Pranab Ganguly:
A True Successor of Nationalist Anthropology in India

Abhijit Guha

A specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less until a point is reached when (s) he knows nothing about everything.
------- Anonymous.

We must learn from the past experience; hindsight, I believe, is much easier than foresight.
------- Pranab Ganguly (1977).

Pranab Ganguly (1929-2014) was an outstanding anthropologist of India and very few practitioners of the discipline of this generation know about his contributions in the field. Those who know about him considered Ganguly as a physical anthropologist who did fieldworks in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the 1950s. Ganguly worked in the Anthropological Survey of India for the major part of his career. He joined the Anthropological Survey of India as an Anthropologist in 1969 and became its Deputy Director and subsequently founded two new Anthropology Departments in India at Manipur and Vidyasagar Universities as founder professor. He retired from Vidyasagar University, West Bengal in 1993. The Directory of Anthropologists in India published by the Anthropological Survey of India mentioned that Pranab Ganguly was specialised in ‘Physical Anthropology’ although it noted that the ‘Principal publications’ of Ganguly included research papers on the ‘Religious beliefs of the Negritos of Little Andaman’ and ‘Notes on the material culture of the Jarwa of Great Andaman’ along with other papers on social-cultural anthropology (1981:110-111). He was awarded a D.Sc. degree by the University of Calcutta in 1973 for his original research on the somatic variability among the Brahmins and Muslims in relation to urbanisation and economic status (Directory of Anthropologists in India 1981). Ganguly’s contributions on the policy issues regarding the survival of the Onges, a small and endangered tribal community named Onge on the verge of extinction in the Andaman Islands has largely remained unnoticed in the anthropological circles in India and abroad. His theoretical input on human adaptation is another area, which deserve attention from the anthropologists of succeeding generations.  


It would be sheer injustice to classify Ganguly as a ‘Physical or Biological Anthropologist’. He was a bio-cultural anthropologist per se, who viewed humans as biological as well as cultural beings (Guha 2016).  Ganguly received four prestigious medals which included the Bertillon Medal of France (1973) and Sir Asutosh Mookerjee Gold medal (1975), Bengal Immunity Research Prize and Gold Medal (1975) as well as the Griffith Memorial Prize (1975) for his research on various topics in Anthropology (Directory of Anthropologists in India 1981). His solid papers in prestigious national and international peer-reviewed journals on religion, material culture, life-cycle rites and judicial system of the tribes in Andaman and Nicobar Islands during 1961-63 did not receive comprehensive treatment by the social and cultural anthropologists in India. Let me begin with one of his early papers on the religious beliefs among the Onges of Little Andaman. This paper entitled ‘Religious beliefs of the Negritos of Little Andaman’ was published in The Eastern Anthropologist in 1961. In this pioneering paper Ganguly described the cognition of the Onges about their supernatural world in vivid details. There was no recorded information on the religious life of the aborigines of Little Andaman when Ganguly conducted this study. Famous British anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown’s study was on the communities of Great Andaman and there were marked differences between the tribes of Great and Little Andaman as regards religious beliefs and Ganguly mentioned this fact in the first paragraph of his article (Ganguly 1961:243). The study is the result of Ganguly’s painstaking fieldwork during 1953-57 and he stayed among the hunting-gathering tribe for about eight months in total, learned their language without an interpreter and observed the everyday life of this little community. This short paper of only six pages on a difficult subject is remarkable for its clarity and density of descriptive details through which the author finally reached a conclusion having wider significance. I quote him below:

In the first place, though the Onge are one of the most primitive tribes of the world, the universe conceived by them is far from simple. It is indeed a remarkable creation of the unsophisticated Onge mind. The supernatural beings living in the different planes or layers of the Onge universe are, strictly speaking, neither divine nor immaterial. They eat, drink, marry, multiply and die just like human beings…..I did not find among the Onge any belief concerning a superior spirit or High God (Ganguly 1961:247-248).

I will now briefly describe Ganguly’s excursion in the area of political system found in one of the remote areas of Andaman Island. In 1960 Pranab Ganguly and Anadi Pal did their fieldwork in Chowra Island which was situated about 48 miles south of Car Nicobar. The fieldwork was conducted for three weeks to collect demographic and physical anthropological data but Ganguly’s interest in social anthropology led him to gather useful information on the ‘judicial organisation’ of the Chowra Islanders. The result of this social anthropological inquiry was published in an article in 1960 in Folklore under the title ‘Some aspects of the judicial system in Chowra Island’. In this paper Ganguly and Pal first described the basic structure of governance in the island which was characterised by a territorial subdivision combined with ranked headmen and a supra-village chief. The chief and the 15 village headmen constituted a council (kanyu-u) which was the central authority in the island and the government administration of the Andaman and Nicobar also recognized the position of the chief and the village headmen and the government did not also intervene into the working of this tribal institution except in the cases of homicide.  The most interesting aspect of this paper is the concrete case studies which were narrated in vivid details and according to the authors

From the cases which were brought for trial to kanyu-u during the last few years several are presented….It is hoped that these concrete cases will represent the methods of administering justice in Chowra more clearly than what general statements can do(Ganguly&Pal 1960:155).

In the rest of the paper we find detailed cases under (a) drunkenness and assault upon wife, (b) sexual offence, (c) theft, (d) dispute about the ownership of land and (e) homicide. If one reads the cases one will find the same remarkable clarity and logical consistency with which Ganguly described the religious life and the material culture of the Onge and the Jarwa of Andaman Islands. This paper on the judicial system however ended with a longer conclusion in which Ganguly and Pal noted the democratic way of dealing with allegations and disputes; although the chief of the island is the highest authority but he cannot decide a case without discussing the matter in the council. Furthermore, we learn from this important ethnographic account that in this patrilineal society of Chowra with primogeniture where women were not admitted to become head of the village or the chief of the island, women were ever punished. Even in cases of adultery it was usually the male who was held responsible (Ibid: 160).

Ganguly’s interest in the study of the Onges of Little Andaman took its final shape during the mid-seventies when he published a full-length paper entitled ‘The Negritos of Little Andaman Island: a primitive people facing extinction’ published in the Indian Museum Bulletin in 1975. This paper can be regarded as one of the finest work on policy anthropology. The paper covered almost every aspect of this small island tribe in the context of the global debate on the position of the anthropologists regarding the study of endangered and disappearing populations. Under the section entitled ‘Depopulation of the Little Andaman Island’ Ganguly noted that there were only 121 Onge individuals in the Little Andaman Island in 1969. Ganguly made his position clear after narrating the differences between two schools of thought on the task of the anthropologists. He quoted the famous  American anthropologist Sol Tax’s 1971 editorial of Current Anthropology in which Tax observed a ‘split’ among the anthropologists on what should constitute the urgent task before them after  the 8th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences held in Tokyo in 1968(Tax 1971: 243-254). Should the anthropologists give priority to study the last speaker of a disappearing community to build up their theory or should they accept change as an obvious outcome and invest their time towards their development? Pranab Ganguly while studying the Onges clearly stated his position in the following manner.

The author feels that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but are complimentary to each other.  The study of vanishing tribes does not prevent anthropologists from being interested in urgent problems of development and change in large societies; both types of research may be carried on simultaneously (Ganguly 1975:8). 

In this section I will illustrate how Ganguly attempted to combine the aforementioned approaches in his own way in the long article on Onge. Apart from the detailed and meticulous description written in the classical style, which also included the physical anthropology and demographic contours of the tribe Ganguly described the society and culture of the Onges like a   professional social anthropologist. He described the material culture, subsistence activities, kinship, marriage, family, rites of passage, political organisation and the religion in a systematic and comprehensive manner. The most important part of the paper however is the section on the policy aspects around the major problem faced by the Onges which was their decreasing numbers. Ganguly investigated the problem of the depopulation of the Onges from a demographic perspective  by  carefully taking into consideration the three rival hypotheses, which were (i) economic exploitation, (ii) assassination of the natives by the colonists and (iii) introduction of new diseases against which the natives had no immunity. Ganguly was probably the first anthropologist who studied the Onges for a long period of time from a biosocial perspective and differed with the aforementioned hypotheses. The disagreement was based on his own observation and reading of the history of Little Andaman and he did not hesitate to state his policy recommendations towards the betterment of the tribe in a bold manner. In Ganguly’s words

Ameliorative measures such as establishment of coconut plantations, introduction of horticulture, distribution of iron implements and other useful articles, carrying out routine health surveys and giving medical relief, etc., though very useful and commendable, cannot prevent the decline of Onge population. These do not even touch the fringe of the real problem. Systematic investigations into the causes of Onge infertility and proper remedial measures against them are now urgently required (Ganguly 1975:25-26).

Finally, Ganguly proposed that as a long-term measure the Onges should be relocated in the Rutland Island 31 miles north of Little Andaman where they once lived but left the place to get away from an epidemic several decades ago. The island was capable of supporting the Onge population with their traditional mode of subsistence and Ganguly suggested that they should be allowed to live there without any outside interference because it would be increasingly difficult for them to survive in Little Andaman owing to ‘the rising demands of officials and workers for pork, fish, honey, fruits, etc.’ the staple food of the Onges (Ibid).

If we look at the works of Pranab Ganguly in a chronological order we find that during 1960-66 he contributed in physical and social-cultural anthropology by using the methods of anthropometry, ethnography and linguistics with equal competence and his interest towards the formulation of policies was also visible in his later work on Onge, which I have just described in the previous section. During the mid-seventies, Ganguly turned his attention towards macro-level data on large samples and he also organised his thoughts around the bigger problems of human adaptation and evolution in an ecosystem framework, although he was not a dogmatic supporter of maintenance of stability. In this context the research of Ganguly, and this was his most remarkable one, was on the gradual decline in average height (negative secular trend) in some tribal and caste populations in India. With Anadi Pal, Ganguly first wrote a short paper in a volume published by the University of Calcutta in 1974. In this paper the authors presented figures  on the average height of 20 population groups( caste and tribes) measured by different authorities in an interval of at least 25 years and concluded that unlike many western and Asian countries the studied Indian populations had become shorter  since the late 19th and early 20th century( Ganguly & Pal 1974: 42-48). It was a remarkable finding. Ganguly pursued the work and made it global by publishing under his single authorship a whole chapter in a book edited by the famous anthropologist William Stini in World Anthropology series volume by Mouton in 1979. He began this chapter by challenging the then scholarship in biological anthropology, which presumed that the progressive increase in stature was a universal phenomenon as it happened in many technologically advanced western and non-western countries. In this brilliant article, he demonstrated with the help of simple anthropometric (measurement on human body, such as height, arm length, head length etc.) data that in India three groups out of every four have become shorter in varying degrees in course of one or two generations and it was not due to malnutrition or inbreeding but probably caused by a relaxation of natural selection against undersised individuals (Ganguly 1979: 315-337).So, shorter height of many Indian populations was not a sign of retrogression in the evolutionary sense rather it was an advantageous trait.

The last remarkable work of Ganguly, which I will discuss was a theoretical paper entitled ‘The problem of human adaptation: an overview’ published in Man in India in 1977. This paper was delivered as Presidential Address at the Anthropology and Archaeology Section of the 64th Indian Science Congress in Bhubaneswar held in 1977.

In this bright article Ganguly viewed the major human problems of the modern world (e.g. malnutrition and inequality) from the perspective of adaptation. For him adaptation should be considered in its broadest sense which must include society and culture. Under a section in this paper entitled ‘Socio-economic Milieu’ Ganguly after reviewing the literature exhaustively including his own study on the Brahaman and Muslim groups of western Uttar Pradesh commented

From the foregoing discussion it should be evident that the socio-economic status effect manifests itself at every stage of life from birth to adulthood. The upper class children have significantly bigger bodies than the lower class children, and this difference persists to a remarkable degree in the final adult size. It may be argued that the genetic potential for growth of the Indian children, who suffer under the constraints of adverse socio-economic environment remains to some extent unrealized (Ganguly 1977:10).

One should here note that Ganguly used the term ‘class’ not ‘caste’ since his empirical findings revealed class differentiation within a caste was more important to understand the human biological variation in India—a point little recognized by the social anthropologists. It may be interesting to recall here  Ganguly’s  comment published in Current Anthropology on Joan P. Mencher’s famous article ‘The caste system upside down or the not-so-mysterious East’ in 1974. I quote from Ganguly, ‘From my field investigations in 12 districts of western Uttar Pradesh, I have gained the impression that the North Indian Brahamans are really no better-off than the low-ranked agricultural castes of that area’ (Ganguly 1974b:482).  But how does the poor really adapt to this adverse socio-economic deprivation? Ganguly’s answer to this basic question can be found in the next section of the article titled ‘Nutritional Stress’

Adaption to malnutrition during critical stages of growth is likely to induce permanent reduction of body size which in turn will reduce the energy needs of the body. People having small body size will survive more easily on low calorie diets and they will have some adaptive advantage in areas where scarcity conditions prevail (Ganguly 1977, pp.10-11).

At this juncture one may ask a very legitimate question, which is ‘Did Ganguly view poverty as a kind of adaptation only?’ I would say ‘yes, Ganguly looked at the unconscious strategies of survival of the poor but he also viewed the extremes of this adaptation. Let us proceed further with him:

It may be mentioned here that the survival of a population through diminution of body size and reduction of energy requirements is possible if only the nutritional deficiencies remain within tolerable limits. When the stress of malnutrition becomes very acute, the adaptive advantage of size reduction loses much of its significance and the population is threatened with the danger of extinction (Ganguly 1977, p.14).

Ganguly’s paper on adaptation is a full-blooded bio-cultural exercise on macro-level policy issues and I regard this Indian Science Congress address of 1977 as the true successor of the Indian Science Congress lectures delivered by his teachers Tarak Chandra Das in 1941 and Sasanka Sekhar Sarkar in 1951.


Pranab Ganguly as a professional anthropologist belonged to post-colonial India who practiced intensive fieldwork and published in physical and socio-cultural anthropology with equal competence ----- a rare quality among his contemporaries, which has almost vanished from the post-independence generation of anthropologists in India.

Ganguly was not a run-of-the-mill empirical anthropologist. His remarkable works on the progressive decline of stature among sixty endogamous population groups and the relationship of somatic variability with economic condition and urbanisation demonstrated Ganguly’s ability to interpret huge mass of empirical data in a theoretical framework, which was basically bio-cultural in nature.

Finally, it should be emphasised that Pranab Ganguly was not an ivory tower scholar, who only gathered knowledge but made sincere attempts to apply his findings in formulating policies for the welfare and betterment of the underprivileged sections of the Indian population whether they are the endangered Onges of Little Andaman or the vast majority of the undersized and malnourished people of independent India. Pranab Ganguly was one of the true successors of nationalist anthropology in post-colonial India pioneered by S.C.Roy(1871–1942), Bhupendranath Datta(1880-1961), Panchanan Mitra(1892-1936), B.S.Guha(1894-1961),K.P.Chattopadhyay(1897-1963),T.C.Das(1898-1964)and S.S.Sarkar(1908-1969)  (Guha 2020).

Directory of Anthropologists in India.1981. Pranab Ganguly.Pp.110-111. Edited by A.Basu, M.P.Basu, A.K.Adhikary.Calcutta: Anthropological Survey of India, Government of India.
Ganguly, P. 1979. Progressive decline in stature in India: a study of sixty population groups. Pp.315-337. Physiological and morphological adaption and evolution. Ed. William A. Stini. The Hague: Mouton Publishers.
Ganguly, P. 1977. The problem of human adaption: an overview. Man in India, 57(1):1-22.
Ganguly, P. 1975. The Negritos of Little Andaman Islands: a primitive people facing extinction. Indian Museum Bulletin. 10(1): 7-27.
Ganguly, P. & Pal, A.1974. Secular trend in stature in India. Pp.42-48.  Indian  Anthropology Today. Ed. D. Sen. Calcutta: Department of Anthropology, Calcutta University.
Ganguly, P. 1961. Religious beliefs of the Negritos of Little Andaman. The Eastern Anthropologist. 14(3):243-248.
Ganguly, P. & Pal, A.1960.Some aspects of the judicial system in Chowra Island. Folklore.
Guha, A. (2020). Special lecture delivered on 6th February 2020 entitled “Pranab Ganguly: A Generalist by Option” at Vidyasagar University as part of the lecture series to celebrate 100 years of teaching Anthropology in India organised jointly by the Indian Anthropological Society and Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University.

Guha, A. 2016. Pranab Kumar Ganguly (In Memoriam). Anthropology News. 57(7):e159-e160.
(First Published online by The American Anthropological Association).
Tax, S. 1971. Urgent Anthropology: Associates’ views on the definition of “urgency”. Current Anthropology. 12(2):243-254.

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Jun 18, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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