I had the privilege to work as a University appointed lecturer in Cultural Anthropology, under the supervision of Prof. Irawati Karve, Head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Deccan College Post graduate and Research Institute, during July 1960 until she passed away on 11 August 1970. I first saw her at the Sociological Conference in 1959 at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, where as a final year Master’s student from Sagar University, I presented a paper on caste dynamics in a Gwalior village. She wrote to the then Vice-Chancellor, Prof.  D. G. Karve,  from Berkley, recommending me for the faculty position, since she could not be present at the Selection Committee meeting.

There was a combined course in Sociology and Anthropology at the University awarding a Masters degree in Sociology. A distinct Masters course in Anthropology was initiated in July 1963 with equal weightage to Biological and Cultural Anthropology with mandatory field work in tribal area. The department was shifted to university campus in 1973 and a separate Department of Anthropology was established at the University in August 1977, under my Headship.

Irawati Karve was like our mother. So, we had no boss-subordinate relationship. We had the realization that we could not follow her model of scholarship of classical anthropology combining biological, cultural, archeological and linguistic aspects of the Study of Man, his Culture and Society, in the historical  perspective. She fully used the facility of academic dialogues with Prof H. D. Sankalia and Prof S. M. Katre for archeology and linguistics, readily available at the Deccan College. She acknowledged her orgnisational  deficiency about building a department or a school on lines of what Dr. Sankalia or Dr. Katre could do. She gave total freedom to me and my biological anthropology colleague, Dr. R. K. Gulati in organising the teaching programme at the University and she formally communicated this to the Registrar of the University, W. H. Golay. Prof. M. A. Mehendale has been a witness to this process at the Deccan College.


The quest to search for identity and assert it is an eternal exercise of human mind. Who am I? Who are we as a group, as a nation, as humanity? These questions are discussed in philosophical thought which have given rise to the discipline of Anthropology. Anthropology as a formal  academic discipline as is dealt in the University system may be credited to the West, but anthropological thought as a body of knowledge is found in the Smritis (Manav Dharmshastra), Kautilya’s Arthshastra, or even in Charak and Susrutsamhita as also in Vatsayan’s Kamsutra, dealing with various human types, their organization to ensure social harmony. The writings of Vivekananda, Tagore, Ranade, Gandhi, Ambedkar, and many others, though not formally referred  to as anthropologists, are alternative voices in anthropology. Anthropology as an academic discipline was first introduced in India at Calcutta University in 1920.

Mainly, the sea voyagers like Vasco-de-gama, Columbus, Marco-polo and many others interacted with the local people on the coast –line and were struck by what is documented as queer customs. This raised the curiosity of analyzing the biological and cultural similarities and differences among the people of different geographical regions and what was commonly referred to as races. This culminated in the quest to find out the origin and evolution of Homo Sapien  and their institutions, by scholars like Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. The pioneer anthropologists who were drawn from different academic disciplines planned and undertook study tours among the island based, isolated communities to document the life styles of different people, which developed the concepts of culture, personality and other such concepts about kinship and religion. The tradition to study isolated communities referred to as tribes still continues in anthropology training. The quest for finding the biological and cultural-social origins and evolution required the study of fossils and languages which was considered as classical anthropology.


Irawati Karve was a classical anthropologist who could  link the biological, cultural, historical and linguistic aspects to analyse the whole. Graduated in philosophy from Fergusson College in 1926, she worked under Prof Ghurye at Bombay University Sociology Department, before going to Germany in 1928 for Ph.D in what is referred as biological or physical anthropology. From 1931 to 1936, she functioned as Registrar of S.N.D.T. University which was actually the creation of her father-in-law, Dhondo Keshav Karve. She told us that she was a failure as an administrator. She joined Deccan College in 1939 which was revived as Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute as a result of out-of-court settlement between the Past Students of Deccan College and the Government, since the college was closed in 1931, due to emergence of several other colleges in Pune.

Irawati Karve born in Burma (now Mynmar) in 1905, named after the river Irawaddy, was raised in the family of Wrangler Paranjpe, a great liberal, and married in the family of social reformer, Dhondo Keshav Karve, to his son, who was later known as a strict Principal of Fergusson College. Paranjpe and Karve were relatives. With this maternal and affinal background, it was not surprising that she publicly addressed her husband by first person singular name, as reported by the humorist P. L. Deshpande. She had the advantage of not being subjected to second class citizen treatment to daughter-in-law in a patriarchal society. As a feminist, she expressed regrets over the sufferings of her mother-in-law or Tilak’s wife, being the wives of public figures who were busy with their social or political work. Probably, as a protest of seeing the child widows and the plight of widows in general, she would not normally adorn the symbols of maharashtrian married woman, Mangalsutra, kumkum and bangles. However, for ‘darshan’ and paying obeisance to Dnyaneshwar  ‘paduka’ in a palanquin passing by the Deccan College, or in case, she was asked to unfurl national flag on 15th August or 26th January at the college, she would put on the kumkum on her forehead, following the cultural tradition. There was no contradiction between protesting against inhuman traditions against widows and following benign cultural  traditions on ritualistic or ceremonial occasions.                                       


 There is no well known anthropologist who has no tribal and/or village ethnographic monograph to his/her credit. Anthropologists are credited with micro-level field studies based on field work, living with the people, for a considerable period. Irawati Karve does not have such a monograph to her credit, despite her travels in tribal and rural areas. Her travels were more directed to collecting data for biological anthropological analysis. The experiences and observations during travels have also been expressed   in literary writings by her. Prof. Irawati Karve  has chosen to analyse the civilisational and cultural aspects of the macrocosm. It was not considered necessary to develop scientific objectivity by undertaking field work in a remote area as is commonly done in anthropology. India with its rich plurality and ancient history, as also textual knowledge was sufficient to subject it to anthropological objective analysis. Even the tribal communities in India had linkage with the mythological scriptures of Ramayan and Mahabharat, unlike the isolated island communities in Pacific ocean. The American anthropologists were aware of the genocide of indigenous people. They studied the so-called American Indians. European anthropologists from the nations who were out to spread their empires needed to document the customs of the subject people so as not to step on their cultural toes, threatening the apple cart of their rule. The ethnographic details about tribes and castes in British Presidencies written be administrator-scholars like Enthoven, Russel and Hiralal, Thurston, were in response to the 1857 rebellions combined with Lord Macaulay’s education pattern, to break the nerve of Indians and create Babus. There was a valid reason for anthropology to be prescribed as a compulsory subject at the I.C.S. examination. The logic of British Rule gave ignominious title of Colonial Anthropology after decolonisation in some  quarters. Irawati Karve’s studies could not be classified under colonial anthropology, which have been strongly rooted in Indian mythology and Indian culture, analysed through qualitative research methods, expressed also in her literary works.

Irawati Karve chose to analyse the Indian Social Organisation at the macro level, at the national level, through historical times. People live their lives in kinship groups. Caste as a group and as an institution has been most widely discussed in Indian Sociology and Anthropology. Caste continues to be a socio-economic reality and a political force, possibly strengthened by head-count electoral democracy. Irawati Karve’s documentation of Kinship Organisation in India covers the plurality and geographical coverage of India, nowhere tried on such a wide scale. This also gave rise to her definition of Caste as a kinship group of actual or potential kin and the difference between caste and caste-cluster, replacing the classification of sub-caste and caste. This analysis conforms to ground level, functioning reality, instead of hypotheses. The kinship organization has been demonstrated in the Mahabharat war among the consanguineous and affinal kin taking sides, except for Madri’s brother who was cheated and trapped to join the Kauravas, as charioteer of Karna. The kinship terms of address and reference and the normative rules of avoidance and joking relationships across the country continue to be followed, although the actual kin marriages may have decreased. Mother’s brother’s position across the world in tribal areas as also everywhere is same in response to patriarchy.  Even in England, Princess Diana’s brother, Earl of Spenser gave protective assurance to his nephews in his blunt speech in Westminster Abbey in the presence of the entire Royal Family, including the Queen and Prince Charles.

She compiled the Maharashtra Gazetteer, Maharashtra, Land and its People, continuing the British tradition of gazetteers, with a difference that  Karve has analysed the culture and society of Maharashtra, not stopping at description. The tradition of saint poets in Maharashtra, drawn from all caste groups and the harassment of Brahmin Dnyaneshwar by the Brahmins provide insights in the cultural and spiritual fabric of Maharashtra. Karve has analysed the evolution of Maharashtra as a culture region, the uneven progress within different regions, about the caste composition, about villages and their localities and hamlets, about the language and literature. Vithoba of Pandharpur is the presiding deity of Maharashtra. The places from where people go to meet Vithoba is Maharashtra is the hypothesis of Karve. She went with the people on feet with the ‘Vari’ about which she has written separately as a literary piece.

Although Irawati Karve was known as a classical anthropologist and did not directly get involved in the applied aspects, she has written a full chapter on the national issues and problems in her book ‘Hindu Society’. She has expressed her opinion about the linguistic states, issue of link language, about caste reservation and its after effects. I have personally experienced her promotion of applied aspects. While she was called to speak at the Armed Forces Medical College to speak on Health to the postgraduates, after one visit, she drafted me to the institution. My association for thirty years with AFMC and later with B. J. Medical College, preventive and social medicine departments, developed medical anthropology in India.

In later years, she also undertook some social surveys, which could be termed sociological in nature, funded by government research bodies. Such surveys are quantitative in nature, not providing the answer to the question ‘why’, but providing the data about ‘how many’ which is required by administrators. One of the surveys was about the socio-economic condition of the Bhils of Khandesh, for which she travelled to the Bhil villages in difficult geographical terrain. She studied the development process of an urban centre, Phaltan, where her daughter was married. With her daughter as co-investigator, she also studied the problems of rehabilitation of those affected due to construction of Koyna dam. The last sociological study was about the weekly markets in Nasik district and at Phaltan.

Irawati Karve had a literary flair. She wrote several short literary essays presented in three books. While writing research papers, a strict discipline about objective presentation is necessary. However, during field travels for research work, one’s subjectivity and emotional responses are also responding to your inner self. These could not be expressed in scientific terminology, although based on objective observations. Irawati Karve expressed these responses and insights which could be called literary in nature. Her literary short essays could be termed as common man’s anthropology or anthropological expressions for common man.

Her ‘Yugant’, anthropological interpretation of Mahabharat unfolded through analysis of personalities, is her life-time contribution acclaimed widely as an excellent piece of literature and awarded accordingly. The anthropological interpretation of Culture and Personality has contributed to the analysis of Mahabharat personalities in the context of prevalent values in the pastoral economy and society of Mahabharat times. Her feminism is projected in her analysis of Bhisma’s personality, who was charged with forcibly bringing the princesses to marry the princes in his family. However, she has not blamed Krishna for alluring Karna to join the Pandavas as the eldest brother to become the king and get Draupadi as his wife. Woman’s inferior position in the pastoral economy has not been discussed. The discussion about woman as the field and man as a seed in ‘Niyoga’ probably indicates the onset of agricultural economy. Similarly, Draupadi’s question  about the right of the husband, to pawn his wife, after he became a slave has also not been discussed.

Irawati Karve as a classical anthropologist could combine the biological, cultural, archeological and linguistic evidence to understand the culture system evolved through historical times. She could analyse the biological and cultural distance among various endogamous caste groups in a caste-cluster. It is to her credit that she did not follow the western model of studying an isolated community which had no written text about their history. The entire analysis of the culture and society of such communities in anthropological literature has been based on structural-functional theory. Dealing with the size of India with sacred geography, philosophical texts, elaborate mythologies which continue to be the referral role models in Indian homes, used by politicians for collecting votes in electoral democracy, she analysed the civilization. Agricultural communities are kinship oriented. In developing India, despite increased mobility and migration, kinship continues to be a solidarity force, continued by endogamy. Even our corporate houses and private educational institutions are family concerns. The same continues in various political parties. We brand it as feudalism and nepotism. With widening of choices, and need of solidarity for economic and political expansion and stability, caste endogamy is widening to caste-cluster endogamy. Mythology is not history, but it is based on some historical facts and events. That is the reason, Mahabharat, Ramayan and Gita  continue to guide the cultural values in Indian Society. Caste is not a Hindu phenomena but a pan-Indian phenomena functioning in other religious groups in India.

We have been advocating through documents such as UGC model curriculum in Anthropology that we are not satisfied with Anthropology in India, but we look forward to developing Indian Anthropology. Irawati Karve with her initiative to analyse Indian Civilization and unraveling the culture region as big as Maharashtra has been a pioneer Indian Anthropologist. We need to follow her tradition to analyse the macrocosm as a whole .Anthropology as a study of Man in totality cannot encompass only the study of a village community by following the conceptual model of studying a primitive society. However the British legacy of administrative rule is not relevant for development administration combined with decentralized democracy as Panchayat Raj with 50% statutory participation of women for effective implementation at micro level. Anthropologist need to redefine the concept of whole by studying the micro-macro interaction, by studying not only the people but all the stakeholders participating in development process, and linking the studies, and making recommendation for policy formulation and implementation.

R. K. MUTATKAR                                                       

  24-25 November 2018

First Head of the Department of Anthropology, University of Poona (S.P.P.U.)