The Subalternist (Mis?) Representation

Partha Chatterjee on Kolkata Anthropology

Abhijit Guha

In a recent lecture delivered on 15 May 2023 at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS), Kolkata, Partha Chatterjee, the former Director of CSSS narrated the history of the oldest Department of Anthropology in India at the University of Calcutta. The lecture was entitled ‘Science or Cultural Interpretation: Anthropology at the University of Calcutta, 1920-1970’. The summary of the lecture is available at In the aforesaid lecture, Chatterjee, who was one of the major collaborators of Ranajit Guha and his subaltern school of history, depicted the works of the anthropologists of the University of Calcutta in a highly biased and partial manner.

In Chatterjee’s words: ‘The Anthropology Department at the University of Calcutta was established in 1920.Since there were no trained Indian anthropologists available, the first teachers came from the Ancient Indian History department and taught prehistory and archaeology. When they began to carry out their own research, the early members of the department became involved in debates over the racial classification of the Indian population. The curriculum too put a strong emphasis on theories of race and methods of anthropometry. Students from the department went on to get higher degrees abroad and became leading figures in physical anthropology at Delhi, Lucknow and the Anthropological Survey of India’ (Chatterjee 2023).

This description might have given an impression, as if, social-cultural anthropology, a very important branch of anthropology, was not taught at the University of Calcutta; nor were students trained in intensive fieldwork (not much required in physical anthropology) in this branch of anthropology. The facts were far away from the assertions of Partha Chatterjee!

Anthropology department at the University of Calcutta from its very inception emphasised and practised the discipline from a holistic perspective, and teaching and research were being done in all the three major sub-disciplines of the subject, viz. (i) physical anthropology, (ii) social-cultural anthropology and (iii) prehistoric archaeology. André Béteille, the famous sociologist who was trained in anthropology at the University of Calcutta in his undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the 1950s recounted in his autobiographical account in the Annual Review of Anthropology:

‘The half-dozen teachers we had covered all branches of the subject: paleontology, prehistoric archaeology, material culture, religion and magic, and social organisation. One of the teachers had a special interest in museology, so he talked endlessly about museum methods. Yet a teacher was not necessarily bad because he was self-taught and did not have original research publications. One of those who taught us about society and culture, Mr T C Das, was meticulous and conscientious and had a vast store of detailed ethnographic knowledge’ (Béteille 2013:4).

Another internationally famous anthropologist who held the positions of the Director, Anthropological Survey of India and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta was Surajit Sinha who also earned his M.Sc. degree in anthropology from the University of Calcutta during the late 1940s specialised in social-cultural anthropology. Sinha was rigorously trained in fieldwork in social-cultural anthropology at the University of Calcutta by T C Das who was his teacher. In Sinha’s own words:

‘In March, 1950 late Professor Tarak Chandra Das suggested to me that I should take up a study of the Bhumij tribe, an off-shoot of the Munda of Ranchi District, since this tribe has been drawn very near to the caste system by the process of acculturation... Professor Das had also published a short monograph on the Bhumij of Seraikella in 1931. Professor Das suggested to me that my enquiry should be mainly based on intensive field study of a Bhumij dominated village in Manbhum district of Bihar where they were already reported in the Census as caste and spoke Bengali, having lost their original Mundari language’7+ (Sinha 1978:149-150).

The above quotation clearly showed that Surajit Sinha was not doing his studies on physical anthropology, and much later in an article published in 1971 Sinha observed that his teacher TC Das tried to rigorously develop field methods in social-cultural anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta, which could be ‘fruitfully utilised in describing the living conditions of tribals, peasants as well as urbanites’ (Sinha 1971:7). T C Das’s social anthropological monograph on the Purum Kukis of Manipur entitled The Purums: An Old Kuki Tribe of Manipur, published by the Calcutta University in 1945, became a major source of database in the acrimonious debate on descent versus alliance theories on kinship in Anglo-American Anthropology that involved renowned anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss, George Homans, David Schneider, Rodney Needham, Floyd Lounsbury, and others (Guha 2011:256). Das’s other book on the Bengal famine of 1943 (see Das 1949) was a unique and rare first-hand study done by any anthropologist or social scientist on the victims of one of the greatest tragedies of the country under the colonial rule (Guha 2010:90-94). An earlier version of the book was discussed in the then British Parliament and some of the recommendations advanced by Das were adopted in 1944 by the Famine Inquiry Commission formed by the colonial government for the prevention of future famines in India (ibid.: iii-iv). Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his book The Discovery of India also mentioned the anthropological survey conducted by Das on the famine-affected population of Bengal and, even before the book was published, expressed his confidence on the results of the survey in contrast to the one carried out by the government (Nehru 1981/1946: 495–96). The Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen has also used Das’s original work several times in his famous book Poverty and Famines (Sen 1999).

T C Das was not the lone social anthropologist at the University of Calcutta during 1930-60. Another very talented social-cultural anthropologist was Kshitish Prasad Chattopadhyay who was one of most distinguished anthropologists of India. He was born on 15th December 1897 and had a brilliant academic career. He earned a First Class Honours degree in Physics from the University of Calcutta. In 1919, he went to United Kingdom and took his admission at Cambridge University in Physics and began his studies under famous physicists like Thompson and Rutherford. But soon he changed his subject and obtained his Masters degree in anthropology in 1922. He came in contact with the famous British anthropologist WHR Rivers, who was his teacher and Chattopadhyay was awarded the Anthony Wilkins Fellowship to carry out his research on the Newar community of Nepal. The fellowship was later withdrawn because of his activities with the Indian Seamen's Union (London), which were regarded as objectionable and he was not allowed to visit Nepal for his fieldwork by the then colonial government(Hutton1963:155-156). He came back to India in 1922 with M A degree in anthropology from Cambridge University (IJCS 1964:111-112). During 1937-1962 K P Chattopadhyay served as the Head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta in its formative phase. During this period the department flourished in all the three major sub-disciplines of Anthropology, namely, physical anthropology, prehistoric archaeology and social-cultural anthropology. In 1955, the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta was chosen by the University and the UNESCO to hold a conference on the Study of Changes in Traditional Culture and with the able academic and administrative leadership of K P Chattopadhyay the conference was not only held most successfully but the whole proceedings of the conference along with the discussions were also meticulously recorded and published in the form of a book by the University of Calcutta in 1957. Under the encouraging guidance of Chattopadhyay many of his students and teachers acclaimed national and international recognitions (Chattopadhyay 2000:1-7). Some of his students who later became famous at the national and international arenas were Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Surajit Sinha, B K Roy Burman, André Béteille and many others. K P Chattopadhyay was an anthropologist with nationalist and humanist spirit who dedicated himself to the welfare of humanity. In an obituary of Chattopadhyay, which was published in Man, an eminent British social anthropologist noted:

‘Apart from his academic work he was always active in promoting the welfare of his fellow men. As a student in England he had worked among seamen in the East End of London; in India the free primary education system in Calcutta was largely his work: as Treasurer of the People’s Relief Committee, famine relief and rehabilitation work in the rural areas of Bengal owed much to him, and during the communal riots of 1946 he organised a ‘Peace Corps’ to restore order’ (Hutton 1963:155-156).

Suffice it to say that with a social-cultural anthropologist, like Surajit Sinha trained by teachers like T C Das and K P Chatopadhyay, Kolkata anthropology reached global standards along with physical anthropology and prehistory.

Kolkata Anthropology
In a recently published article in the famous journal founded by D N Majumdar, The Eastern Anthropologist, a former Director and a Delhi University professor Vinay Kumar Srivastava recollected:

‘For many, the Delhi Anthropology Department was an extension of the Calcutta anthropology, for its founder, Dr P C Biswas, who also headed the Department from 1947 to 1968, earned his master’s from Calcutta University, before he proceeded to Berlin for his doctorate. However, it was not true because Dr Biswas was principally a biological anthropologist, bearing the imprint of German ethnology on him. For social anthropology thus, the Delhi Department looked at Kolkata for academic content, and also to those departments of anthropology in the country which the Kolkata-trained anthropologists started, of which Professor D N Majumdar, who was appointed a lecturer to teach ‘primitive economics’ in the Lucknow Economics Department, was a prominent name’. (Srivastava 2018:453)

In the rest of the article Vinay Srivastava showed that social-cultural anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta was a pioneer in rejecting the older anthropological notion of treating tribal societies as static and isolated and it was Kolkata social anthropology, which ‘promoted an historical understanding of India’ (Ibid 2018:455).Kolkata social anthropology continued its viable existence through the 1970s and 80s in its practice towards the upliftment of the underprivileged and margina-lised communities, which according to Vinay Srivastava was best exemplified by the works of Probodh Kumar Bhowmick of the department on the Lodha community who were designated as a ‘Criminal Tribe’ by the British colonial administration’ (Ibid 2018:456 and also see Bhowmick 1981:6-8)

It is not true that the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta did not practise social-cultural anthropology as viewed by Partha Chatterjee, who now holds the position of a professor in Anthropology at Columbia University, USA. Chatterjee ignored internationally famous researches done by a generation of social-cultural anthropologists who either taught or were trained in this vital sub-discipline of anthropology. He also missed the contributions of pioneering social-cultural anthropologists like L K Ananthakrishna Iyer (1861-1937), Sarat Chandra Mitra (1863-1938), Ramaprasad Chanda (1873-1942), Panchanan Mitra (1892-1936), and Haran Chandra Chakladar (1874-1968) who taught and trained students on the history and diversity of cultures and social organisation at this 100-year-old Department of Anthropology in India. They were the pioneers in building a true nationalist anthropology for India (Sinha 1974: iii; Guha 2022).

Béteille, A. (2013). Ourselves and Others. Annual Review of Anthropology, 42:1-16.
Bhowmick, P.K. (1981). Rehabilitation of a 'Denotified Community': The Ex-Criminal Lodhas of West Bengal. Royal Anthropological Institute Newsletter, 44:6-8.
Chatterjee, P. (2023). Science or Cultural Interpretation: Anthropology at the University of Calcutta, 1920-1970.Lecture delivered at CSSS on 15.05.2023(
Chattopadhyay, G. (2000). A critical appreciation of professor K.P. Chattopadhyay’s work on education, in Life and times of an Indian anthropologist: K.P. Chattopadhyay, ed. G.Chattopadhyay,  pp.1-7. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society.
Das, T.C. (1945). The Purums: An Old Kuki Tribe of Manipur. Calcutta: Calcutta University.
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Guha, A. (2010). Bengal Famine’ and a Forgotten Author. Frontier, 43 :( 12-15):90-94.
Guha, A. (2011). Tarak Chandra Das: A Marginalised Anthropologist. Sociological Bulletin, 60(2):245-265.
Guha, A. (2022). Nation-Building in Indian Anthropology: Beyond the Colonial Encounter. New Delhi: Manohar.
Hutton, J.H.( (1963). Obituary of K.P. Chattopadhyay. Man, 53 (193& 194):155-156.
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Sen, A. (1999). Poverty and famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford: University Press.
Sinha, S. (1971). Is there an Indian tradition in social/cultural anthropology: retrospect and prospect? Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society. 6:1-14.
Sinha, S. (1974). ‘Foreword’.In Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (WITH LIFE-SKETCHES) By Shyamal Kumar Ray. Anthropological Survey of India, Govt. of India, Indian Museum, Calcutta.
Sinha, S. (1978). Space, Time and Ethnicity: Field Study among the Bhumij of Barabhum. In Field Studies on the People of India: Methods and Perspectives, pp.149-156. Ed. Surajit Sinha. Indian Anthropological Society: Calcutta.
Srivastava, V.K. (2018). Indebtedness to Kolkata Anthropology. The Eastern Anthropologist, 71(3&4):453-457.

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Vol 56, No. 1, Jul 2 - 8, 2023