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Irawati Karve, India’s First Woman Anthropologist Who Dared to Challenge Norms

Irawati Karve, India’s First Woman Anthropologist Who Dared to Challenge Norms

In an era when a woman speaking out of turn was considered blasphemy, Dr Irawati Karve was smashing gender barriers to explore new thoughts and territories.

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In the early 1920s, when women were actively subjugated by men and speaking out of turn was considered blasphemy, Dr Irawati Karve was riding her two-wheeler on the streets of Pune.  

This was not the first time when India’s first female anthropologist had challenged the deep-rooted social constructs of the society with a touch of feminism.

In fact, the men weren’t as agitated to see a woman ride her vehicle then welcome her commendable expertise in male bastion fields of sociology and anthropology.

Her belief system when it came to the rights of women were a little different. “Ladies, while fighting with men for rights, why fight for only equal rights? Always fight for more rights,” she would often say in her lectures and community gatherings. 

Through her research and writings, Dr Karve extensively questioned caste systems, family relationships, religion, mythology, kinship and even wrote multiple books on such subjects in English and Marathi like Kinship Organization in India (1953), The Bhils of West Khandesh (1958), Maharashtra: Land and People (1968) and Yuganta: The End of an Epoch (1968)

“One of the pioneers in Anthropological research, Dr Karve, commanded a wide circle of readership. She researched and wrote on an all-encompassing range of topics including the culture of people, townships and villages in India, religion, family, folklore and myth, and so on. Through all her dedicated work she has shown herself to be a true daughter of India,” Dr Amrita Nadkarni, a Sociologist and former Professor at St Xavier’s College, tells The Better India

A Global Influencer In The True Sense 

Dr Karve was born on 15 December 1905 in Myingyan, Burma (now Myanmar). Her father, an engineer, named her after the sacred river, Irrawaddy. 

She, however, grew up in Pune, Maharashtra and finished her schooling from Huzurpaga in 1922. Contrary to other middle-class families of Pune, her family gave utmost importance to education for a prosperous life. 

1926 was an important year for her. She graduated from Fergusson College with a BA degree in Philosophy and later, married Dr Dinkar Dhondo Karve, the son Maharshi Karve, the great scholar and social reformer.

Being a part of such a progressive family gave her enough room and freedom to study further. She worked hard and secured Dakshina Fellowship from the government of Maharashtra that gave her a chance to work under her mentor and guru GS Ghurye in 1928 at the University of Bombay. 

Under his guidance, she researched and published two essays. In the first one, she decoded the lives of Chitpavan Brahmins and another one was about the Folklore of Parshuram. 

At such an early age, Dr Karve managed to make inroads in societal subjects. Scholars from across India and even abroad referred to her work. From the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London in England to the Humanities Division of the Rockefeller Foundation, United States, Dr Karve would often be invited by global educational institutions to present her anthropology thesis. 

Alongside the fellowship and other assorted work, she completed her Masters in Sociology from Mumbai University in 1928. Unwilling to stop at that, she successfully completed an MPhil in anthropology from the University of Berlin in 1930. 

One of her most significant contributions to her academic field was starting the Anthropology Department at Poona (now Pune) University. 

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From heading the Departments of Sociology and Anthropology at Deccan College, Pune for forty years, presiding over the Anthropology Division of the National Science Congress held in New Delhi in 1947 to being appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of SNDT College, Dr Karve donned multiple academic hats in her lifetime. 

Everlasting Impactful Works 

One of the significant works of Dr Karve was in the area of Indology, a non-anglicised perspective or study of India’s culture and heritage.

She emphasised on shedding the lens of colonisers and promoted the idea of unity in diversity with her subtle works at a time when colonisers were desperate to divide the country on religious lines.   

Dr Karve even touched the Indian Mythology and labelled it as a ‘historical event’ in her book ‘Yuganta’ for which received the Sahitya Academy Award in 1968.

She attempts to analyse the protagonists of Mahabharata from the socio-political context and draws parallels with India’s history. 

Her study on Kinship Organization in India is also a delightful read where she uses dialects and geography of different regions to understand the kinship structures across India. 

“Dr Karve’s work on The Pandharpur Yatra, The Indian Village, Bhils of West Khandesh and Yuganta make for classical studies. It is still advantageous to the social sciences like anthropology and sociology because from here, we derive a whole world of ideas to work with and take research forward. She has been a great inspiration for me,” adds Dr Nadkarni. 

Amidst the country’s divisive political scenario, exploitation of the weaker sections, including women and a problematic social system heavily dependent on religion, Dr Karve dared to challenge the norms and explored new territories. 

A commentary by her that personally left an everlasting mark on me was the comparison between the society and the quilt. 

The quilt is made by gathering multiple pieces of colourful threads just like the society which is formed by people belonging to different communities. Though there are differences and conflicts, it is the thread that binds society together. 

This makes for a valuable lesson that is desperately needed in the times we live in. 

Featured Image Source: JSTOR and Wikimedia 


Also Read: Binodini Dasi, the Trailblazing ‘Fallen Woman’, Who Inspired a Bollywood Biopic


(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

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