A Nationalist Anthropologist

Haran Chandra Chakladar

Abhijit Guha

The name of Haran Chandra Chakladar (1874-1958) is not well known in the present day Indian anthropological circles. He was a brilliant anthropologist and not an ivory tower scholar. Chakladar was also a social activist with a very strong anti-colonial spirit, which guided his scholarship and activities.

He was born in a village named Daskhinpara in the Faridpur district of present Bangladesh and graduated in 1896 and obtained his MA degree from the University of Calcutta in 1897. Haran Chandra had deep knowledge in Sanskrit and a number of European languages. He translated a book from Italian to English entitled The First Outlines of a Systematic Anthropology of Asia by a famous Italian physical anthropologist V Giufrida-Ruggeri, which was published by the University of Calcutta in 1921(Chakladar 1921). He first joined as a lecturer in the then Ripon College (now Surendranath College) and at that time the Department of Anthropology was not opened in the University of Calcutta. Then he joined Calcutta University and organised the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture. In 1920 the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta was established and Chakladar’s services were requisitioned for the department where he worked for about twenty years and retired in 1937.

Life and works
S K Ray in his invaluable book Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (with Life-Sketches) commented:

To some critics, Chakladar was a ‘perfectionist’ and they feel that perhaps this quality made it difficult for him to contribute papers until he was satisfied with their ‘perfection’ (Ray 1974:33).

Before joining Ripon College, Chakladar worked for a brief period in the Indian Postal Department. In 1910 he joined the National Council of Education(hereafter NCE) as one of its organisers and teachers and during this period he came in contact with the famous nationalist, revolutionary, and spiritual leader Shri AurobindoGhose(1872-1950). The NCE in Bengal was founded by a group of dedicated Indian nationalists to promote science and technology as part of the nationalist movement (SwadeshiAndolan) and established Bengal National College and Bengal Technical Institute which later merged to form the present Jadavpur University. The major aims of the NCE were to criticise the syllabus and teaching of the University of Calcutta which was founded by the British in 1857.The other aim of the NCE was to create an alternative anti-colonial system of education for the Indians. Haran Chandra Chakladar wholeheartedly joined in this nationalist movement. At this time, Chakladar also came in contact with one of the founders of NCE, Shri Satish Chandra Mukherjee (1865-1948) and Mukherjee’s ideological influence was immense in the later life of Chakladar. In 1902 Satish Chandra Mukherjee established the Dawn Society with the aim of spreading the anti-colonial and nationalist system of education and a monthly organ of the Dawn Society was started.

Haran Chandra Chakladar contributed a good number of articles in this magazine in order to raise the consciousness of the Indians about the poor and wretched conditions of the Bengal peasantry as well as on the rich ancient cultural heritage of India. So, from the very beginning Chakladar wrote research articles with a purpose, which was intimately related with the then anti-colonial struggle against the British government (Raychaudhuri 1958:138-140).

In 1905 Chakladar wrote his remarkable article in the Dawn society magazine entitled ‘Fifty years ago—the woes of a class of Bengal peasantry under European Indigo planters’. It is a 19-page full-blooded research article based on archival materials, an exemplar in the history of anthropology in India but curiously omitted by the authentic biographers of Indian anthropology. Take for example, T C Raychaudhuri and S K Ray. T C Raychaudhuri, a former faculty of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta in his two-page obituary on H C Chakladar published in Man in India did not mention about this remarkable article of Chakladar, although Raychaudhuri enumerated the article in his select bibliography of Chakladar at the end of the obituary. The same kind of omission could be noticed in the book Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (with Life-Sketches) by S K Ray, a reference librarian of the Anthropological Survey of India, Govt. of India, in his article on Chakladar; Ray also mentioned the piece of writing on indigo plantation in the bibliography of Chakladar but did not elaborate on it.

Indigo revolt in the writings of Chakladar
Chakladar’s account of the brutal and inhuman oppression of the British indigo planters narrated in detail how the ordinary peasants of Bengal disliked the plantation of indigo on the land in which they used to grow food crops. In the inimitable words of Chakladar:

How intense a dislike to the cultivation of indigo had been bred in the minds of the raiyats by ages of such terrible oppression until they abhorred the very name of indigo was reported to the Indigo Commission. In answer to the question of the Commission a raiyat said that even if his throat is cut, he won’t sow indigo (Chakladar [1905] 1972: 193).

People now know that the peasants of Bengal revolted against the British government and the famous play named Nil Darpan by DinabandhuMitra played a historic role in this revolt. The anthropologist Haran Chandra Chakladar described this revolt of the peasants in his article:

While the feelings of the raiyats were in a state of the greatest tension, two villagers, Vishnu Charan Biswas and Digumbar Biswas, of Chowgacha in the Nadia district, raised the banner of rebellion against the planters. They were formerly, Dewans of indigo concerns, but resigned their offices, in bitterness of mind at the oppressions of the planters. They made up their mind to throw off the yoke of serfdom, and roused the raiyats to take up arms against their sworn enemies. They sent the “fiery crosses’ of revenge from village to village and even indented clubmen from the district of Backergunge, at their own cost, for any outbreak that might happen. They also financed the raiyats in their law-suits with the planters and infused new hopes in them. The raiyats now began to gather round their standard and break out in open revolt. The Biswases made immense sacrifice for the cause they took up. Their money losses were about seventeen thousand rupees. Thousands of indigo raiyats and other Bengalees showed a degree of patriotism, self-sacrifice and a power of combined and united action as had scarcely been witnessed in the annals of the country before (Ibid:196).

Chakladar’s academic contribution and commitment for the cause of Bengal peasantry under colonial oppression was unparallel in the history of anthropology in India.

Chakladar on Kamasutra
Haran Chandra Chakladar’s another remarkable contribution was on a classic Sanskrit Indian text named Kamasutra by Vatsayayana. The book entitled Social Life in Ancient India: Studies in Vatsayayana’s is now almost forgotten. I quote from the preface of the book:

I took up the study of Vatsyayana’sKamasutra which gives a beautifully vivid picture of Indian society in the early centuries of the Christian era. It wonderfully supplements the account one receives from the sacred literatures, Brahmanical, Buddhistic and Jain. Dealing with an avowedly secular matter as it does, it depicts society from an independent point of view, and gives details, especially of the darker features of social life, with a fullness that people naturally miss in the sacred texts (Chakladar 1929: i).

With this secular starting point, Chakladar went on to describe in meticulous detail marriage customs, courtship, sports, arts and crafts in the life of the citizens(N a g a r a k a) of ancient India including the position of women and commercial sex-workers.  Finally Chakladar concluded:

Vatsyayana does not cast a charm over illicit love, nor does he invest it with the halo of romance. He merely gives a frank and matter of fact account of the social sore, proceeds to a masterly analysis of the psychology of the man who seeks such love—the jealousy, anger, hatred, passion, greed, selfishness that working within the brain of the human animal, cloud his judgment and pervert his tastes(Chakladar 1929:210-211). 

In lieu of a conclusion
Apart from his works in social-cultural anthropology Chakladar conducted field based works on physical anthropology and applied statistical methods to analyse anthropometric data which he presented in the Indian Science Congress in 1928. He had also presented scientific papers on physical anthropology in the Indian Science Congress in 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1936. Chakladar published his articles on the prehistoric culture of Bengal in Man in India in 1941 and 1942. (Ray: 1974). He was a complete anthropologist who contributed to all the three major sub-disciplines of anthropology.

Chakladar, H.C.1972. ‘Fifty years ago–the woes of a class of Bengal peasantry under European Indigo planters’ [First published in The Dawn and Dawn Society’s Magazine, Calcutta July, 1905]. Nil Durpan or The Indigo Planting Mirror, Edited with an Introduction by SankarSen Gupta. 1972. Calcutta: Indian Publications.
Chakladar, H.C. 1929.Social life in ancient India: studies in Vatsyayana’sKamasutra.BrhattaraBharataParishad, Greater India Society: Calcutta.
Chakladar, H.C. 1941-1942. ‘The prehistoric culture of Bengal’. Man in India, 21:4, 208-236 & 22:2 & 3, 140-162.
Ray, S.K. 1974. ‘Haran Chandra Chakladar (1874-1958)’pp.33-37, in Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (with Life-Sketches). Anthropological Survey of India, Indian Museum. Calcutta.
Raychaudhuri, T.C. 1958. Obituary: ‘Professor Haran Chandra Chakladar’. Man in India, 38(2): 138-140.

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Vol 56, No. 44, Apr 28 - May 4, 2024