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Ian Proudfoot (1946–2011)

by Ann Kumar

Ian Proudfoot first came to ANU as an Asian studies scholar. He lived up to the high expectations of this scholarship by regularly topping his class (not just in Asia-related subjects but also in other subjects such as French) and was awarded a University Medal on graduating in 1967. He then undertook a PhD on Sanskrit ethical philosophy, awarded in 1977. It was examined by the eminent Mahābhārata translator and commentator J.A.B. van Buitenen, who said that it was the best study of its kind he had ever read. Published as Ahimsā and a Mahābhārata Story (Asian Studies Monograph Series, The Australian National University, 1987), his thesis was reviewed by James L. Fitzgerald, who described it as ‘an impressive blending of technical philosophical expertise with a concern for and sensitivity to the charting of the logic and history of important ideas … packed with interesting and provocative insights into a host of issues of philology and intellectual history’ and as an important contribution to our understanding of the Indian intellectual traditions. Fitzgerald also commended Proudfoot not just for an insightful, thoughtful and provocative commentary, but for his care to identify and consider a multiplicity of ideological themes and motives at work in the different textual layers, a ‘multiplication of voices’ that constituted an outstanding and indeed the paramount value of the work.

In this respect, Proudfoot was very much ahead of his time, which was one when prominent academics freely indulged in simplistic essentialising of Asian cultures and traditions on the basis of the most minimal evidence. Though published in a very obscure publication series, the work achieved a surprising currency and influence. Despite the numerous better-known studies of the Mahābhārata that were available, it was chosen by the public intellectual Gurcharan Das as one of the main sources for his acclaimed book, The Difficulty of Being Good.

Ian first joined the academic staff as a Senior Tutor in 1972 and held a series of one-year appointments until 1980, when he was appointed Lecturer. In 1990 he was promoted to Senior Lecturer.

Though the reception of his doctoral thesis as the work of a mature scholar augured a bright future as a Sanskritist, Ian’s later work was to be on Malay texts (the subject of his honours thesis) and in calendrical studies. His major works on Malay texts are Concordance to Hikayat Inderaputera: A Complete Lemmatized Concordance with Indexes and Frequency Tables (Malay Concordance Project, The Australian National University, 1990) and Early Malay Printed Books (The Academy of Malay Studies and the Library, University of Malaya, 1993).

One of the besetting problems impeding the development of a well-grounded, rich and interesting historiography of Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries of the region has been the lack of a basic scholarly infrastructure—i.e. the text editions, concordances, catalogues and bibliographies of works in the languages of the region that must form the basis of any well-grounded history. Proudfoot’s concordance completely changed the way Malay history could be written, opening many new possibilities to other scholars.

He had a particular interest in changes in the production and distribution of manuscripts and books and the interaction between technology and social change in the emergence of Malay modernity, on which he published a number of immensely well-grounded and illuminating articles.

In the field of calendrical studies, he produced the magisterial study, Old Muslim Calendars of Southeast Asia (Handbuch der Orientalistik III, Brill, 2006). The ‘gold standard’ character of this work and the demands it must have made on the author were not lost on reviewers. The accompanying wonderful software, which produced conversions between Javanese, Malay and Western calendars, has been of immense assistance to those of us struggling with this highly complex and problematic calendrical material.

Ian published many articles on the above and other subjects and his oeuvre was characterised by a remarkable ability to combine qualities that too rarely go together: a well-developed mathematical analysis paired with the perceptiveness that springs from a humanistic insight into the subtle and complex workings of ethical systems; and a formidable precision, for once accompanied by an ability to make what most people would consider a dull and intractable corpus of heavy data reveal its secrets about social, political and intellectual subtleties and changes.

A review of the above achievements makes one ask how one man could have done all this in one lifetime, while also doing so much for his undergraduate and postgraduate students and never shirking the less interesting and prestigious academic tasks. Many a timid enrolling first-year student was made to feel at home by Ian in his role of Sub-Dean. He spent much of his career shouldering this responsibility or that of Deputy Dean, jobs that are essential to maintaining the quality of student education but bring none of the kudos that research does. He was not promoted to Reader until 2002, three years before he resigned due to ill-health. Local recognition of his international reputation was finally made in 2008 by Professor Robin Jeffreys, who appointed Ian to a Visiting Professorship.

Ian set himself the highest standards and had, as an English colleague put it, ‘a backbone of steel’. Yet, unlike many intellectual high-flyers, he was never arrogant or intimidating. He was invariably unassuming, kind and generous. Though so quick to acquire and make excellent use of sophisticated computer skills, Ian was also something of an old-style Mr- Fixit. He was as likely to offer to fix a toaster you had thought dead as to help you convert a problematic date using a program he had written or to fix the argument of a difficult piece of work. Despite his international status, he remained all his life a person who enjoyed sharing simple pleasures: making a great chocolate cake for a colleague’s birthday or sharing his list of malapropisms from student essays. With the support of his all-important family he courageously kept a terminal illness at bay for seven years, during which time he continued his academic work with astounding cheerfulness, and was unfailingly generous to his colleagues, friends and students.

Citation details

Ann Kumar, 'Proudfoot, Ian (1946–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 June 2024.

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