British Association for South Asian Studies

News & Events

31 August 2014

Graham Chapman : 1944 - 2014 : Goodbye to a good friend

It is with shock and sadness that BASAS records the death without warning of Graham Chapman on August 31st.

Graham Chapman

Rarely do people reach the age of 70 with such achievements and warm regard. Recalled from Edinburgh on the basis of his brilliance rather than a South Asian research record, Graham - a Cambridge trained geographer and systems theorist - was appointed in the early 1970s to a junior position in South Asian geography at Cambridge alongside the great South Asianist, B.H. Farmer; and he set out to explore India and make friends with Indians. His first important contribution to agrarian studies was a warning - grounded in the good field research that was Farmer’s trade-mark - about the dissonance between the mental frames of agricultural extension science and those of the almanac-based and lunar calendars that farmers then used to order their activity.

He followed this up in the mid 70s with the invention of the Green Revolution Game that simulated Indian agriculture and demographics in constantly changing iterations - whose lessons are unforgettable. The Game was eventually commercialised and used far and wide – from Indian Agricultural Universities to the World Bank. Later Graham added a non-farm economy (also based on field evidence) and a town to the Game. He called it ‘Exaction’ and it was also a powerful learning tool.

Meanwhile he was making pioneering contributions to complexity science with a tool called ‘Q-analysis’ for the classification of complex activity combinations. His applications ranged from TV programming and media in Europe to dryland agricultural production and exchange in India.

In 1988 he moved from Cambridge to a professorial post at SOAS before becoming in 1994 chair and head of the Department of Geography at Lancaster, where he was based until his retirement in 2008.

Although his own research flourished under titles like ‘On Wholeness, Reflexive Complexity, Hierarchies, Structures and Systems Dynamics', and ‘Borderlines networks and chains in early Saami language variation in Fenno Scandia’ or theoretical pieces like ‘Network partitioning under simultaneous co-operation and competition’, it vexed Graham that the two branches of geography, physical and human, always in tension, were increasingly separated, that regional studies were being abandoned by geographers and that students of geography were less and less encouraged to have real knowledge of geographical facts. Indeed one paper he titled ‘ ‘graphy: the remains of a British Discipline’.

He reacted against these intellectual currents in three major ways. First, he became a champion for the holistic study of South Asia, writing prolifically about the region as a whole, its history, environment, agriculture, urbanisation and geopolitics. His definitive ‘Geopolitics of South Asia from the early empires to the nuclear age’ is into its third edition.

Second, he devoted himself to Area Studies through his long Presidency of BASAS, developing it as a professional association that encourages young scholars in an atmosphere of informal and constructive collegiality, internationalism and multi-disciplinarity. In changed times, this distinctive culture is an enduring legacy.

Third, he made environment- development interactions a centre-piece of his South Asia research becoming a renowned authority on the geography of the Ganges and Brahmaputra water systems and the conflicts and politics involved in them.

But this simply scratches the surface of the man. A ‘family man’; a scholar with original ideas who constantly collaborated and was fun to work with; a generous supervisor much loved as well as somewhat feared by his students; a talented artist and photographer with an eye not only for great sweeps of landscape but for its fine detail; someone with close family and professional ties with Scandinavia; a young scholar with hobbies listed as ‘RAF air squadron, water polo, rowing’ who became an accomplished fell- and mountain-walker and forager of wild mushrooms. Above all, a person who took an interest in everyone he came across (from Kolkata beggars to Norwegian cruise-liner passengers) one whose enjoyment of life was reflected in the warm welcome of his home.

His last engagement with BASAS was earlier this year when he could be found behind a desk in the foyer of Royal Holloway with a genial smile selling off his academic library at bargain basement prices. ‘It’ll pay for the conference fee’ he said.

Graham’s scholarship was creative and unusually wide-ranging. With his enthusiasm for so much that life offers, he was ‘larger than life’. His death is a huge loss and BASAS sends deep sympathy to Anne Gerd, Nicklas, Christina and their family.