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Arthur Llewellyn Basham (1914–1986)

by J. T. F. Jordens

This article was published:

Arthur Basham, by Chi Chi Beaton, 1986

Arthur Basham, by Chi Chi Beaton, 1986

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-63

Arthur Llewellyn Basham (1914-1986), professor of South Asian history, was born on 24 May 1914 at Loughton, Essex, England, son of English parents Arthur Abraham Edward Basham and his wife Maria Jane, née Thompson, who were both journalists. As a child he learned the piano and by the age of 16 had written several compositions; he continued to play throughout his life. In 1935 he published a collection of his poetry entitled Proem.

After achieving first-class honours in Indo-Aryan studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (BA, 1941; Ph.D., 1950), Basham served in civil defence during World War II. In 1948 he was appointed lecturer in the history of India at the SOAS, becoming reader in South Asian history in 1953 and professor in 1957. He was director of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1964-65. On 9 October 1942 he had married Violet Helen Kemp in the Rushall parish church, Norfolk; they were later divorced. He married Namita Catherine Shadap-Sen, a 34-year-old Indian research student, on 11 November 1964 at the register office, Hampstead.

In 1965-79 Basham was foundation professor and head of the new department of Oriental (Asian) civilisation(s) in the faculty of Oriental (Asian) studies at the Australian National University, Canberra. He served as dean of the faculty from 1968 to 1970. His inspiration and leadership contributed greatly to the expansion of Asian studies at ANU. Through his supervision of over fifty doctoral students, both at the SOAS and at the ANU, he exercised a broad influence in his field. As well as providing intellectual stimulus and concrete assistance, he showed kindness and personal concern to colleagues.

Basham’s eminence as a historian of India had been established by the publication in London of his doctoral thesis History and Doctrines of the Ajı–vikas (1951) and by his monumental The Wonder That Was India (1954). In this book, which has been republished many times and translated into several languages, he tried to cover `all aspects of Indian life and thought’ before the arrival of the Muslims in the sixteenth century. His fine and demanding scholarship concealed itself in an easy and elegant style. This work showed him as a historian and humanist with wide interests, a discerning appreciation of art and literature, and an affection for the people and the land he made the focus of his life’s work. After publishing Studies in Indian History and Culture (1964) and Aspects of Ancient Indian Culture (1966), Basham edited Papers on the Date of Kaniska (1968), The Civilizations of Monsoon Asia (1974) and A Cultural History of India (1975). He wrote about fifty research articles, a similar number of review articles, and numerous contributions to encyclopaedias.

In 1970 `Bash’ became vice-president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, of which he was a foundation fellow, and in 1976 he was elected vice-president of the Asian Studies Association of Australia. Due to his international stature and his efforts, the 28th International Congress of Orientalists was held at the ANU in 1971. Basham served as president. In 1979 he was president of the First International Conference on Traditional Asian Medicine, held in Canberra. This meeting led to the formation of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine.

In the 1960s and 1970s Basham held several visiting professorships in the United States of America and India. His contribution to scholarship was recognised by a D.Litt. from the University of London (1966), honorary doctorates from the universities of Kurukshetra (1965) and Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (1977), as well as the Bimala Churn Law gold medal of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1975 and the Desikottama award from the Visva-bharati University in 1985. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, Basham died of cancer on 27 January 1986 at Calcutta, India, and was buried in the Old Military Cemetery of All Saints Cathedral, Shillong.

Select Bibliography

  • S. K. Maity et al (eds), Studies in Orientology (1988)
  • S. K. Maity, Professor A. L. Basham (1997)
  • Australian Academy of the Humanities, Proceedings, 1984-86, p 141
  • Asian Studies Association of Australia, Review, vol 9, no 3, Apr 1986, p 29
  • ANU Reporter, 28 Feb 1986, p 2
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

J. T. F. Jordens, 'Basham, Arthur Llewellyn (1914–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Arthur Basham, by Chi Chi Beaton, 1986

Arthur Basham, by Chi Chi Beaton, 1986

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-63

Life Summary [details]


24 May, 1914
Loughton, Essex, England


27 January, 1986 (aged 71)
Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

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