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Basham, Arthur Llewellyn (1914–1986)

by J. Jordens

Emeritus Professor Arthur Llewellyn Basham died on 27 January, in Calcutta. To all those who knew him as a colleague, teacher, or friend, the news came as a shock; to us in the Faculty of Asian Studies it is sad to think that we will not have him again with us as a Visiting Fellow, as we have enjoyed having him several times after his retirement at the end of 1979.

Professor Basham came to the ANU in September 1965 as foundation Professor of Oriental Civilization and Head of the Department of that name.

He came from the University of London, where he had risen quickly from a lectureship in the History of India from 1948 to the Chair in that discipline in 1957. From 1964 he had also been Director of the Royal Asiatic Society in London.

By 1965, his reputation as a foremost scholar in the field of Ancient Indian history had been firmly established by his books History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas, and The Wonder That Was India, and his many articles and chapters in books.

His influence as a scholar, however, went much deeper than his writings. During his work at the University of London he supervised the research work of more than 30 postgraduate students. This made Professor Basham famous for his supervisory work, which continued unabated at the ANU.

Some 50 postgraduate students worked under his guidance, and many chairs in South Asian History in the Indian sub-continent, and elsewhere, are now occupied by his former students.

His dedication to his students, his kindness, patience and the intellectual stimulus he provided were almost legendary. They will be long remembered with deep gratitude.

Professor Basham came to the ANU at a time when Asian studies were beginning to expand. His inspiration and leadership contributed greatly to their development over the 15 years he served the Faculty of Asian Studies.

Throughout that time, he was head of the Department of Asian History and Civilizations, as it came to be called, and he served as Dean of Faculty from 1968 to 1970. Most of the staff members of today's Asian History Centre were recruited by him.

Professor Basham's service to the field of Asian Studies reached far beyond the Faculty and the ANU. He was elected Vice-President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia in 1977; in 1970, he became Vice-President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

In 1971, he was the President of the 28th International Congress of Orientalists; in 1979, he was President of the International Conference of Traditional Asian Medicine.

His extraordinary contribution to scholarship was repeatedly recognised. In 1965, he was awarded an Honorary D.Litt from the University of Kurukshetra, in 1966, a D.Litt from the University of London, in 1975, the Bimal Churn Law Gold Medal of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, in 1977, an Honorary D.Litt of the Nava Nalanda Mahavira, and in December 1985, the highest honour of the Vishvabharati University, the Desikottama Award.

Universities around the world continually invited him as a Visiting Professor, during and after his tenure at the ANU. The list is too long to reproduce.

Wherever he went, Professor Basham always involved himself in the two activities he loved most: undergraduate teaching and postgraduate supervision.

In fact, his continuing involvement with students prevented him from finishing before his death some very important scholarly work he had hoped to complete.

The name of Professor Basham is also treasured by the many thousands of readers of his book The Wonder That Was India, which was translated into several languages, and has been constantly republished since its first appearance in 1954.

In some ways, that book most appropriately encapsulates the man Basham, and the reasons why he was so loved and admired.

Its fine and demanding scholarship is never on show, but conceals itself in a superb style, easy and elegant. The book shows Basham as a historian and a humanist with wide interests and a fine appreciation for art and literature. It also quietly asserts the author's genuine affection for the people and the land he writes about.

All those who had the privilege of knowing him intimately, and also those who only knew him through 'The Wonder', were attracted to 'Bash', as his friends used to call him.

We will remember his deep, yet unpretentious, scholarship as a historian, his profound humanism, the elegance of his writing and teaching, his love for the South Asian region and its people, and his total dedication to his staff and to the students, who dearly loved and admired him.

He has won a lasting place in our hearts and in the annals of the Faculty of Asian Studies.

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J. Jordens, 'Basham, Arthur Llewellyn (1914–1986)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 September 2022.

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