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L.K. Mahapatra put Odisha on the global map of anthropological studies

Professor L.K. Mahapatra.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy LKM Centre

Back in 1998, when I was able to fend off my family and cross over to the arts stream for my graduation, I had two options — psychology and sociology. These were thought of as easy subjects and would never have got you a job. Still, they were considered somewhat cool. On the other hand, anthropology was considered uncool, too academic and too boring, and we were too young to know where that tunnel might lead.

While my batch at BJB College started with a few empty seats in the anthropology department, a few kilometres away, a professor from the same university had turned Odisha into a hub of anthropological studies, not just in India but globally. This was significant in terms of both geopolitics and academics.

Anthropology has always been a civilisational powerplay. The white male was the observer and the discoverer. It was he who unravelled the mysteries of the world and described cultures who had no intelligent words of their own. In this exoticised worldview, Odisha was the unexplored, the ancient, the undeveloped; in other words, a perfect subject.

For an Odia to not just demand but actually cross over to the other side of the table was nothing less than revolutionary. And in that context, Professor Lakshman Kumar Mahapatra was a revolutionary. He served as the head of the department of anthropology at Utkal University from 1967 to 1989, one of the longest tenures in such a position. Three decades later, the department is one of the two Centres for Advanced Study in Anthropology in the country, the highest rank given by the UGC. This revolutionary was one who built lasting institutions. In fact, that’s how the Oxford anthropologist Robert Parkin described him — ‘an institution builder.’

Early inspiration

Born in Balasore in 1929, Prof. Mahapatra grew up in a small village, in the household of a court clerk, and had to find funds for most of his education himself. When he was doing his intermediate in Cuttack, he attended a lecture by K.P. Chattopadhyaya, professor and head of the department of anthropology at the University of Calcutta. This lecture by the stalwart left such an impression that the young man joined the department for further studies a few months later.

Researching shifting cultivation in Southeast Asia.

Researching shifting cultivation in Southeast Asia.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy LKM Centre

Prof. Mahapatra’s legacy is two-pronged. First, he put Utkal University and the State on the global anthropological map. In 1980, the post-plenary session of the International Union of Anthropological Sciences was conducted in Bhubaneswar. Second, he changed the focus of the discipline itself. An expert on tribal studies himself, he stressed the importance of going beyond that by incorporating the study of slums, urban neighbourhoods and the caste system. He also promoted interdisciplinary studies and set up two centres — the Centre for Regional Studies and the Population Research Centre. Odisha was already a hub of numerous fascinating studies, and the department became a focal point.

A man long on vision and short on temper, university administration was not his cup of tea. He resigned from administrative jobs several times. He used to say that the total budget for Utkal University was less than what others spent on their gardens. He made a demonstration of it by travelling in autos even when he was the vice-chancellor. Decades later, these issues remain. Apart from funds, the department has suffered from a lack of fresh blood and the increasing divide between Centre and the State on academic matters.

Development for whom?

In academic circles, he was remembered for his plenary address at the Vancouver International Anthropological Conference, titled ‘Development for Whom’. He critiqued governments for their misguided policies and forceful displacement and impoverishment of countless people. Michael M. Cernea, known for bringing anthropological approaches to the World Bank, described him as a ‘worldwide authority on rehabilitation policy’.

He began to look east long before the Indian government ever deigned to do so, launching a journal titled Southeast Asian Perspectives. In 1995, at the Prof. K. P. Chattopadhyaya Memorial Lecture, he spoke on ‘Kingship in India and Southeast Asia’. The talk explored aspects of kingship that may initially have been developed in India before diffusing to Southeast Asian countries through maritime contacts during the early centuries of the Christian era. Did he know that more than two decades later, the Indian government would be talking along similar lines in search of a bridge to Southeast Asia?

Documenting with a camera.

Documenting with a camera.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy LKM Centre

Prof. Mahapatra passed away in Bhubaneswar this June. Known as the ‘militant social anthropologist’ his continuing relevance to Odisha and to the discipline cannot be overstated. Especially now, when there is a furore in the State over KISS — a university with an overwhelming number of students from tribal communities — being dropped as a partner from The World Anthropology Congress 2023.

Within the larger debate about the university’s credentials, there is also a discussion around mainstreaming tribal students and bringing them into the fold by methods that can be seen as sanskritisation. Is this the development they need — or would it have prompted Prof. Mahapatra to ask, “Development for whom?”

The writer farms in the balcony, complains vocally about issues that bother him, and eats his way across the world.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 9:48:29 AM |

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