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By Tapas Majumdar (1929-2010) DIPANKAR DASGUPTA
  • Published 19.10.10

It is hard to recount memories surrounding Tapas Majumdar, who died on October 15, without recalling the reasonably large, but not bedizened, first-floor living room of his Dover Lane residence in Calcutta. This room will remain etched in the minds of his students and colleagues from the days when he taught in the Economics Department of Presidency College, not because of its simple decor, but for the purpose to which Tapas Majumdar put it during the turmoil-ridden year, 1967. The siege laid to the college had forced the authorities to suspend classes. The economics honours classes, however, did not come to a halt, for Tapas Majumdar, who was departmental head, had converted his living room into a makeshift classroom where teachers were assigned class hours on a regular basis. A timetable had been drawn up, and even tutorial classes were not ignored.

Tutorial homes had not yet invaded us, and teachers like Tapas Majumdar treated education as a public good that was not for sale. It was no wonder, therefore, that his colleagues and he dreamt of converting the Economics Department into an institution of excellence. The result was the founding of the UGC-sponsored Centre for Economic Studies, located inside the departmental premises and dedicated to advanced research. The Centre exists even today.

Tapas Majumdar was the son of the archaeologist, Nani Gopal Majumdar, who was closely associated with Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay and has been credited with discoveries related to the Early Indus period. He was mistaken as a policeman and shot dead by robbers near the foothills of Kirthar of the Sind region of Punjab on November 11, 1938. His wife heard the news by coincidence over the radio and Tapas Majumdar, born January 6, 1929, had to bear with this tragedy at a very tender age. His performance at school (Mitra Institution) and college (Presidency College) was nonetheless exemplary. He joined Presidency College as an assistant professor of economics at 21 and had none other than Amartya Sen and Sukhamoy Chakravarty as students in the early part of his career. He completed his PhD at the London School of Economics under Lionel Robbins. His dissertation was published as a well-known book, The Measurement of Utility, and he continued to work and publish in the theoretically sophisticated area of demand and choice theory.

After completing his PhD in 1957, he joined Presidency College as a professor and taught there till he moved to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi as professor of economics and head of the Zakir Husain Centre for Education Studies. He contributed extensively to the area of education since then and served as a member of distinguished organizations such as the UGC, NCERT, ICSSR and the Justice Punnayya Committee on UGC Funding of Institutions of Higher Education. After retirement from JNU, he remained associated with the university as emeritus professor at the Zakir Husain Centre.

Throughout his life, he encouraged students to carry out empirical research as well as research on the abstract foundations of a subject, and would have understood the word ‘elite’ to mean ‘excellent minds’ rather than ‘enemies of society’ as is often the practice now. One vividly recalls his effort in reading the monograph, Theory of Value, by Gérard Debreu (who won the Nobel prize in economics in 1983) soon after it was published in the late 1950s. The book has remained a mathematically daunting piece of writing. It is a fair guess that few teachers in postgraduate institutions in India, leave alone undergraduate colleges, would be attracted to this work. Tapas Majumdar was successful in assembling a group of young colleagues and students interested in the enterprise and used his living room to deliver special lectures on the subject. He ended up writing to Debreu about a point that his group was unable to resolve. Debreu replied by sending him a letter that contained little more than a small hand-drawn diagram that settled the issue completely. Tapas Majumdar was delighted to hear back from Debreu and often spoke humourously about the might of supreme brevity.

Tapas Majumdar will reside in the hearts of his students and colleagues as a pleasant yet firm personality, always ready to extend a helping hand for the cause of education. It is unlikely that he ever confused quantity (examination scores) with quality (a genuine appetite for learning) in judging his students.