Dwijendra Tripathi: The Business history pioneer

Dwijendra Tripathi
The passing away of Dr Dwijendra Tripathi on September 5 has caused a grievous loss to management education and research in general and the as-yet nascent field of business history in particular. Tripathi was an early member of the faculty of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.  He joined in 1964 and remained there till his retirement in 1990. He held many positions in the academic administration of the institute. But the true measure of his interest and contributions is the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Chair of Business History he graced.

For a country with long tradition of scholarship, economic and business history are relatively neglected fields in India. Romesh Chandra Dutt’s work on the economic history dates back to late 19th century. Bipan Chandra made admirable contributions, but his work was mired in unjustified ideological controversy. Irfan Habib and Romilla Thapar too have explored economic history, especially of the Mughal period. Yet there is little work available on issues such as the land settlement question through ages which could provide a much-needed historical perspective in today’s context of growing rural distress.

We have espoused an ahistoric approach to business research. Many early industrial revolution Mercantilist dilemmas such as the corn laws of England and the 18th century Calico controversy which sought to protect the emerging British textile industry against competition from cheaper Indian handloom fabrics would be relevant in analysing issues emerging from the side effects of globalisation.

That is where Tripathi’s contributions become very significant. His dissertation at the University of Wisconsin was on the economic links between India and the United States in the post-Civil War period, when India displaced the United States as the chief source of cotton for the British textile industry.  His return to India and Ahmedabad was fortuitous, because it allowed him to pursue these interests further.  Unlike most of his contemporaries on the institute faculty, Tripathi cultivated associations with the local academic circles and business community. He gave an indication of what was to come in his 1971 essay in Economic and Political Weekly titled “Indian Entrepreneurship in Historical Perspective: A Re-interpretation”.

He devoted much of his attention to business history in the latter period at Ahmedabad. This paid rich dividend: A series of seminars, a course on business history and the analytical tour de force, The Oxford History of Indian Business.

Tripathi’s contribution stands out in India, where barring exceptions such as Gita Piramal’s lucidly written books, mostly commissioned works on business houses and personalities pass for business history.

I got to know him well in my time at the institute. My lasting image is his slim, tall frame clad in black achkan and white pajamas every Independence and Republic Day.  What could have been pompous affectation on anyone else seemed perfectly natural and becoming on Tripathi.  It reflected his courtly and courteous persona perfectly. In all my memories of him, there are many of arguments, even heated ones, with others, but none where he lost his temper or raised his voice. Even as he was busy stressing his point or refuting yours, there was gentleness and a hint of smile, as if to tell you that these disagreements matter nought in friendship and collegiality. His attire on the occasions of national days also signified his deep and abiding interest in and identification with Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology.

He was visibly upset at a faculty meeting in 1972 when Ravi Matthai made the announcement of his irrevocable decision of stepping down from the IIMA directorship. The stunned silence it evoked was broken by Tripathi saying in a quivering voice that he felt betrayed. Again, that could be misinterpreted, but it was evident that Tripathi meant to convey his sense of loss, of being rudderless in the institute without Matthai’s stewardship, a feeling that even neophytes like me shared. He was quick to laud Matthai’s decision of staying in the institute and not playing any role in the choice of his successor. He prophetically called it the defining trait of the IIMA culture.

Tripathi is now part of history which all those who knew him will recall with affection and admiration.