Sunil Kumar is one of those scholars whose work I remember reading for the very first time. It was the spring of 2012, and I had just managed to get a hold of a copy of The Present in Delhi’s Pasts, a beautiful collection of articles in which Professor Kumar peels back the many layers of history embedded in the city’s urban settlements.
Sitting at my desk reading ‘Qutb and Modern Memory’, I was immediately struck by all that he was able to communicate: an argument born from careful observation and deep insight, yet resonating with a love and passion for the city that formed the subject of his inquiry.
When I expressed my interest in joining the MA program at Delhi University a few months later, he did not question my reasons for doing so. Professor Kumar, I learned, welcomed anyone and everyone who was inspired to study the history of the city.
Prof Kumar’s Respect For & Generosity Towards His Graduate Students
As a teacher, Professor Kumar had a gift for storytelling, yet he was also a speaker who demanded critical engagement. The end of each class session always looked somewhat the same: the chalkboard completely covered in writing, Professor Kumar’s shirt caked in chalk dust, and all of our minds buzzing with questions that the lecture had beckoned us to try and answer. After class, Professor Kumar could usually be found sitting in his office or sipping coffee outside of the Arts Faculty canteen, where students would seek him out for conversation. He was unfailingly generous with his time in these situations, even when it was clear that he had other pressing business to attend to, which he often did.
This, I feel, was one of Professor Kumar’s most remarkable qualities: his respect for and generosity towards his graduate students, whether his own or those who came from other universities. During my time at DU, I remember him entertaining countless students in his office--engaging with their ideas, listening to them share their experiences in the archive, and giving advice on how they might go forward in their academic careers.
‘Prof Kumar’s Unflagging Energy — Even In The Heat Of Delhi Summers’
For my part, graduate school in Delhi came with a steep learning curve, and I made more embarrassing mistakes during those two years than I care to remember. However, on one particular occasion when I agonized over what felt like a career-ending faux pas, Professor Kumar was there to offer a gentle, yet firm reminder that these things happen, that there is still plenty of room to grow, and that we are, after all, students. He continually pushed us to challenge ourselves (and only grudgingly tolerated our occasional laziness), but was always our fiercest ally and deeply insistent that we maintain our dignity and be kind to ourselves.
When I think of him in Delhi, I see him charging forward across the city’s vast archaeological sites, his energy unflagging even in the heat of Delhi summer.
Professor Kumar brought places like the city of Tughluqabad to resplendent life, filling in the spaces with detail that allowed us all to envision something akin to Delhi as it was in the fourteenth century. I remember with fondness one particular moment at the Qutb complex in April or May, on a walk with him and Professor Finbarr Barry Flood. At one point, the two friends became completely engrossed in conversation about a particular architectural detail on the outside of the Qutb mosque. As it was turning midday, the sun was beating down fiercely, and most of us students shuffled away towards the shade. The two of them, however, remained deep in discussion, not noticing until long after we had moved aside.
Prof Kumar’s Legacy Lives On
Professor Kumar's student Ashutosh Kumar has written a tribute that beautifully outlines his game-changing contributions to our understanding of Islamicate South Asia. I could not add much more here, except to say that I can never properly articulate the extent to which Sunil Kumar has shaped my own thinking and that of so many of his students.
His legacy lives on not only in his passionate, insightful accounts of the city he loved, but among an international cohort of students who knew him and will always remember what they learned from him.
(Nicole Ferreira is a PhD candidate in the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation examines the formation of an Afghan identity in Mughal South Asia. She received her MA in History from Delhi University in 2014, where she worked under the supervision of Prof. Sunil Kumar. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)