The canvas of anthropology

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Shereen Ratnagar

Collection of 40 papers documenting the wide sweep of anthropology

ISSUES AND THEMES IN ANTHROPOLOGY - A Festschrift in Honour of Professor D.K.Bhattacharya: Vinay Kumar Srivastava, Manoj Kumar Singh - Editors; Palaka Prakashan, 3930/18, Kanhaiya Nagar, Tri Nagar, Delhi-110035. Rs. 1800.This is a collection of 40 papers in three sections - archaeological anthropology, physical anthropology, and social anthropology- dedicated to D.K.Bhattacharya who distinguished himself as Professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Delhi, having taught for 37 years. Bhattacharya began his career with papers in physical anthropology, wrote thereafter on social anthropology, and also, from the late 1970s, made several contributions to prehistory, especially the ecological and evolutionary aspects. He insisted that there should be no barrier between anthropology and archaeology. Of the 15 papers on 'Archaeological anthropology', however, relatively few have anthropological analysis or insights to contribute. These few include a paper on mesolithic Bengal and a study of footprints as objects of worship. A paper on the archaeology of the Eastern Ghats region, concludes from the artefacts found in megalithic burials, that there was a ranked society: in this case anthropological data could help one avoid the simplistic inference of status hierarchy from the varying quantity of deposits in different graves. In discussions with tribal people in eastern Gujarat I have found that not only do people remove all the pottery and wooden and metal personal possessions of a dead person to the funeral ground, there is also a last round of 'gifts' presented to the dead (in this case in the form of cloth) by all kin. None of these are retrievable. Without implying any direct parallel, one could suggest that the number of items offered to a dead person may in some societies have more to do with his/her activities and relationships rather than with personal wealth (not that wealth itself, and in any kind of goods, is always a measure of status).

Social anthropology

Physical anthropology is represented by papers on topics such as hominid and human skeletal remains at archaeological sites, drug abuse amongst sports persons, genetics, and propensity to disease. The 14 papers on social anthropology include one (first published in 1968) that is a fascinating discussion on what constitutes marriage: is there a universal form applicable to all cultures the world over, and what is the definition of marriage and fatherhood, and the meaning of the tying of the 'tali', amongst the matrilineal Nayars who live in a society where patriliny is the norm. In this section there are also papers that show a welcome sensitivity to the health problems of groups who are migrants and refugees and those who are at the lower end of the social hierarchy. This kind of work requires much wider dissemination than scholarly volumes can give. Also most welcome is the discussion of two Muslim communities in Karnataka, not in terms of Islamic scripture or law, but with regard to their kinship systems and how the latter conform to and differ from those of the larger society. It is difficult to discern the argument, if any, in a long paper on nature and culture; so too a paper on the village, caste, and rural and urban society could have benefited from pruning and better articulation of the argument. There are papers on conflict over forest resources and between Shia and Sunni in Lucknow. Overall, then, this volume has a refreshing variety of themes.However, one gets the impression that the volume was put together in a hurry. It does not compensate for quality. Many papers contain repetitions and an excess of background and introduction; there is the odd meaningless sentence; occasionally names of authors and titles of books are incorrect - problems that could have been sorted out by recourse to professional editing. More worrying are references by more than one contributor to groups as 'primitive'. This is ironic when a contributor questions the category of 'tribe' but thinks nothing of the politically incorrect label 'primitive'. It may be fashionable to decry the use of the rubric 'tribe', but it has a reality (especially in the past) and refers to groups who have no hierarchy and are bounded by kinship and the communal tenure of land and other natural resources. In the absence of private property there is little engagement with the market, and households are self-sufficient in many respects. The word 'tribe' may be an English one, but that does not negate the reality of the phenomenon.

Need for a voice

One contributor sees tribal society's distinction as closeness to nature and a simple technology, another recommends the label adivasi - how can any group claim to be the original inhabitant of any region in India? - and yet another sees tribes as mainly isolated from the mainstream, even though so much has been written on the cult of Jagannath and on the role of Bhils in the medieval kingdoms of Rajasthan. In fact the magnificent volume on the cult of Jagannath and the tribal cultures of Orissa edited by Eschmann, Kulke and Tripathi (1978), could have helped these contributors out of their confusion. To repeat, the sincerity of the contributors is patent but Bhattacharya is entitled to much better. One of the contributors, writing on anthropology, tribes, and activists, bemoans the absence of the anthropologist's voice in Indian public affairs. (Bhattacharya for his part has warned his colleagues against hiding behind particularistic studies). The contributor says anthropologists are doomed if they do not seek a voice. One may add that the iteration of this voice needs to be on a professional level.



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