Amherst College mourns the passing of  Lawrence “Alan” Babb, the Willem Schupf Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations and Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, on Nov. 21, 2023. 

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein wrote the following in a Nov. 27 email to faculty and staff:

I was fortunate to speak with Alan at a recent gathering, and as always I was struck by what a lovely person he was. A member of the Amherst faculty for more than four decades, he began his appointment here in 1969 and retired in 2012.

As an anthropologist of South Asia, Alan earned an international reputation for his groundbreaking scholarship. His research, which mostly took the form of anthropological fieldwork, was conducted in villages, temples, and workplaces—among worshipers, merchants, and migrant communities. His first field project (1966–1967) was a study of popular Hinduism in Raipur District in central India. This led to an interest in urban Hinduism that played a role in shaping his next two projects. In 1973–1974, he undertook a year of research on the religious institutions of the Indian migrant community of Singapore, and, four years later, he spent a year in Delhi studying modern sectarian movements in Hinduism. In the mid-1980s, Alan shifted his attention to the Jains; this culminated in a year’s work (1990–1991) in the Jain community of Jaipur. As before, this generated new projects.  Jainism finds most of its adherents among merchant castes, and because of Alan’s close contact with these groups, he developed an interest in the role of merchant communities in Indian society. This led to a return to Jaipur for a year of research (1996–1997) on the social identities of some of the region’s most prominent trading castes. Alan spent part of the next year in Jodhpur doing collaborative research with colleagues on two temple complexes. This, however, was a brief detour. Alan’s main interest remained focused on business communities, and this gave rise to his ethnographic and historical study of the gemstone industry of Jaipur. He began his research on the industry in 2005, and the book resulting from this work, Emerald City: The Birth and Evolution of an Indian Gemstone Industry, was published eight years later.  Alan published six other single-authored books and two co-authored volumes, two co-edited books, and more than sixty articles.  His research was supported and recognized through numerous prestigious fellowship awards throughout his career, among them a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship and an NEH Senior Research Fellowship.

In the classroom, Alan was a legend. A gifted lecturer and storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor, he conveyed his knowledge and passion for his subject; set high standards, while providing the support that students needed to be successful; and encouraged his students to think deeply and critically. As a teacher and mentor, he was known not only for his enthusiasm, clarity, and attention to detail, but also for his care and kindness. Alan was also an extraordinary citizen of his two departments and brought his insights and strong work ethic to his service on numerous and varied faculty committees, including two terms each on the Committee of Six and the Committee on Educational Policy. He was also an active participant in his field and was sought-after as a speaker, panelist, and reviewer around the globe.

In remarks that she gave on the occasion of Alan’s final lecture at the college in 2012, Maria Heim, George Lyman Crosby 1896 and Stanley Warfield Crosby Professor in Religion, noted the following: “From Alan we have learned so much from his treatment of devotional and ritual practices; of the logic of religious sacrifice; of ideologies of martial valor, heroism, and kingship. We have learned about and from the sages, teachers, and miracle-workers he has met and studied. Alan has shown us how myths work and how they inflect human history and experience in complex and immediate ways. He has taught us of the ideologies and practices of religious asceticism, of violence, and non-violence. He has charted the processes of modern identity formation and the nature of subjectivity and the ways the self is constructed and displayed, and he has shown the complex intertwining of economics and religion in his work on trading and business communities in Rajasthan. And of course there is more. But let me speak  finally,  if I may speak for all of us here at Amherst, of how much we’ve  appreciated the intelligence and decency of his collegiality, the drollness of his wit, the wonderfulness of his wife, Nancy, and the kindness of his friendship.”

On behalf of the college, I extend our condolences to Nancy and other family members, including Alan and Nancy’s two children, Sarah and Michael. 

If and when plans for a memorial service become known, they will be posted on this page.

We invite members of the Amherst College community to leave notes and remembrances by logging in and clicking “Add comment” below. Login is also required if you wish to read comments left by others.

Log in to post comments