Tarak Chandra Das: The Uncrowned King of Nationalist Anthropology in India

Abhijit Guha

Tarak Chandra Das was born in January 1898 in erstwhile undivided Bengal now under Bangladesh. Nothing in detail is known about his family background and school education in the existing literature. He had his early education in Tangail and Rajshahi of present Bangladesh. Das obtained his M.A. degree in ‘Ancient Indian History and Culture’ from the University of Calcutta. He joined the newly founded Department of Anthropology at Calcutta University in 1921 as a research scholar and then he became lecturer in 1923 and finally retired in the rank of Reader from the Department in 1963.

One comprehensive available account of the list of publications of T.C. Das including a short life-sketch was prepared by the Reference Librarian in the Central Library of the Anthropological Survey of India, Shyamal Kumar Ray, in his invaluable book Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (with Life-Sketches) published by the Anthropological Survey of India and Indian Museum in July, 1974. The volume contains the list of publications and short life-sketches of 12 eminent Indian anthropologists including Tarak Chandra Das. It begins with L.K. Ananthakrishna Iyer (1861-1937) and S.S. Sarkar (1908-1969) is the last anthropologist covering a span of more than one hundred years if we take the year of birth of Iyer and the year of death of Sarkar at the two ends of the continuum. T.C. Das falls almost in the middle of the continuum (Ray1974).

Bibliographical records of T.C. Das showed that he had altogether 40 publications, that is, almost one in every year of his academic career. He published 31 full-length articles, 2 books, 6 abstracts, two jointly authored books and one joint article. The national and international journals in which he published were prestigious and they included Man, Anthropos, Ethnos, Man in India, Calcutta Review, Modern Review, Sociological Bulletin, Journal of Social Research, Journal of the Department of Letters and Anthropological Papers of the University of Calcutta. Apart from kinship and social organisation, his areas of research interest displayed remarkable diversity which ranged between sun-worship (1924), fish in Bengali culture (1931-32), the disposal of dead among the tribals (1940), improvement of museums (1943), scheme for tribal welfare, impact of industrialization on peasantry (1960) to an anthropological analysis of Bengal dowry restriction bill (1941).  

Tarak Chandra Das became internationally famous for his ethnography on the Purum Kukis of north-east India. His brilliant monograph The Purums: An Old Kuki tribe of Manipur published in 1945 by the Calcutta University became one of the major sources of database in the acrimonious debate on descent versus alliance theories on kinship in Anglo-American anthropology which involved mavericks like Claude Levi-Strauss, George Homans, David Schneider, Rodney Needham, Floyd Lounsbury and others. The Indian anthropologists too continued their ethnographic enterprise on the Purum on behalf of the premier governmental institution of the country--- the Anthropological Survey of India. A team of anthropologists were sent to the field area where Das conducted his ethnographic observations during 1931-1936 and a book was published entitled Proceedings of the Symposium on Purum (Chote) Revisited in 1985 as an outcome of a symposium in which about 20 anthropologists and two educated members of the tribe participated and presented their views/papers on the Purums. L. P. Vidyarthi in the first volume of his book Rise of Anthropology in India described in detail about the findings of Das in the different chapters of the monograph with much admiration for its meticulousness and penetrating analyses. In the final part of his description, Vidyarthi discussed the suggestions advanced by Das for the betterment of the Purums. According to Vidyarthi, with the publication of the Purum book T.C. Das ‘set an example of a systematic presentation of ethnographic data’ (Ibid 1978:80). He concluded the discussion on Das’s monograph with the following comment:

His monograph, though not well known to Indian scholars, remains a piece of meticulous fieldwork and penetrative analysis. It will continue to serve as a model for ethnographic research in anthropology (Italics mine).

In the concluding chapter of the Purum book Das laid emphasis on the dynamic nature of Purum society which had undergone changes through historical times and also on the different aspects of Purum culture under various kinds of external influences. Secondly, Das was keenly interested to understand the nature of the ‘productive system’(he did not use the Marxian term means of production but it was clear that by the term ‘productive system’ he did not only refer to technology and material culture but also the economy and society) in a dynamic rather than in a functional framework. Thirdly, without borrowing terms from the Western Marxist scholars mechanically Das made a very sincere empirical attempt to record the processes by which the new productive system, characterized by plough and plains-land cultivation had begun to influence the different sectors of the Purum society, viz., inheritance, marriage and religion. Apart from looking into the internal socio-cultural changes brought about by the adoption of the plough cultivation among the Purums, Das was also aware of the wider politico-economic forces which were at work in the region where this small tribe inhabited.

In 1941, Das delivered the Presidential address in the Anthropology Section of the Indian Science Congress. The lecture was a 28-page full-length paper entitled ‘Cultural Anthropology in the Service of the Individual and the Nation’. This paper can be regarded as one of the pioneering articles on applied anthropology in India written in a truly nationalist spirit. In the address Das elaborately charted out the future path of Indian anthropology with a rich description of the social dynamics of the tribal and peasant societies in India in the context of the role of anthropologists in nation building. Das was such a courageous academic that he in his presidential address of the Anthropology section of the Indian Science Congress in 1941 criticised the colonial government and the Christian missionaries for doing a lot of harm to the tribals of north east India. He had a vision for the application of anthropology for human welfare but that was forgotten by the Indian anthropologists. The critics of Indian anthropology also did not care to look at the socially relevant and nationalist studies of T. C. Das (Guha 2011).

Das was a brilliant teacher in the formative years of Indian anthropology at the University of Calcutta and his meticulous training in ethnographic fieldwork was well-known. Famous anthropologists like Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Surajit Sinha, B. K. Roy Burman, Ajit Danda, André Béteille, Probodh Bhowmick and Amal Kumar Das were trained by this unsung hero of Indian anthropology who passed away on 26th July in 1964.

Of all the works of Das his marvelous empirical study, still unparallel in global and Indian anthropology was on the devastations caused by the Bengal famine of 1943 during the colonial period (Guha 2010 & 2011). Here it would be relevant to note that K.S.Singh, who was the Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India (1984-1993) consistently studied famines in India in the post-independence period and wrote a book and a number of articles on famine. In one of his articles entitled ‘Human response to famine: an anthropological perspective’ published in the Human Science in 1989, Singh noted that famines in India has a relationship with the rise of nationalist feelings and political awakening cutting across caste and religion leading to voluntary welfare measures by non-state organisations. Strangely, Singh did not mention the outstanding first hand anthropological survey of Bengal famine by T. C. Das in his articles (Singh 1989: 267-273; see also Singh 1987-88: 186-205).

The first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru in his book The Discovery of India  mentioned about the anthropological survey conducted by Das on the famine affected population of Bengal and expressed his confidence on the results of the survey in contrast to the one carried out by the government (Nehru 1946:495-496). Ironically enough, the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen though gave reference to Das’s original work several times in his famous book Poverty and Famines but he did not mention the explanatory and policy dimensions of this brilliant work (Sen 1999; see Guha 2019 for an elaborate discussion on this subject).

The subtitle of the book Bengal Famine is phrased in the following words: ‘As revealed in a Survey of the Destitutes in Calcutta’. It is true that the book is the result of a survey undertaken by a team of anthropologists during 1943-44 in Calcutta city and also in the villages of the ten districts of undivided Bengal. The idea of conducting a survey with a team of trained anthropologists was first conceived by T. C. Das in July-August of 1943 when hundreds of hungry destitutes entered the city of Calcutta in search of food. Das proposed the survey to his colleagues and prepared a detailed questionnaire and a team was formed with eleven trained anthropologists, which included the teachers and research students of the Department of Anthropology of the Calcutta University. The data thus collected was analysed and a preliminary report was written and a major part of the report was submitted to the Famine Inquiry commission in 1944 in the form of a memorandum. The report was later written in the form of a book by T. C. Das in July 1948 and was published in 1949 by the Calcutta University. This anthropological survey was conducted with full methodological rigour and the team had no national or international funding agency behind them; no political agenda was lying before them. The Calcutta University sanctioned a sum of Rs.500/- only to extend the survey in the rural areas of the 10 districts of erstwhile undivided Bengal. In fact, the two chapters on methodology, which are the best portions of the book, reveal its strength. The chapter XI of the book entitled ‘Causes of the Famine of 1943’ is another treasure-house of the book which places Bengal Famine far above the category of a run-of-the-mill ‘sample survey’. The first Jawaharlal Nehru in his book The Discovery of India (1946) mentioned about the survey on Bengal Famine before the publication of the book by T. C. Das and expressed his confidence on the results of the survey in contrast to the one carried out by the government. In the words of Nehru:

The Department of Anthropology of the Calcutta University carried out an extensive scientific survey of the sample groups in the famine areas. They arrived at the figure of about 3,400,000 total deaths by famine in Bengal… Official figures of the Bengal Government based largely on unreliable reports from village patwaris or headmen gave a much lower figure (Nehru 1946:495-496) (Italics mine).

The ten chapters of Bengal Famine dealt elaborately with the demographic, economic and socio-cultural aspects of one of the greatest calamities of Bengal in the colonial period but one of the most important sections is the final chapter of the book in which Das dealt with the rehabilitative and preventive measures to tackle the famine. The section entitled ‘How to combat famine’ is divided into two subsections, viz., (A) long range measures and (B) immediate measures. Let us first discuss about the ‘immediate measures’ suggested by Das. Within a short space, Das was able to outline the short-term strategies for bringing relief to the famine affected population which according to him should first involve rapid surveys to identify the specific needs of the people according to region, occupation and the nature of devastation caused by the famine. In order to illustrate his ideas, he dealt with the petty cultivators, fishermen and the potters since the first represented the largest group in the economic life of Bengal, the second was the largest rural industry and the third was the most important artisan group in rural Bengal(Das 1949: 127).

Under the long-range measures, Das’s recommendations followed his analysis of causes of the famine. He strongly recommended that in order to avoid future food shortages, heavy pressure on land in Bengal must be relieved and this could be done in adopting two interrelated approaches, viz. (i) improvement of agriculture and (ii) development of industries. For Das, improvement in agriculture did not mean a mere increase in food production with better technology but to change the relations of production through co-operative farming. The co-operative farming according to Das should have been linked up with the village industries which were to be built up for creating employment for the rural population. In the final section of Bengal Famine he worked out a plan in detail about the formation of such co-operatives and their tasks. I quote from the original:

The innumerable fragments of cultivable land possessed by the inhabitants of a village or of any other similar territorial unit are to be pooled together into one gigantic farm….. All the villagers are to be members of this co-operative organization. The capital of the organisation is to be divided into a number of shares. The owners of the plots of land will get shares of the organisation according to the market value of the plots of land taken from them. The remaining part of the capital is to be realised from the inhabitants of the village by selling the shares. The maximum number of shares which an individual will be entitled to purchase is to be fixed according to the principle of co-operative organisations.The co-operative organisation will take up the management of the farm and factory. As a general rule the shareholders are to be employed in all the different types of work of the farm and of the factory, as far as possible (Das 1949: 124-125) (Italics mine).

The improvement of agriculture in Bengal through the formation of co-operatives seemed to be the best solution for Das in the context of small, scattered and fragmented landholdings. But at the same time, he was also aware of the fact that pooling together of the small sized farms into a large one would lead to the unemployment of quite a good number of persons engaged in agriculture. To tackle with this problem Das suggested that agriculture-based industries should be established to absorb the labour force no more required for agriculture. In the words of Das:

Rice husking and hessian making may be profitably started in rice and jute producing centres respectively, for employment of labour not required for farming. Fruit canning may be organised where fruit gardens are planted. Cheroots may be made where tobacco is cultivated. Silk and lac may also be utilised in the same manner in the area where they are produced. In this way there should be co-ordination and co-operation between the farm and the factory--- one is to utilise the products of the other as far as possible (Ibid 1949: 125) (Italics mine).

It may be noted here that the idea of improvement in agriculture in Bengal through the formation co-operatives in the context of landlessness and small holdings is not a left luggage till today. In the UNDP funded West Bengal Human Development Report (WBHDR) published by the Government of West Bengal in 2004 we find under its Chapter entitled ‘The way forward’ a suggestion which reads as follows:

The state government could consider new and imaginative ways of encouraging co-operatives in production and marketing in both agricultural and non-agricultural activities especially in rural areas (WBHDR 2004: 214)(Italics mine).  

It was obvious that the implementation of this kind of programme leading to radical changes in policy on the part of the government could not be done simply by the good intentions and neatly chalked out plans alone. The programme also needed a thorough knowledge about the villages and this according to Das could only be acquired through ‘village studies’. In the concluding part of the section entitled ‘HOW TO COMBAT FAMINE’ Das lamented by saying:

To implement this policy an intimate knowledge of the villages and villagers is absolutely necessary. For this purpose, a socio-economic survey should be organised with a band of scientifically trained men. We have got archaeological survey, zoological survey, geological survey, botanical survey but no survey to understand man and his social, economic and psychological needs. This is an anomalous position. …….  The result is that whenever the Government is confronted with a national catastrophe like the present famine it has no knowledge to guide its activities------- no trained men to depend upon (Ibid 1949: 129-130) (Italics mine).

It may be noted that the Anthropological Survey of India was established by 1946 by another doyen of Indian anthropology, Dr. Biraja Sankar Guha. Suffice it to say that the researches done by the Survey at that time could not draw Das’s attention as regards the major problems of nation building, namely, famine and refugee resettlement.

Bengal Famine, therefore, is a unique example of team work under the leadership of T. C. Das by a dedicated group of university based anthropologists who were driven more by a kind of social and moral commitment towards the nation and its people than by pure academic quest (Guha 2019:493-506).  

Das, T.C. (1941). Cultural Anthropology in the Service of the Individual and the Nation.Pp.1-29. Presidential Address delivered in the Section of Anthropology in the Twenty-eighth Indian Science Congress. Benares.
Das, T.C. (1943). Practical steps towards the improvement of museums in India .The Calcutta.Review. Nov. 97-100.
Das, T.C. (1945). The Purums: An Old Kuki Tribe of Manipur. Calcutta: Calcutta University
Das, T.C. (1949). Bengal Famine (1943): as revealed in a survey of the destitutes of Calcutta. Calcutta: Calcutta University.
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. (2019). A forgotten book by a marginalised anthropologist. Social Change. 49(3): 493–506. DOI: 10.1177/0049085719863892.
Nehru, J. (1981 [1946]). The discovery of India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Ray, S.K. (1974). Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (WITH LIFE-SKETCHES) Anthropological Survey of India, Govt. of India, Indian Museum, Calcutta.
Sen, A. (1999). Poverty and famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford: University Press.
Singh, K.S. (1987). Indian anthropology 2000AD: problems and prospects. Human Science.36:217-219.
Singh, K.S. (1987-1988). Famine Nationalism and Social Change: The Indian Scenario. Indian Historical Review. 14(1-2): 186-205.
Singh, K.S. (1989). Human response to famine: an anthropological perspective. Human Science.38:267-273.
Vidyarthi, L.P. (1978). Rise of Anthropology in India: A Social Science Orientation, Vols. I & II. Concept Publishing Company. New Delhi.
West Bengal Human Development Report (WBHDR). (2004). Development and Planning Department, Government of West Bengal. Retrieved from

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May 27, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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