Professor B. M .Das
(4th October 1931-22nd January 2008)
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.
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 ‘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!
The Ethnic Affinities of the Rabhas. 1960. Guwahati: Gauhati University, Department of Publication.
Outlines of Physical Anthropology.1961. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal
Anthropometry of the Tribal Groups of Assam, India. 1970. Miami, USA: Monograph, Field Research Series, Field Research Projects.
Variation in Physical Characteristics in the Khasi Population of North East India. 1978.Guwahati: Dutta Barua and Co.
Microevolution.1981. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Co
The Peoples of Assam. 1987. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.
North East India: Its People and Culture.1990. Lucknow: Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society.
Physical Anthropology Practical.1992-93. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal (with Ranjan Deka)
The Tribes of Brahmaputra Valley population. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal.
Among the People of North East India (A diary of an Anthropologist). 2003. Guwahati.
Medullary structure of head hair in some Caucasoid and Mongoloid populations of Assam, India. 1971. Zetschrift fur Morphologie and Anthropologie, 63,1:102-109.
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.
Choudhury, Bapukan. 2009. B.M. Das and his Contribution to Anthropology in The World of B.M. Das (Choudhury & Mahanta ed.). Guwahati: Assam Academy for Cultural Relations.53-73.
Associate Professor in Anthropology
Cotton University, Assam