Ancient Building

Professor Bhuban Mohan Das
(4th October 1931-22nd January 2008)

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Prof. Das was born on 4th October 1931 in Guwahati, Assam. His father, Late Hara Mohan Das was a reputed author, teacher and educationist and his mother Late Jagaddhatri Das was a very kind and caring lady. He was deeply inspired by his father as also by his elder brother Late Dr Biraj Mohan Das. He was the fourth child out of the six children in the family. He started his education in Manik Chandra ME and Cotton Collegiate Schools of Guwahati.  He was a brilliant student. In 1947 he completed his school education from Cotton Collegiate school. He then joined Cotton College in the Intermediate of Science classes with Anthropology as one of the subjects. Initially he faced hardships to pursue the subject because of non-availability of textbooks in the subject and this prompted him later to write textbooks in anthropology at the outset of his professional career.  

The University of Gauhati which was founded in 1948 introduced Anthropology in the Honours school at the undergraduate level. He joined the university with Anthropology as the specialization in the undergraduate programme. After completing his graduation with distinction, he went to Calcutta University for post-graduation studies. His training at Calcutta University made him more passionate towards physical anthropology. He was inspired by his teacher, Prof. Kantibhusan Prakashi. Young Bhuban Mohan Das opted for physical anthropology as his special paper.  He completed his masters (M.Sc.) in 1953.

His academic brilliance came to the fore early in his academic journey. He has the rare distinction of having three of his research papers published while he was still perusing master’s programme. Immediately after completing post-graduation, B.M. Das joined the Department of Anthropology, Cotton College, Guwahati as a faculty in 1954. Same year, he also enrolled for his Ph.D. under the supervision of one of the most acclaimed physical anthropologist S.S. Sarkar of Calcutta University. He focused on microevolution for his research project. In 1959, he was awarded doctorate degree for his work on Somatic Variability among some Populations of South Goalpara, Assam by the Calcutta University.

His contributions to comprehending ethnic complexities of the population of the North-East is immeasurable. He dedicated his exceptional abilities to unfold hitherto unexplored dynamics of population Genetics. Staying abreast with recent developments with the scientific understanding of human growth and demographics, he encouraged his students to study these domains. He also worked on several projects incorporating these facets of biological anthropology. Most befitting reference to his remarkable contributions is the title of Is His‘Father of Physical Anthropology of Northeast India’ (Choudhury 2009:55).  

He served for two years in Cotton College and then moved to Gauhati University in 1956 from where he retired as Professor in 1992. From 1973 to 1976, he rendered his services in the Department of Anthropology, Dibrugarh University as the Professor and Head. He also held the position of Dean, Faculty of Science for some time at Gauhati University. This period of services in the universities was significant for him as it provided him platform to make significant contributions to the discipline and its epistemology and methodology. His academic achievements brought laurels and recognition for him both within and outside the country.

He was awarded the coveted Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship and went to Berlin for his post-doctoral research (1968-70). He submitted his post-doctoral work to the Calcutta University and was awarded the rare and prestigious D. Sc. Degree in 1973. His D.Sc. thesis on ‘Studies on (i) Variation in Physical Anthropometry and the ABO Blood Groups of the Tribal Population of Assam and (ii) Head Hair from Some Caucasoid and Mongoloid Population of Assam, India’ was produced in microfiche technique by Field Research Project, Miami, USA (Choudhury& Mahanta 2009:3).

In 1982, he delivered lectures in three universities in Italy under Indo-Italian Cultural Exchange Programme. The same year he visited Hamburg, Bremen, and Hanover for academic assignments. In 1987 Prof Das visited Hannover and from there went to England, France, USSR, Greece, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, USA, and Egypt for various academic obligations. He was National Lecturer, University Grants Commission (1979-80) and in 1993, he was chosen as the Emeritus Fellow, University Grants Commission (1993-95). He has to his credit more than 150 research publications both in international and national journals. He completed about 15 research projects individually as well as jointly and 25 research scholars received Ph.D. under his supervision, from Gauhati and Dibrugarh Universities.

His outstanding contributions to Physical Anthropology of Northeast India is acknowledged in the distinguished echelons of Indian anthropology. B.M. Das charted a new chapter through his Biochemical Genetics works in the repository of anthropological research (Choudhury, 2009:62). His collaboration with Professor Gebhard Flatz, a Human Geneticist of Hannover Medical School, who came to Assam, led to some interesting findings on globin gene distributions and the related issues in Northeast Indian populations.

Collaborative research of Prof. Das and his scholar, Dr Ranjan Deka revealed the presence of very high frequency of Hb E gene among the Sonowal Kacharis of Assam. In another joint project with Professor Hubert Walter of the University of Bremen, Germany and Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, important blood group markers were investigated for the first time in certain population groups of Assam. All these studies and projects enriched the knowledge basket of physical anthropology with reference to the Northeast of India.

He loved travelling and lived with a childlike curiosity to know more. This possibly explains his intense engagement with field work. He belongs to a generation of anthropologists, where super specializations in physical or social anthropology were inconsequential. He believed in the holistic tradition of the discipline and supervised research in both physical and social anthropology with equal ease. I experienced this first hand. In 2004, he asked me to teach physical anthropology in cotton college, saying; ‘so what? The more you teach the more you learn. Anthropology is holistic’. My personal journey in anthropology is inspired by persona of Prof. Das and my father who also taught at Gauhati University.  

Prof. Das also served as Chairman of the Assam Textbook Production and Publication Corporation during 1995-96 and was a member of the National Commission for Backward Classes from 2000 to 2003. He was also the President of the Anthropological Society of Northeast India (also a founder) and the President of the Anthropology and Archaeology section of Indian Congress in 1979. He was the founder president and later chairman of Indian National Confederation and Academy of Anthropologists (INCAA).

He was also associated with several regional and national institutions of repute in various capacities. He was the Vice Chairman of Srimanta Sankardev Kalashetra Society, Assam, President of Assam Science Society. He even presided over the History Section of Assam Sahitya Sabha in its 49th session in 1982. He was also the President of the Assam Academy for Cultural Relations for 25 years till 2008 when he passed away. The Srimanta Sankardev Kalashetra exhibits anthropological elements to a great extent and that is all because of the efforts of Bhuban Mohan Das. He even succeeded in establishing anthropology as a science subject in the Assam Science Society.

His scientific learnings on the diverse ethnic composition of Assam and the Northeast, resulted in the enriched publications in the form of 10 books written in English and 21 books in Assamese on various anthropological areas of interest. He brought learnings of basics of physical anthropology within the reach of average student through his publications of two textbooks, Outlines of Physical Anthropology and Physical Anthropology Practical (with Dr Ranjan Deka). These are considered as primer for every student of anthropology even today.

B.M. Das is often addressed as a public anthropologist. He interacted with young students and common people with equal ease. His use of language was simple and lucid both in his lectures as also in his writings. His efforts to popularise Anthropology among the common people is evident through his numerous publications made in the Assamese language. A prolific writer in Assamese, his book (Manuh, 1968) gives a general introductory idea of the subject.   He has three collections of short stories and biographical sketches to his credit. He was also a national award-winning children’s litterateur. The Asiatic Society, Kolkata, conferred on him the Annandale Memorial Medal in 2004 in recognition for his outstanding contribution to the studies in Anthropology and the study of ‘Anthropology in Asia’.

It is difficult to summarise his extraordinary contributions towards the enrichment of the social and cultural milieu of Assam as a liberal thinker and social leader are etched on Assam’s intellectual and social landscape. A very punctual, disciplined man with great organizing capabilities he contributed immensely towards the study of people of northeast India. His efforts to popularise Anthropology were primarily successful because of his established image as a litterateur in Assamese society. He pioneered research in physical and genetic markers of the population of the North-east region. He collected exhaustive data on different ethnic groups of Assam to document biological variations of the people of this region

The language used in his writings, both in English and Assamese, was such that it could reach to one and all and is able to cater to the requirements of students even today. He made significant contributions as a teacher in Anthropology both in Gauhati University and Dibrugarh University situated at two extreme ends of Assam. This great personality breathed his last on 22nd January 2008 leaving behind a void difficult to fill!

SELECT PUBLICATIONS

  1. The Ethnic Affinities of the Rabhas. 1960. Guwahati: Gauhati University, Department of Publication.

  2. Outlines of Physical Anthropology.1961. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal

  3. Anthropometry of the Tribal Groups of Assam, India. 1970. Miami, USA: Monograph, Field Research Series, Field Research Projects.

  4. Variation in Physical Characteristics in the Khasi Population of North East India. 1978.Guwahati: Dutta Barua and Co.

  5. Microevolution.1981. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Co

  6. The Peoples of Assam. 1987. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.

  7. North East India: Its People and Culture.1990. Lucknow: Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society.

  8. Physical Anthropology Practical.1992-93. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal (with Ranjan Deka)

  9. The Tribes of Brahmaputra Valley population. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal.

  10. Among the People of North East India (A diary of an Anthropologist). 2003. Guwahati.

  11. Medullary structure of head hair in some Caucasoid and Mongoloid populations of Assam, India. 1971. Zetschrift fur Morphologie and Anthropologie, 63,1:102-109.

  12. Sociobiological observations on Assamese populations (co-authored with P.B.Das, R.Das, H.Walter, and H.Danker-Hopfe).1989. Anthropologischer Anzeiger,47,2:129-143.

REFERENCES

Choudhury, Bapukan. 2009. B.M. Das and his Contribution to Anthropology in (Choudhury & Mahanta ed.). Guwahati: Assam Academy for Cultural Relations.53-73.

 

Contributed By:

Chandana Sarma

Associate Professor in Anthropology

Cotton University, Assam

Email: chandanasarmas@yahoo.in

Funds from the Kiel University in collaboration with the German Research Council (Deutche Forschung-Gemein Schaft) assisted him in his project on the biological surveys of select Himalayan populations. Between 1964 and 1968, the Punjab government and the CSIR continued to fund the project which was extended to Lahaul and Spiti regions in Himachal Pradesh. The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) further funded the research in this area from 1972 to 1974. In 1974, he presented some details of dryopithecine material from the Shivalik’s at the 5th International Congress of Primatology held at Nagoya, Japan. This was later published in Contemporary Primatology (1975). He contended that these remains refute the belief propounded by Simon and Pilbeam (1972) that the fossil ape species in the Haritalyngar area in India are not diversified. The work of Professor SRK Chopra on human adaptability in varying climatic zones was conducted in association with the Cambridge Himalayan High Altitude Research Expedition in 1979, and the research was supported by the Medical Research Council and the Royal Society, UK. Its report was published in the international compendium, Cambridge University Press.

 

In 1980 he was invited by the President of the 8th Congress of International Primatological Society, Professor A.B Chiarelli of Florence University to share his findings from the “Shivalik Fossils Remains” with other experts and participants of the congress. His work on evolution of Early Man is well acclaimed, documented and cited. The Shivalik region may now be considered as an area where the earliest primates may have evolved. Professor Chopra's intensive and incisive research and experience extended over three decades. More than 100 research papers published in various national and international journals and cited in several significant textbooks on physical anthropology speak volumes about the excellence and intensity of his research.

 

In 1974, Professor Chopra conceived of a unique ‘Museum of Man’ within the precincts of the Department of Anthropology at Punjab University. The project was aesthetically executed with the help of celebrated artisans from Kolkata and was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Giani Zail Singh. The life-sized models of fossil apes, primates and homo sapiens trace the evolution of humankind and are configured from the reconstruction of fossil material collected by him and his team in the course of various field expeditions. Some of these fossils from the Shivalik region date back to 14 million years ago. The museum also exhibits various ethnographic materials collected from different regions of India. It has been posthumously named the SRK Chopra Museum of Man in his honour. It is to his vision that the Department of Anthropology, Panjab University, holds the distinction of being a UGC funded Centre for Advanced Studies in Anthropology since 2011.

Professor Chopra made cardinal contributions not only to his primary interest in strengthening palaeoanthropology but also to the holistic approach and integrated character of the discipline. Research articles published in Nature and Human Biology symbolize that spirit. He identified and brought talent from different parts of the country to teach in this new department and encouraged them to take up challenging tasks and projects. He supervised 19 PhDs and was an examiner at both international and national universities with a fluency in both English and German languages. Students trained in the department were hired with ease by various national and international universities as also in allied institutions like anthropological and archaeological Survey of India because of the training they received under his supervision. The Department of Anthropology, Panjab University was one of the first departments in the country to introduce a diploma in Forensic Science/ anthropology under his visionary leadership. Ethnographic explorations in remote areas of Himachal Pradesh, Kinnaur and Lahaul Spiti was also initiated under his guidance.

 

He went on several international assignments to various Universities across the world. Few of the most prestigious teaching assignments were at the universities across the United Kingdom, West Germany and Japan. From 1965 to 1967, he was a Visiting Professor in the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Kiel in West Germany. Continuing to take his wealth of academic experience abroad, in 1979 he was invited to the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Inuyama, Japan, as a Visiting Professor. Among his many Awards, reference must be made of the Wenner-Gren Foundation Award for Excellence twice from 1955 to 1956, and then again in 1966 to 67. He was fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland as also fellow of the Zoological Society of London and Member, Permanent Council, International Association of Human Biologists along with several reputed national organizations. He also Chaired the session on Paleo-Biology and Evolution for the 7th Congress of International Primatological Society in 1979.

 

He received a silver plaque from the Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society, Lucknow in 1976 and also delivered the Majumdar Memorial Lecture there. From 1980-81, he served as the UGC national Lecturer. Some of the other prestigious lectures that he delivered in his career include the 1984 M.R. Sahni Memorial lecture to the Paleontological Society of India and the 1985-86 Dr. Panchanan Memorial Lectureship, Asiatic Society, Kolkata. He also served as the Editor of Everyday Science and as Member of the Advisory Committee of Anthropological Survey of India, and the Indira Gandhi National Museum of Man, Ministry of Culture. Additionally, he held the esteemed position of the President of the Indian Association of Physical Anthropology from 1976 to 1978. In 1989, he was bestowed the Excellence Award by the Shiromani Nehru Centenary Committee for enhancing India’s prestige and contribution towards National Development.

His academic commitments and frequent travels within and outside India impacted his health severely. His resilience, however, knew no bounds. In the year 1988, he had to undergo kidney transplant and received a kidney from his wife of twenty-eight years, the ever-resolute Krishna Chopra. He recovered and went back to the hectic life of an active academician and academic administrator.  In 1988, he spent a year as a Visiting Professor at the United Medical and Dental School at the University of London. His administrative acumen was distinctively visible, when he held the office of the Pro Vice Chancellor of Panjabi University, Patiala from 1983-1986 and then as Vice-Chancellor of Kurukshetra University, Haryana from 1986 to 1989. On his return to his parent University, he was given the prestigious position of Dean of University Instructions, Panjab University till he retired from formal academic career on 31st October 1991.

In 1989, eminent geologist Professor Ashok Sahni and paleoanthropologist Dr. Rajan Gaur published S.R.K Chopra festschrift volume titled Perspectives in Human Evolution to honour his immense contributions. In recognition of his research contributions in promoting scientific explorations in the field of fossil primate discoveries, he was nominated as a member of the Explorers Club of the USA. He was the first Indian University don to receive the distinction in recognition of his astronomical scientific career, most notably his fossil primate discoveries. He also featured in the Indo-American Who's Who. His academic attainments are legendary and his meteoric rise in the world of paleo-anthropology is exceptional. He is recognised as one of India’s original intrepid explorers who conquered hostile terrain to dig up significant finds that pieced together major anthropological indications of our past.

 

SRK made not only an exceptional contribution to the growth of the discipline of anthropology but also made generous financial contributions to provide motivation to the students of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes to excel in the discipline. In the year 1962, his family contributed towards setting up of the Rai Bahadur Wali Ram Taneja Medal in the memory of his father-in-law which was to be given to the top-ranking student of B.Sc. final year. In the year 2005, the Syndicate of the Panjab University, Chandigarh (vide its meeting on 28th February 2005) has formalized the institution of the SRK Chopra Memorial Scholarship to be awarded to the topper in BSc (Hons. School) in Anthropology.

Significant Contributions

  1. Chopra, S.R.K. (1978). New fossil evidence on the evolution of Hominoidea in the Sivaliks and its bearing on the problem of the evolution of early man in India. Journal of Human Evolution, 7, 3-9.

  2. Chopra, S.R.K., & Kaul, S. (1979). A new species of Pliopithecusfrom the Indian Sivaliks. Journal of Human Evolution, 8,475-477.

  3. Chopra, S.R.K., Kaul, S., & Pathak, R.K. (1982). Morphometric affinities in innominate bones of old-world primates including man. Journal of Human Evolution, 11, 105-108. 

  4. Chopra, S.R.K., Kaul, S., &Vasishat, R.N. (1979). Miocene tree shrews from the Indian Sivaliks. Nature,281, 213-214.

  5. Chopra, S.R.K., &Vasishat, R.N. (1979). Sivalik fossil tree shrew from Haritalyangar, India. Nature,281, 214-215.

  6. Chopra, S.R.K., &Vasishat, R.N. (1980). A new mio-plioceneIndraloris(primate) material with comments on the taxonomic status of Sivanasua (carnivore) from the Sivaliks of the Indian subcontinent. Journal of Human Evolution, 9, 129-132.

  7. Gaur, R., & Chopra, S.R.K. (1983). Palaeoecology of the middle mioceneSivalik sediments of a part of Jammu and Kashmir state (India). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 43, 313-327.

  8. Simons, E.L., & Chopra, S.R.K. (1969). Gigantopithecus (Pongidae, Hominoidea) a new species from North India. Postilla, 138, 1-18.

  9. Vasishat, R.N., Gaur, R., & Chopra, S.R.K. (1978). Geology, fauna and palaeoenvironments of lower Sivalik deposits around Ramnagar, India. Nature, 275, 736-737.

  10. Vasishat, R.N., Gaur, R., & Chopra, S.R.K. (1978). Community structure of middle Sivalik vertebrates from Haritalyangar (H.P.), India. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 23, 131-140.

Contributed by : Ms. Shalini Vahi (Daughter of Prof. S.R.K. Chopra and a Practising social and Cultural anthropologist)

Edited by: Prof. Shalina Mehta, Former Professor and Chairperson Department of Anthropology, Panjab University, Chandigarh and                                            Dr. Rajni Lamba, Anthropologist and CEO, The Rural Environmental Enterprises Development Society (THE REEDS), INDIA 

Acknowledgment: Dr. Maninder Kaur, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Panjab University, Chandigarh for institutional support.

India is home to galaxy of anthropologists who have relatively remained unsung. Their contributions are often ignored by varied traditions of anthropology practised across the World. On this platform, UIAF is bringing together their contributions to anthropological epistemology along with their personal and academic journeys, mostly documented by scholars who have worked closely with these stalwarts. 

One of the renowned anthropologists of India, and particularly of Northeast India, Professor Bhuban Mohan Das, laid a strong foundation for anthropological research, especially physical anthropology in the Northeast India.