Margaret Chatterjee 1925-2019

Margaret Chatterjee, philosopher and Gandhi scholar, has died in Delhi at the age of 93. I first met Margaret over 20 years ago at a Gandhi Foundation meeting in London when she had come over from Oxford where she was teaching at Westminster College. She attended GF committee meetings from time to time before returning to her home in Delhi.

Margaret Gantzer spent most of her childhood in Dorset and her very religious parents took her to many different churches of different denominations where she often appreciated the organ – if it was played well.  This was the beginning of her love of music. She was taught by her father Norman until she went to school aged eight. He had lived in India and worked in the civil service and it was only when he returned to England that he met and married Edith Hickman. Margaret was their only child. Her father preached in many churches and Margaret’s interest in religion was seeded by her parents.  She had a special interest in Judaism arising from children she met who came over in the kindertransport and they maintained strong bonds of friendship.

On leaving Parkstone Grammar School she went to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1943 as a History Exhibitioner but was persuaded to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics instead. There Margaret met a student of English, Nripendra Nath Chatterjee (NN), who was already a university teacher in India, and on finishing her studies in 1946 they married and settled in India where her husband became a Professor of English at Lahore and Agra universities. He later joined the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) in Bengal  in newly independent India. As a result she learned about village life in Bengal and became fluent in Bengali.  Margaret and her husband were to have a son, Malay, and two daughters, Nilima and Amala. Margaret’s mother came out to India in 1953 after her husband passed away and she helped to look after the children.  Margaret started teaching at Miranda House, a pioneering women’s college in Delhi and studied for her doctorate in philosophy at University of Delhi 1957-61.  And so began an illustrious career mainly as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Delhi until she retired in 1990.  She also travelled to many parts of the world for conferences and longer periods as a visiting academic.

Margaret wrote books on diverse philosophical topics but increasingly turned to a study of Gandhi and Gandhi’s Religious Thought was published in 1980. One of my favourites is Gandhi and his Jewish Friends 1992.  Later still came Gandhi and the Challenge of Religious Diversity 2005 followed by Gandhi’s Diagnostic Approach Rethought 2007. A characteristic of her writing is the width of knowledge it reveals as she drew on literature in different languages, from history of many eras, from visual art, and diverse religious and philosophical traditions.  She wrote poetry over many decades too and published five modest collections between 1967 and 2011.  Margaret also had an extensive knowledge of western classical music and indeed was an excellent performer at the piano and sang Lieder too.  For many years she was music critic of  The Statesman newspaper.

Margaret Chatterjee was visiting professor at many universities around the world including University of Natal, South Africa, University of Calgary, Canada, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Bryn Mawr College, USA. She delivered the Teape Lecture at Cambridge University in 1983 on ‘The Concept of Spirituality’ and was Vice President of the International Society for Metaphysics.

In India she taught at Visva-Bharati, Shantiniketan, the university founded by Rabindranath Tagore, and in 1986-89 she was a very successful Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla.

Sadly their younger daughter Amala who suffered from Lupus passed  away aged 23 in 1973.  NN succumbed to cancer in 1983, age 75.

Former students describe Margaret as a very popular teacher who had “this rare quality of engaging in a deep philosophical discussion centred on a trivial everyday experience” (Shefali Moitra), and being “a very loving, caring and affectionate person” (Seema Bose).

In later retirement Margaret started her day by playing her piano and then settled down to her writing.  In the last decade of her life she started to write memories and sketches of people (some famous) that she knew, and reflections, and also poetry.  These have been published by Promilla & Co in around twenty short books which convey her wide interests and her lively personality. Her interest in all kinds of people she met during her long life and her recollection of them is remarkable. Eventually her eyesight deteriorated and she moved home to be cared for by her son and daughter-in-law, Meera.  Her piano playing continued to the very end and although she could no longer read sheet music her playing was her mainstay.

In 2013 the Indian Council of Philosophical Research conferred upon Margaret Chatterjee their Life Time Achievement Award in recognition of her outstanding contributions in the field of Philosophy.

George Paxton

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