February 17, 2021

Sunil Kumar, Historian of India (1956-2021)

Sunil Kumar, Historian of India (1956-2021)


On January 15th, Professor Sunil Kumar, one of the preeminent historians of Medieval India, passed away unexpectedly at his home in Delhi. For over two decades, Prof. Kumar was the lead instructor of the Lewis & Clark India program. The many history majors who spent a semester in India recall him as a beloved figure who was like an additional member of our department in exciting their imagination and developing their skills and sensibilities as historians.


Prof. Kumar earned his doctorate in history at Duke University under the supervision of the guru of Mughal Empire historians, John F. Richards. He was the longtime head of the history department at Delhi University and a distinguished visiting scholar at universities around the world, among them Berkeley, SOAS, and the Sorbonne. Prof. Kumar’s research and insights changed the way historians view the early centuries of Indo-Islamic civilization. His scholarship explored the intersection of political and administrative institutions, social and religious networks, and the built environment. In the process he challenged long-held assumptions about the arrival of Islam in South Asia as a rupture from a glorious Hindu civilization of late antiquity. His magnum opus, The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, is a pathbreaking work of scholarship and now regarded as a classic text in the field of Medieval Indian history.


Apart from his brilliant contributions to scholarship, Prof. Kumar was a dedicated and passionate teacher. He inspired legions of students to reimagine the past in new and innovative ways, whether these were his undergraduates at DU, his masters and doctoral advisees, or the scores of LC students and faculty who over the years had the privilege of attending his lectures and walking tours among the great historical monuments of his beloved Delhi. Like most great historians, Prof. Kumar was a mesmerizing storyteller and he leavened his teaching with his signature charm, empathy, and irreverent wit. He challenged his students to examine the past from a wide range of perspectives and never to accept received narratives at face value but to probe beneath the surface for a deeper and more critical understanding of historical processes. Indeed, it was an amazing feat for Lewis & Clark to have acquired the services of such a prestigious academic for one of our overseas programs, but Prof. Kumar really did love LC and its students and that feeling was definitely reciprocated.


Sunil Kumar’s passing is a great loss to the historical profession and to Lewis & Clark especially. He survived by his wife Anjali and sister Nita (also a scholar and LC India program instructor) and his children, Sikander and Shefali. He is also mourned by countless students and former students, among them a rising generation of young historians of South Asia that he trained who can now be found in colleges and universities around the world. Yet, in the midst of this grief, for those of us who knew him there is some consolation in having been able to call him our mentor, colleague, and dear friend. Though he has passed, he remains alive in the hearts and memories of all those he touched.