal crisis and family trauma. She motivated me by pointing out that the only way I could make things better was by finishing my Ph.D. as soon as possible, seeking a faculty position and financially aiding my family. We are going to miss Ma’am profusely throughout our lives but she will live forever in our minds and hearts; I pledge today to continue her legacy of historical research, academic excellence and humanitarian values, and tread on the path paved by her.”

Another student Dinesh Kumar writes, “It is not easy for me to write about Ma’am (Amma) at this stage when everyone is paying their last tribute for her divine journey. For more than a decade I have been in regular touch with her for my academic and non-academic issues. I have been treated as a family member by her and grown up with her kind words and divine blessings, which I received almost every day without fail. She taught me that anyone can become a great scholar but what is important is to also be a great human being, which I experienced her to be. She has shaped my spiritual understanding by explaining the odds of life, which I feel is sufficient for any human being to have a beautiful life. Thank you, Amma.”

Dr Jaya Priyadarshini, at Christ University Bengaluru, narrates the following account: “I have known Ma’am since 2005, when I first entered JNU for my MA. I was hesitant to introduce myself to a high profile professor such as Prof Ramaswamy, but upon meeting her, I was amazed to receive a very soothing welcome. Henceforth, whenever we met on campus, she greeted me as if she was a new student and me a great scholar! Her simplicity and humility brought me closer to her. The first time I approached her for help was during my MPhil, when I was too disturbed about my progress; she thoroughly helped me in every possible way.  After learning about my debilitating health condition, she gave me as much love and warmth as possible. Having known Vijaya Ma’am during these 15 years, I can say that people like her are rare to be found in the world today. Her end is the end of an era!”

Another student Sumit Bhardwaj writes, “It is hard for me to digest the news of Ma’am’s sudden demise, so personal for someone like me who wasn’t even her student. She was the only one in the entire Faculty whom I could approach without hesitation and talk to without any fear. At my PhD synopsis presentation, I still remember how she asked me to keep updating her about my research and said, ‘Never doubt your potential, you will grow and shine.’ The last time I met her, I was struggling with severe depression, which affected my work and delayed my PhD submission. She kept her hands on my head and said, with all her motherly love, ‘Never let situations torment you and it’s okay if things are delayed a bit.’ It felt like all the pain had just faded away. I cannot forget that spiritual experience in my entire life. That was Ma’am’s persona, which inspired and blessed every student around her. I will miss you, Ma’am, I will never forget your love and your beautiful divine smile.”

Dr Radha Kapuria, at the University of Sheffield, says, “Though I was not her student, Ma’am had a massive impact on my professional life, constantly inspiring me to be a passionate, engaged and approachable historian. She dispensed important lessons in how to lead my personal life too. During the ten years that I knew her, from 2010-2020, she shaped my life in an unmistakable way: offering soul-nourishment with every word of genuine encouragement. She helped me at a particularly difficult time during the first year of my PhD in London, when I was miles away from home. Her words, ‘On no account entertain negativity. I have attempted to keep God in the core of my heart and everything else falls into place: you are very much present in my thoughts and prayers’, gave me the strength to continue everyday. I have lost a favourite mentor, friend, cheerleader and guide, and hope I will abide by her example and her commitment to life itself.”

Titas De Sarkar, currently a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, recounts an anecdote of meeting Prof Ramaswamy to seek her signatures for a visa application to attend an international conference. “I told her about the conference in detail. She wished me well and said, ‘I pray that god be with you.’ To which I immediately replied that I don’t believe in a higher power. Ma’am did not miss a beat and said, ‘Well, you may not believe in God, but you do believe in food, right?!’, and warmly handed me a bowl of chana mix. I still remember how quickly I tried to gobble up that bowl of snacks while trying to thank her for being so flexible about the entire thing. These are the people who were not only in JNU – they were JNU. It is a privilege and an honor to see these people from up close. Possibly the bigger threat than the present right-wing vengeance on the institution is the loss of such individuals who, for all their belief in religion, stood firmly against those who play distasteful politics over faith.”

Ramaswamy was an exemplary historian, inspiring public academic, unafraid to bridge rival perspectives (straddling left and right with ease), always grounded in solid research and humane, ethical reasoning, and forwarded in the gentlest way possible. She had the warmest smile, the most infectious laugh, and the largest heart; always extended out especially for students.  She opened her home to her students, and worked to ensure their well-being in the broadest possible sense – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and professional. For so many, her home with Krishnan sir was an emotional anchor, a shelter from the storm, a place we could retreat to and discuss our cares and worries and celebrate our joys in equal measure.

Her effortless faith and spiritual grounding never felt intimidating or like an imposition. She lived her life with a sterling commitment and dedication to her values and principles, and yet with a lightness, sense of humour and joie de vivre. She was someone who actively changed lives, and whose very presence shaped the personal and professional trajectories of generations of students. She will be sorely missed.

Dr Radha Kapuria is at the Department of History at the University of Sheffield, UK and Dr Nisha Thakur teaches History at Adamas University, Kolkata.