Bodhi Kar – Distinguished Teacher and truant

04 November 2021 | Story Robert Morrell. Photo Lerato Maduna. Read time 7 min.
Bodhi Kar
Bodhi Kar

Bodhi Kar arrived at UCT in 2012 with a reputation for eccentric brilliance. He joined the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Historical Studies bringing with him teaching and research experiences from India, Mexico, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Europe.

Bodhi was one of only two recipients of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award for 2020. He is credited with “driving the systematic reconceptualisation and revision of the department’s undergraduate and postgraduate curricula to create a clear progression path from the first year of study, to honours; and providing students with a comprehensive training in the history and methodologies of the discipline in the Global South”. He led the process to develop an “integrated, continuous and incremental undergraduate major, which included a focus on black South African, African and the Global South histories”.

Bodhi’s approach to history has always been passionate. This passion led to stellar achievements early on in his career when, studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he topped the class in both the MA (history) and the MPhil (in 2001 and 2002 respectively). He then studied under professors Neeladri Bhattacharya and Tanika Sarkar and graduated with a PhD in 2008, titled “Framing Assam: Plantation Capital, Metropolitan Knowledge and a Regime of Identities, 1790s–1930s”.

Curriculum: excellence, limitations and opportunity

Bodhi received “excellent and rigorous disciplinary training” in his university education. But the syllabus was ‘bifocal’, which was the case with most history departments in the global South at the time. “We read a great deal of ‘national history’, and a corresponding amount of European and Eurocentric world history. The exceptionally inspiring teachers would occasionally alert us to this classic in Latin American history or that new book in African history, but despite their best intentions the curricular structure was not set up for systematic, thorough engagement with global South histories”. This was also a time when the internet was not the resource that it is today. “JSTOR [an electronic archive of leading journals across many academic disciplines] was a rumour. Libgen [Library Genesis, an online resource aiming to provide everyone with free access to millions of public domain books and articles] was unborn”. Only a few libraries in the big cities in India could afford expensive, foreign-published monographs.

Coming to UCT offered Bodhi the chance to dive into African history. “I had always wanted to do this but never had a formal opportunity to pursue [it].” Despite UCT’s rich library resources, Bodhi discovered over time that the best way of learning African history was “to learn it with my students in class”.

This led Bodhi to begin to rethink the curriculum. “Making meaningful and effective pedagogical interventions beyond my certified area of research specialisation required constant upskilling, deep immersion in newer, unfamiliar and cross-regional historiographies, and spending a disproportionate amount of time in educating myself.” There was a cost to this, admits Bodhi. His approach “often put my own research and publication plans on ice”. Time-intensive immersion in new fields was required and this was compounded with the requirements of postgraduate supervision. “Supervising on areas in which I have neither carried out primary research nor was I traditionally trained required a large amount of preparation time – time that almost all my well-wishers wanted me to spend on my own research. But it is the very status of this ‘own’ that was at stake here.”


“Transformation does not arrive by an overnight courier post. We work for it. And it does not work if we say, ‘Oh, I can’t do anything about it because it is not my story’. As one of my favourite historians Fernand Braudel once put it, we do history ‘[b]ecause all the stories are ours’.”

For many colleagues, Bodhi’s career trajectory is perplexing. The big book expected of brilliant historians is still incubating, even if Bodhi is frequently billed as keynote speaker in international conferences and his publications are often quoted by scholars and journalists in the field. Bodhi reflects on this: “I would be lying if I say that I do not miss my researcher self very deeply, but sometimes we can choose our challenges, and sometimes we cannot”. Bodhi chose to make teaching his primary responsibility and this involves “enabling projects other than my own”.

“What do you do when an excited 20-something student, having returned from her first visit to a proper archive, tells you that she wants to pursue this particular project with you on this particular history of which you know little, because she thinks that she has a story, an argument, an analytic that really could be ‘it’? Do you shrug and say, ‘Great! But that is not my area’? Or do you accept the hidden invitation to redefine yourself, to undo your own sense of expertise and commit to studying it with her? I somehow lean towards the latter”. To date, Bodhi has supervised five PhD, four MPhil, six master’s and nine honours dissertations to graduation. Some 10 more are in the pipeline.

Bodhi and the Next Generation Professoriate (NGP)

Bodhi has been an enigmatic member of the cohort. We see less of him than we would like. He blames it all on his odd work hours, heavy smoking and schoolchild-like distrust of structured activities.

“I can safely say that I have been the unruliest truant that Rob had to deal with in this otherwise wonderful cohort. And I am more ashamed of it than Rob would ever know. But this humbling occasion of receiving the Distinguished Teacher Award allows me to explain to Rob and my fellow NGP-ers why, against their best advice, I kept prioritizing teaching and supervision over my own research publications. I am aware that the line between an explanation and an excuse is always dangerously soft, but I intend this less as a justification and more as an acknowledgement of the limitations of my own training and my own locations.”

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