Dharma Kumar

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Dharma Kumar (1928-October 19, 2001) was an Indian economic historian, noted for her work on the fiscal history of India. Her Ph.D at Cambridge on the fiscal history of South India was awarded the Ellen MacArthur Prize,[1] and was published as Land and Caste in South India (Cambridge University Press, 1965).

She is noted for the position that many of the social structures of agrarian India, particularly the large class of landless labourers, pre-dated the British era.[2] This view opposed the marxist historical view then prevalent in India, that the class of agricultural labourers had been formed as a result of British exploitation in the nineteenth century[3]


Born in a progressive Tamil Brahmin family, her father K. Venkataraman was one of India's leading chemists, and was the director of the National Chemical Laboratory. After a childhood in Lahore where her father was professor, Dharma Kumar did her bachelor's in Economics from Elphinstone College, Mumbai. She then went to Cambridge (Newnham College) for her Master's in Economics.

Shortly after Indian independence, Dharma, returned from Cambridge in 1948, and joined the Reserve Bank of India. In 1951, she married Lovraj Kumar, India's first Rhodes scholar. Lovraj was a graduate of chemistry from Oxford and was then working for Burmah-Shell in Mumbai. He would subsequently become a senior bureaucrat, serving as secretary in the Ministry of Petroleum for many years.[4] After the birth of a daughter, however, Dharma felt the urge to return to academics and she went back to Cambridge for her Ph.D. in the area of economic history.

After returning to India, she worked briefly at the Indian Council for World Affairs and University of Delhi's Institute for Economic Growth. In 1966, she joined the Delhi School of Economics. She also worked on India's early economic policy, along with P. C. Mahalanobis and Pitamber Pant.[5]

In the late 1970s she and Tapan Raychaudhuri were general editors for the Cambridge economic history of India, volume 2 of which, covering the colonial and modern India, she edited along with Meghnad Desai.[6] She was also one of the founding members of the academic journal, Indian Economic and Social History Review, which she edited for more than thirty years. The journal brought out a memorial volume in her honour in 2002, edited by Sanjay Subrahmanyam.[7]

She was also active in the arts and the literary life of Delhi, and is portrayed in Vikram Seth's A suitable boy as the character Professor Ila Chattopadhya.<[1] She was also associated with magazine Civil Lines.

Dharma retired from the DSE in 1993. The very next year, her husband, who had retired as Secretary, Ministry of Steel, died. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1998, and underwent an unsuccessful operation, and died in late 2001.


  1. ^ a b Ramachandra Guha (Nov 4, 2001). "The last liberal". The Hindu. Retrieved 2011-02-07. 
  2. ^ Kumar, Dharma; (1965). Land and caste in South India: agricultural labour in the Madras Presidency during the nineteenth century. Cambridge University Press,. p. 211. p. 63
  3. ^ Patel, Surendra J.; Agricultural labourers in modern India and Pakistan Current Book House, 1952. quote: [the] class of agricultural labourers represents a new social relationship that emerged [after the] social basis of a traditional society [was] completely smashed by a handful of adventurers from a far-off island...
  4. ^ Little, I. M. D. (April 1, 1994). "Obituary: Lovraj Kumar". The Independent (London). 
  5. ^ Mary Kaldor (November 2, 2001). "Obituary: Dharma Kumar". The Independent, London. 
  6. ^ Dharma Kumar (eds); Meghnad Desai; (1983). The Cambridge economic history of India, Volume 2: 1757-1970. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22802-6. quote: The original planning of this volume was done by Dharma Kumar. Meghnad Desai joined her at a later stage to assist in the completion of the task; he supervised the preparation of the bibliography and the maps.
  7. ^ Sanjay Subrahmanyam (2002). "Making sense of Indian historiography". Indian Economic and Social History Review (v. 39 Dharma Kumar Memorial Volume) (SAGE Publications). doi:10.1177/001946460203900201.