Rabindranath Tagore has greatly influenced Dipesh Chakrabarty’s scholarship, especially Tagore’s 1941 essay “The Crisis of Civilisation.” When the UChicago professor received the 2019 Tagore Memorial Prize from the Government of West Bengal for his collection of essays, The Crises of Civilization: Exploring Global and Planetary Histories (Oxford University Press, 2018), Chakrabarty recognized the honor and the irony of getting a prize named after one of his intellectual muses and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
“Tagore, as well as German philosophers such as Hegel, Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt, have been very influential in my thinking about the problems of humanity, humanity as a whole, and what it means to be a human being,” said Chakrabarty, the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, History, and the College at the University of Chicago and Faculty Director of the UChicago Center in Delhi, India.
The Tagore Memorial Prize is the highest honorary literary award given by West Bengal for a work’s contribution in Bengali or West Bengal-related literature. Previous awardees include Satinath Bhaduri, Amit Chaudhuri, and Kazuo Azuma.
“The essay format of The Crises of Civilization allows Dipesh to reflect on civilization from multiple angles through different arguments and thoughts,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities. “The book also gives Dipesh an opportunity to start the conversation about climate change and humanity in India.”
Like many fast-growing nations, India has been slower to respond to climate change concerns, according to Chakrabarty. Now India is changing, and his scholarship focused on India-related questions and global questions about climate change is reaching Indian intellectuals and politicians.
“Addressing climate change is difficult because we live on one planet that’s divided into many nations and races,” Chakrabarty said. “It is hard for all countries to come together while there are tensions arising from sharing land and water.
“Even as many issues divide us and local context shapes our lives, the climate crisis is everyone’s business. We have to work out our differences for the common good.” At the 2019 Humanities Day on October 19, Chakrabarty is one of five panelists delivering a presentation about “Imagining Climate Change Futures.”
Since coming to UChicago from the University of Melbourne in 1995, his connections to European scholars have grown stronger, and his scholarship got a second life. “Being at UChicago has given me a bigger look at the world and allowed me to reinvent myself as a humanist,” Chakrabarty said. “Through conversations and scholarship, I can influence a great collection of graduate students.”
Currently, Chakrabarty is working a collection of essays about climate change that he calls “more strongly cohesive” than the essays in The Crises of Civilization. In the process, he is developing a new humanist perspective on climate change.