Irawati Karve: India’s First Woman Anthropologist
‘What are we as Indians, and why are we what we are?’
While attempting to answer this question, Irawati Karve blazed a trail across disciplines and emerged as the first woman anthropologist in India. Her ‘ethnohistorical’ approach, which was very unconventional in the early 20th century, left a lasting legacy in the field of Sociology, thanks to her study of regional and oral traditions of communities across India.
Karve is also remembered for her contribution to literature, through her book, Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, which interprets the Mahabharata in a socio-political context, rather than as a mythological epic.
Karve was born on 15th December 1905, into a progressive middle-class family in Burma, where her father was working as an engineer at the time. She schooled in Pune and also attended college there. She went on to earn a Master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Bombay.
After that, Karve travelled to Germany and obtained a Doctorate from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology at the University of Berlin. As a young scholar, Karve was already a pioneer, supplementing her thesis titled Normal Asymmetry of the Human Body with Zoology, Sanskrit and Philosophy as allied disciplines.
Choosing the unconventional over the traditional came naturally to Karve, who was married to D D Karve, professor of Chemistry and later Principal of Fergusson College, Pune. He was the son of the great social reform leader from Maharashtra, Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve.
Irawati refused to wear a mangalsutra and kumkum, the marks of a married woman, as she regarded them as symbols of female slavery. She was also the first woman in Pune to ride a scooter while her husband sat in the side carriage!
The year 1930 found Karve at a crossroads. She wanted to pursue Anthropology but the subject was not taught at any Indian university at the time. She chose to be patient and accepted the post of Registrar at the SNDT University. In 1939, she was selected as a Reader in Sociology at the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute in Pune, which was soon to have a Department of Anthropology and Sociology with her as its head.
Since Anthropology was then a part of the History department, Karve travelled across Maharashtra and sometimes other parts of India, visiting sites of archaeological importance. She also became a part of archaeological digs.
On one such trip in 1943, she found a small human bone in Prof Hasmukh Sankalia’s (founder of modern Indian Archaeology) excavations in Langhnaj in Gujarat. This further fuelled her passion for Archaeology, and together Sankalia and Karve dug up as many as 13 skeletons. The incident earned her international recognition, because at the time, women were not known to get their hands dirty at excavation sites.
These travels laid the foundation of Karve’s scholarly and literary work, giving her a rare insight into the social problems and psychological factors that shape human behaviour. This was also a time when Karve was achieving some remarkable honours academically, like being elected President of the Anthropology and Archaeology section of the Indian Science Congress.
Karve belonged to that small tribe of anthropologists who took an equal interest in the different branches of Anthropology – physical, social, prehistory and folklore. Successfully analyzing Indology and anthropology, culture and history, she tried to understand the differences in Indian social strata and among different castes in terms of physical types, blood groups and waves of migration.
Fame and recognition came her way through her writings too. She wrote in an honest and outspoken manner, in English and Marathi, on social education, on the status of Indian women, the inviolability of the law, communalism, prohibition, the rights of untouchables, the character of the new state-sponsored panchayats and on ideals of democracy and freedom.
Karve’s first major work was Kinship Organisation in India (1953). Although it would not meet scholarly standards today, it was path-breaking at the time as it attempted to break the mystery of caste and its terminology. It was the only book of its kind that attempted to explain the complex maze of the Indian kinship system.
While Karve was known for her writings in Sociology and Anthropology, she became famous in Maharashtra for her literary works. Her most significant contribution was her book Yuganta. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, this book was a commentary on the characters and events of the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and it gave her a front-row seat in Indian literature.
Written between 1962 and 1967, Yuganta invited criticism from orthodox Indian society but Karve’s interpretation is still considered one of the most thought-provoking versions of the epic.
Not long after, on 11th August 1970, Karve breathed her last and, in her passing, India lost a pioneering anthropologist and sociologist. Here’s a timely and thought-provoking passage from one of her papers:
“Many Hindus dream that if the government were wiser, it could rid India both, of Muslims and Christians so that one has an entirely Hindu India. It is foolish to think one can establish uniformity and keep it as such through ages. Without the Muslims and Christians, there were bitter wars between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, between Jains and Hindus in the South and between Shaivas and Vaishnavas. The rational humanitarian’s aim cannot be the establishment of one religion but to bring about conditions by which people of different cultures can live together in mutual understanding and respect.”
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