Renowned South Asian scholar Ainslie Embree dies

Einslie Embree, a renowned scholar in South Asian cultural studies and history and a professor emeritus at Columbia University, has died at the age of 96. He had spent much of his academic career as a history professor at Columbia, where his many roles included acting dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. Embree died June 6 in a Washington, D.C., area retirement community known as Collington in Mitchellville, Maryland.

Embree became professor emeritus of history in 1991 after having been a history professor there from 1958 to 1991. He was also a respected advisor on U.S.-India relations.

In 1994, when Ambassador Frank G. Wisner was posted to India, he invited Embree to come along with him to New Delhi and serve as his adviser in residence.

“Ainslie was dear to me. A single minded promoter of U.S.-India relations, he agreed to come out of retirement and accompany me to India when I was asked to serve as ambassador,” said Wisner, who Embree had served in 1994 as adviser-in-residence in New Delhi. “I was new to India its history and politics and Ainslie served as my mentor. During my first months as Chief of Mission, he was constantly at my side. We shared many evenings together as well as trips to India’s states. Once Ainslie decided I could make it on my own, he spent the remainder of his six month stay touring India and speaking to Indian universities, on a subject dear to him, American studies.”

Wisner said his writings remain a treasure for all those interested in South Asian culture. “He was a prolific writer on India and Indian culture. He wrote prodigiously. His “Sources of Indian Tradition” remains a seminal work for all those who study India, and even though it was written over 60 years ago, the book remains today a core text in the study of the intellectual history of South Asia.”

He said Embree’s death brings the loss of “a single-minded promoter of U.S.-India relations. We have also all a great friend, and a brilliant scholar.”

Ambassadors Howard and Teresita Schaffer, who between them have more than 60 years of experience in and on India and South Asia, called Embree “one of the most outstanding scholars of Indian history and culture.” They recalled how in the late 1970s, Ambassador Robert Goheen brought Embree to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi to provide the staff with deep background needed to assess changes in that nation. “In this,” the couple said, “as in all his academic pursuits, he was eminently successful.”

“Anyone who knew him will remember his capacious intellect, his deep belief that the past is important to know, and equally, that the present is important to live,” said Jack Hawley, director of Columbia University’s South Asian Institute. “Ainslie served the profession in countless ways, as chair of Columbia’s history department and associate and then acting director of its School of International and Public Affairs, as president of the AIIS [American Institute for Asian Studies] and the AAS [Association for Asian Studies], as member of countless committees, and as a teacher and a friend.”

Hawley said Embree loved India and had thoroughly enjoyed his stints with Goheen and Wisner and his earlier experience when he taught there as a young man. “Everything he ever did or wrote is testament to that,” he said. “If you knew Ainslie, you also knew his boundless savvy and wit, and oh, how he loved to tell a story! In each of these respects he has been joined over the last 70 years by his wife Sue, who continues to live and thrive at their retirement community at Collington.”

He said Embree was always “one step ahead of the game.”

While at Columbia he served as Director of Contemporary Civilization, of the undergraduate Asian civilization program; as Chairman of the Middle East Languages and Cultures Department and the History Department; as Director of the Southern Asian Institute; and as Acting Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs.

Since his retirement in 1991, he had taught at Columbia, Brown University and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

He was editor of numerous publications and author of many books on India and South Asia.

For nearly the past two decades, he lived in the Collington retirement community outside Washington, D.C. — residence of a former Washington Post correspondent in India, Warren Unna, who died Feb. 9 of this year at 93. Embree had been a mentor and source for analysis and perspectives for Unna for many years.

Both Unna and Embree were avid readers of India Abroad, and both had been subscribers for many years, and before age took its toll, would occasionally host a lunch at Collington and also call me over too, particularly when they had a guest speakers that included erstwhile Indian Ambassadors to the U.S.

Embree is survived by his wife, a daughter Margot, a son Ralph, and several grandchildren.

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