Physics to Anthropology: the journey of a nationalist scholar

Abhijit Guha

Kshitish Prasad Chattopadhyay (1897-1963) was one of most distinguished anthropologists of India who started his career in the pre-independence period. He was not only an anthropologist but was also a dedicated nationalist who fought against the colonial rule of the British government. Chattopadhyay had a brilliant academic career. He was educated in Metropolitan School in Kolkata and then in Vidyasagar and Presidency Colleges of the University of Calcutta in Physics. Kshitish Prasad ranked seventh in Matriculation in 1913 and stood First in his I.Sc. Examination in 1917. He earned a First-Class Honours degree in Physics from the University of Calcutta. Chattopadhyay was a student of the famous Indian scientists like Meghnad Saha, Satyen Bose and Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy. Thereafter, he worked as a research student of C.V. Raman(Samsad Bangali Charitabhidhan (Vol. 1), pp.168).

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 Master’s degree in Anthropology in 1922. He came in contact with the famous British anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers, who was his teacher and Chattopadhyay were awarded the Anthony Wilkins Fellowship to carry out his research on the Newar community of Nepal(International Journal of Comparative Sociology.1964:111-112). The fellowship was later withdrawn because of his activities with the Indian Seamen's Union (London), which were regarded as objectionable and he was not allowed to visit Nepal for his fieldwork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. He came back to India in 1922 with M.A. degree in Anthropology from Cambridge University (Ibid).

After his return to India, Chattopadhyay joined as a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Calcutta in 1923 but within a short period of time he left the university and joined as an Education Officer of the Corporation of Calcutta being inspired by C. R. Das and Subhas Chandra Bose when the Congress party was running the Civic Body. He worked at the civic body during 1924-37 and trained 1500 primary school teachers to impart free education to children. In 1924, there were very few primary schools under the Calcutta Corporation. K. P. Chattopadhyay took special initiatives to establish more primary schools and before he left the job 232 primary schools came up in which more than 50,000 children belonging to the poor families were being educated (Roy Burman 2000:50-51). Chattopadhyay also wrote two primers in Bengali named Lekhapara using the most advanced teaching methods. While working at Calcutta Corporation he actively participated in the Civil Disobedience movement of Mahatma Gandhi.  In 1937 he rejoined the University of Calcutta as Head of the Department of Anthropology until his retirement in 1962. He was not only the Head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta but was also a life-long fighter for civil liberties movement in West Bengal before and after the independence of India. His researches on the jute mill workers and the workers of the then Calcutta Corporation were pioneering in anthropology which broke away from the colonial anthropological tradition (Chattopadhyay 2000: 1-7).

K. P. Chattopadhyay’s range of interest in anthropology was extremely varied and he was a prolific writer with sound command in statistical sciences as well as in Sanskrit. He wrote more than hundred scientific articles in English and also popularised anthropological themes in the vernacular. The articles he wrote were published in many international and national level professional journals, like Man, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Ethnos, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, Sankhya, Man in India and Modern Review on the theoretical and core areas of anthropology like anthropometry, material culture, kinship, marriage, social organisation, inheritance of property as well as on the applied areas, namely, culture contact, culture change, personality and culture,  social conflict, tribal development, rehabilitation, education and national planning(Ray 1974:45-55).

The influence of W. H. R. Rivers on Chattopadhya’s works on kinship study was evident but he was also critical of the applicability of several Western anthropological categories, which he found inadequate for the interpretation of Indian reality. Rajatsubhra Mukhopadhyay succinctly observed that K. P. Chattopadhyay could not find any advantage to use the term ‘nuclear family’ since it did not play any role comparable to the nucleus of a cell in the Indian context. He also strongly suggested treating ‘joint’ and ‘extended’ family types as structurally and organizationally two different types of social institutions in the Indian situation (Mukhopadhaya 2000:39-49).

N. C. Choudhury, a former Director of the Anthropological Survey of India, and one of the illustrious students of K. P. Chattopadhyay perceptively noted that during the 1950s Chattopadhyay shifted his interest to social and cultural changes in traditional culture, which started with his 1949 Man in India article on changes in Santal economy In this period he wrote on the culture contact and changes in Vedic age (1955),  study of changes in traditional cultures (1957), Sari border changes(1957), changes in Santal songs (1957), some changes in Khasi culture (1960), structural changes in family in Bengal (1959).The paper on Sari border changes is quite unique. In this paper Chattopadhyay had shown how the introduction of mill made saris (a piece of long cloth worn by Indian women) gave an upper hand to the mahajans(money lenders who loans money at much higher rates than banks) who forced the traditional weavers of Bengal to adopt new designs and ultimately made the latter dependent upon the former and turned the weavers into wage labourers (Choudhury 2000:52-59).

An unorthodox kind of study undertaken by K. P. Chattopadhyay and his co-workers dealt with the problems and living conditions of undergraduate students at the University of Calcutta. During the early 1950s, Chattopadhyay in collaboration with the Statistics department of the University of Calcutta conducted a survey on the living conditions of the undergraduate students and the report of this pioneering survey was published by the University in 1954. Another study jointly conducted by K. P. Chattopadhyay and P. Bose of the Department of Statistics dealt with how the guardians planned education for their children and this study was also published by the University of Calcutta in 1962. Both these application oriented empirical surveys were not only unusual but this kind of surveys is still very rare in Anthropology and other social sciences. With these studies K.P. Chattopadhyay laid the foundation stone of educational anthropology in India, which has not yet come into existence in Indian anthropology Chattopadhyay, G. 2000:1-7). 

One of his most remarkable contribution beyond anthropology was on the rehabilitation of the people affected by the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 in which he collaborated with the famous statistician P. C. Mahalanobis to work out a plan for successful rehabilitation of the famine affected families of the then undivided Bengal. The jointly authored book Famine and rehabilitation in Bengal (1946) by P. C. Mahalanobis and K. P. Chattopadhyay is still regarded as one of the best known early applied researches on Bengal Famine (Ray 1974:45-54). Chattopadhyay’s two other remarkable applied social researches were on the Municipal labour in Calcutta (jointly with G. S. Roy in 1947) and a socio-economic survey of the jute mill workers of Bengal in 1952, which were published by the University of Calcutta.  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 subdisciplines of Anthropology, namely, Physical Anthropology, Prehistoric Archaeology and Social-Cultural Anthropology. Under the encouraging guidance of Chattopadhyay many of his students and teachers acclaimed national and international recognitions. 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 (Hutton 1963:155-156). Chattopadhyay remained active after his retirement from the University of Calcutta. Just before his fatal cerebral thrombosis in May 1963 he had been working on his book on the Santals and a volume on the culture contact and migration in ancient India which was published in 1965. Chattopadhyay passed away on 31st May 1963 in Calcutta.


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.
Choudhury, N.C. 2000. Professor K. P. Chattopadhyay:the teacher and an anthropologist, in Life and times of an Indian anthropologist: K.P.Chattopadhyay, ed. G.Chattopadhyay, pp.52-59. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society.
Hutton, J.H. 1963. Obituary. Man, vol. 53, nos.193, 194; 1963, pp.155-156.
Kshitish Prasad Chattopadhyay.1976. Samsad Bangali Charitabhidhan (Vol. 1), pp.168. Kolkata: Sishu Sahitya Samsad Pvt. Ltd.
Kshitish Prasad Chattopadhyay (1897-1963). 1964.  Notes and News. International Journal of Comparative Sociology.    Vol.5, issue 1, January, 1964, pp.111-112.
Mukhopadhyay, R.2000. K. P. Chattopadhyay and the study of kinship, in Life and times of an Indian anthropologist: K. P. Chattopadhyay, ed. G. Chattopadhyay, pp.39-49. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society.
Ray, S.K. 1974. Kshitish Prasad Chattopadhyay (1897-1963), in  Bibliographies of eminent Indian anthropologists (with life-sketches),pp.45-55.Calcutta: Anthropological Survey of India & Indian Museum.
Roy Burman, B.K. 2000. Professor K.P. Chattopadhyay---a scientist with social concern, in Life and times of an Indian anthropologist: K.P.Chattopadhyay, ed. G.Chattopadhyay, pp.50-51. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society.

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Jun 14, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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