Professor L K Mahapatra
(29.10.1929 to 01.06.2020)
A dreamy-eyed 18 years old attended a series of lectures by Prof. K.P.Chattopadhyay of Calcutta University. Lectures, that discussed the plight of the oppressed sections of society, especially tribal people. This young man, Lakshman Kumar Mahapatra, was overwhelmed and decided to dedicate his life to comprehend the causes of tribal subjugation. Instantaneously, he decided to pursue a future in the discipline of anthropology, while he was still studying for his intermediate degree at Ravenshaw College (now Ravenshaw University) at Cuttack, Odisha. Anthropology was then an emerging discipline growing under the shadows of colonial rule. In his words, it promised him the intellectual fare, apart from ensuring emotional satisfaction and idealistic fixation (Mahapatra, Felicitation volume 1992, P 312).
This renowned scholar of a holistic tradition of Indian Anthropology was born on 29th October 1929 in the erstwhile princely State of Rajanilgiri, Balasore District, Odisha. The scholarship came naturally to him and it brought along with its accolades, meritorious awards, and fellowships to fund his education. He appeared for the matriculation examination from MKC High School, Baripara, and stood 2nd in the Orissa State. Completing his intermediate from Ravenshaw College, Cuttack he moved to Calcutta University for obtaining his B.A. (Hons) and M.A. in Anthropology in 1952, securing 1st and 2nd positions in the University, respectively.
He was Jawaharlal Nehru Scholar, (1957-60) in Hamburg, Germany, and received his Ph.D. from there in the field of “Cultural Anthropology, Sociology and Comparative Education” in 1960 with Magna-cum-Laude. The thesis was titled: A Hill Bhuiyan Village and its Region: A Socio-Economic Empirical Study. Drawing inspiration from Redfield’s concept of little community, Mahapatra analyzed Hill Bhuiyan village as a self-sufficient, autonomous unit having extended networks with other towns and villages. The conceptual framework and methodological perspective evolved in this study paved the way for future researchers to develop holistic ethnographic studies located in contextual details. If research was his forte, teaching came as a conscious choice, as his own words reflect:
I wanted to be a teacher, and a better teacher in those days of nationalistic turmoil and transition… He (the teacher) could be independent-minded, could brush aside power and pelf as trash, and could meet anyone in society on an intellectual and moral plane without fear or favor (cf. Felicitation Volume 1992, P 311-12).
His fearless crusader spirit dominated his entire career. He never bowed down to administrative diktat and frankly voiced his opinion on matters and on subjects of his interest. His life and career encompassed three thrust areas: Mahapatra as the institution builder, Mahapatra as the scholar and researcher, and Mahapatra as the activist.
MAHAPATRA: THE INSTITUTION BUILDER
His professional career started in 1953. He was Joint Secretary, Tribal Research Bureau, Odisha (1954), Lecturer in Anthropology, Lucknow University (1954-55), Head, Department of Sociology, Meerut College, U.P. (1955); Lecturer, Community Development Training Centre for Tribal Areas, Ranchi, (1955-56); Lecturer, Anthropology, Guwahati University, (1956-62); Reader, Anthropology, Karnataka University, Dharwad (1962-64).
He finally joined Utkal University in his home state of Odisha as Reader in 1964 and subsequently succeeded Prof. A. Aiyyapan as Head of the Department in 1967. He continued as Professor and Head of the Department until 1989. In these twenty-two years, he is credited with placing anthropology in the state of Odisha on the international map. He made it his mission in his twenty-five years (22 years as faculty and 3years as vice-chancellor) long tenure at Utkal University, to bring at par, Odisha’s academic community, in particular anthropologists to international standards. He never compromised on the quality of scholarship and research. For him, teaching was an inner calling with a noble purpose. Paying tributes to his erudite scholarship, Prof. K.K Misra wrote, Teaching is not a job with work and leisure; it is a profession that demands passion and commitment and LK Mahapatra epitomized it (2020:121).
Under his cosmopolitan outlook, broad vision, and sagacious leadership, Anthropology Department at Utkal University was accorded by UGC, the status of Department of Special Assistance (DSA in 1988). Distinguished scholars from within and outside the country patronize it for knowledge exchange and affiliation.
I said at the outset that he was an institution builder. His farsightedness and ability to innovate resulted in the creation of the Centre for Regional Studies (CRS), Population Research Centre (PRC), an interdisciplinary center of South-East Asia Culture Area Study in collaboration with the Departments of History and Geography. He introduced several new courses in the domain of anthropology that were not taught in other specialized departments of Anthropology. Population Studies and Development Anthropology provided students in the department additional heft to work in the field of demography and development programs.
Production of ethnographic films by a university department started under his visionary leadership. His interventions in developing new specializations helped the department at Utkal university to go beyond the traditional structure of four-fold specializations. His training in ethnology and sociology in Germany dominated anthropological teaching and thinking about Utkal for a quarter-century (1967- 1989).
He used his institution-building abilities as Vice-Chancellor of Utkal University and then Sambalpur University to promote integrated learning. In his capacity as Director and later Chairperson of the Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies, (NCDS), Bhubaneswar; he used his training in Social Sciences to bring together the disciplines of Economics, Anthropology, and Sociology for promoting holistic social science research. He provided robust leadership to these institutions and abhorred any form of compromise on academic standards. As an imaginative researcher and administrator, he captured the essence of future trends in the social sciences and remained ahead of his academic peers.
During his distinguished academic career, he had several national and international assignments. He was a Visiting Professor at Hamburg University, (Germany), Visiting Lecturer at the Universities of Amsterdam (the Netherlands) and Heidelberg (Germany), Consultant with UNESCO, Bangkok (Thailand), fellow under the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst e.V), visiting fellow at the Universities of Heidelberg and Bielefeld (Germany), Ford Foundation Fellow, Jakarta (Indonesia) and also received prestigious Urgent Anthropology Award of the Smithsonian (USA) and International Decade for People of African Descent, visiting fellowship to Hague (the Netherlands).
Several national honours awarded to him in his brilliant career include UGC National Lectureship, National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science; Research and Visiting Fellow, Anthropological Survey of India; and post-retirement UGC Emeritus Fellow at Utkal University.
MAHAPATRA: THE SCHOLAR AND RESEARCHER
He conducted extensive research in Social Anthropology making significant contributions to the study of castes, tribes, tribe/caste transformation and continuum, ritual kinship, the role of Hindu princes in the caste system in Odisha, swidden cultivation, social movements, social welfare, folklore, tribal development, resettlement and rehabilitation, cultural tradition, self-managed development, etc. His grounding in German ethnology made him see culture as a dynamic process, and not merely a product of history. His pioneering work on social organization in Odisha made him a valuable knowledge resource on the culture and society of this important region in India. He was called a moving encyclopaedia of Anthropology by his friends and colleagues.
His passion to study Odisha’s folklore came from the conviction that folklore represented a world view and rational cultural practice that should be taken seriously was his persuasive argument (Manoranjan Mohanty, 2020) He was among the first to put Odisha folklore studies in the global academic realm. He studied folklore, oral traditions, music, language, myths, legends, social institutions, and the cultural heritage of Odisha’s tribes. In doing so, he tried to establish linkages between the memory of historical association and reconstruction of the nature and structure of tribes and castes.
Arguably, his magnum opus was his paper on “Gods, Kings and Caste System in India” first published in Kenneth David (1977, edited), a publication titled: The New Wind – Changing Identities in South Asia. The Hague:Mouton. This paper offers invaluable insights into the caste systems in India and is considered a seminal contribution to South Asian studies. The premise of his arguments in this exceptional piece of writing is to establish structural similarities between a Hindu temple, a royal palace, and an intertwined network of caste relations in village India. He goes beyond Hocart’s (1970) notion of the caste system serving both King and God and relocates it in the texts of Thakur-Raja- as the God-King. According to Nayak (2020, P, 255), the Prevalence of such a conception of divine kingship continued for a long time in Southeast Asia.
His intellectual acumen is distinctively visible in the vast panorama of his writings from folk tradition to interpretation of caste in metaphors of religion as also politics. His paper on The Role of Hindu Princes in the Caste System in Orissa (1984), examines Caste Councils and caste dynamics and the role of the king (Raja) in sustaining caste order and hierarchical Hindu society. He also discusses caste mobility and the role of the princely state in the Hinduization of the Tribes in the region. His studies on ex-princely states of Odisha, especially Mayubhanj, Keonjhar, and Bonai, deepen our understanding of tribal politics, rulers with alleged tribal ancestry, and those sponsored by tribes. He sums it all in his research publication Tribal Polity and Hindu Kingdom: Case Study of Early State Systems in Orissa, India. His work on Ritual Kinship describing it as institutionalized friendship marks the beginning of innovative thinking on the subject. He interprets ‘ritual kinship’ as a fictive extension of actual kinship drawing inferences from both tribal and peasant communities. In his opinion, this constitutes the essence of social interactions and inter-relations between Hindu castes and local tribes.
He moved with ease from studying South Asian Anthropology to the study of Southeast Asia. He wrote a brilliant note on the comparative study of Folk Culture and Society in Orissa and Bali. In 1982, he researched in Bali as an ICSSR fellow and also registered society for friendship and cultural cooperation with Indonesia. A journal named Southeast Asian Perspectives was also launched with Prof Mahapatra as the editor and Professor Mario.D. Zamora as the guest editor. Subsequently, he established a Centre for South-East Asian Studies within the precincts of the Anthropology department. He also taught South-East Asian Culture. Professor Mahapatra spent many years researching shifting cultivation in India and Indonesia. Contributing towards these efforts was the post-IUAES Congress symposium on, Anthropology of Shifting Cultivation in collaboration with UNESCO in 1978. In 1983, his research paper titled An Overview of Swidden cultivation in India was part of UNESCO's publication on Swidden Cultivation in Asia published by UNESCO. In 2011, he published another paper titled Swidden Peasantry in Indonesia (2011).
MAHAPATRA: THE ACTIVIST
Mahapatra was not only a scholar par excellence but with his humanistic instinct traversed the traditional threshold of an academic and activist. He worked assiduously for the cause of the dispossessed. His ethnographic studies went beyond micronuclear village studies. According to Prof. Ajit Danda, he achieved a balanced synthesis of empirical micro-perspective with comparative worldwide macro-perspective, which is difficult to achieve (https://www.lkmahapatra.org/anthropologists).
His theoretical insights provided a global perspective on the lingering crisis of induced development commonly marketed as planned and sustainable development. He challenged larger centre and state policies of industrialization and hydro-projects in tribal heartlands. These policies resulted in a mass exodus of tribal from their habitats without adequate compensation or rehabilitation. He raised these concerns in the 11th IUAES meeting held in Vancouver while chairing International Symposium on Development and Population Displacement. His address titled “Development for Whom?” was a scathing reflection on the global agenda of development. It was a clarion call to the anthropologists and sociologists to come forward to defend the livelihood, rights, and entitlements of the tribal people.
He had a human rights perspective, and an approach of legal pluralism to deal with the problems of food, nutrition, social security of immiserated tribal oustees and peasantry. He fought against the erosion of their customary entitlements, assault on their genomic autonomy and integrity, loss of their sui generis, the custodial, collective intellectual property right to biogenetic, forest, and knowledge resources. He strove for justice for the tribal, through a process of participatory, self-managed development. He believed in their inner strength to innovate as they represented the most trusted agency to protect and conserve nature. His vision was grounded in empirical reality attained through decades of rigorous fieldwork. His research findings documented the capacity of the Bonda tribal of Bonda Hills to confront natural calamities and to cope with new challenges while retaining their core cultural and production practices. He wanted development policy planners to emulate the tribal model of ‘Self-managed development’.
His crusades against the unilateral policy and planned interventions by the state resulted in several changes in legislation and greater involvement of the primary stakeholders-The tribal. He recorded travails of the communities displaced by the construction of river dams, and industrialization in the vicinity of the Pengo Paraja, Jharia Paraja, Bhatara villages bordering Kalahandi, Koraput districts. Mineral resource-rich districts had pushed their native inhabitants to starvation and pecuniary. He organized a field trip for his postgraduate students to record how the Indravati Dam project was impacting tribes of the Koraput, Sundargarh, and Sambalpur districts. Many tribal people were moving out of the project area as adequate measures for their rehabilitation and secured future was not made. With empirical evidence, he approached authorities and compelled them to appoint a development scientist to map and suggest measures to alleviate the sufferings of the local inhabitants.
His indomitable spirit to fight for the rights of the marginalized tribal people is aptly described by Bishnupada Sethi:
If Odisha today boasts of a robust people-centric research and rehabilitation policy, it being the first state to do so, the credit goes to Prof. Mahapatra, who was the guiding father for this endeavour. It was due to his tireless effort, and compassionate appeal that the Orissa Resettlement and Rehabilitation of Projects Affected Persons Policy, 1994 of the Water Resources Department, Government of Orissa, provided for payment of compensation for assets lost, in addition to a rather substantial rehabilitation package for the landless and those who occupied land without proprietary title (http://indr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Mahapatra-memorial.pdf).
These are historic legislations for the indigenous people. These have resulted, primarily as a result of the perseverance of Prof. Mahapatra’s relentless fight for the protection of their rights and entitlements in the land, forests, and other resources. He insisted on a compilation of customary rights in land, forest, and water resources. The objective was to demand legitimate, adequate, and comprehensive compensation packages for the displaced communities. He believed that the compilation of records would benefit not only the land-holding peasants but also the greater majority of landless tribal people, who do not hold a proprietary record of rights over their natural and common property resources. Effectively, these resources were hitherto enjoyed by them from time immemorial but became part of the government lands under the colonial principle of eminent domain.
Prof. Mahapatra belonged to a rare genre of teachers, scholars, and institution builders, who dominated their disciplines and became a sort of ‘cult’ figure. With his impeccable command over social science theory and methods, vast experience, and rich repertoire of research, combined with passionate and fearless activism for the marginalized population in India and the world, he cemented his place among the luminary anthropologists of India. His scholarship is recognized beyond India. He was appointed Consultant, World Bank in India and the US on Rehabilitation of displaced population, 1985-88, 1995-96 and remained one of the most admired members of the IUAES.
His energy was seamless! He revamped the Institutions he headed, with his futuristic vision, robust initiatives, and uncompromising attitude in matters of academic rigor. The significant role of this eminent professor in shaping the intellectual world of Odisha in the last decades of the twentieth century is incomparable. Summing up this dynamic and multifaceted personality, eminent anthropologist P.K. Nayak wrote:
By birth, Mahapatra was a stubborn Odia, in his dealings with people, he was a polite and Bengali gentleman, and by temperament, he was a forward-looking German, who constantly strove to expand the boundaries of anthropological research and inquiry as a doyen of the discipline! (Nayak. 2020, P 253).
Professor Mahapatra was not only an outstanding teacher but also a voracious reader and prolific writer. He has written and co-edited 15 books, his last one being Knowledge for Actions: A Treatise in Anthropology which appeared in 2016. He published about 180 research papers in international and national journals. He was Founder- Editor, Man in India, (Journal of the Department of Anthropology, Utkal University) and Founder and Editor, South East Asian Perspectives (1st International Journal in the Social Sciences from Odisha)
Mahapatra, L.K. 2013. Development for Whom: Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy in India, New Delhi: Mittal Publications.
Mahapatra, L.K. and Meera Swain(ed.) 2016. Knowledge for Actions: A Treatise in Anthropology, New Delhi: APH.
Mahapatra, L.K. 1965. “Technological Development and Cultural Resistance”, Baessler Archiv, Vol. XIII, Berlin.
Mahapatra, L.K. 1968. “Social Movements among Tribes of Eastern India with special reference to Orissa”, Sociologus, Vol. XVIII, No. I, Berlin.
Mahapatra, L.K. 1973. “Ritual Kinship in Orissa” presented at the 8th International Congress of Anthropologists and Ethnologists, Tokyo-Kyoto, 1968 published in Reports. Published in Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute Vol. XXXI-XXXII, Part-I, 1970-71, Part-II, 1971-72, Poona.
Mahapatra, L.K. 1973. “Gods, Kings and Caste System in India” paper presented at IX International Congress in Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Chicago, 1973, published in World Anthropology Series, Mouton (in 3 different volumes).
Mahapatra, L.K. 1975. “Pastoralists and the Modern India State” in Pastoralists and Pastoralism in India, eds. L.S. Leshnik and C.D. Sontheimer, Heidelberg,
David, Kenneth, Ed.1977. The new wind: changing identities in South Asia.
Mahapatra, L.K. 1979. “Group Discrimination in Orissa” in Studies in Plural Society, Vol. III of the Case Studies of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, The Hague.
Mahapatra, L.K. 1989. “Tribal Polity and Hindu Kingdom: Case Study of Early State Systems in Orissa, India”, presented at XI International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Canada, 1983, in Orissa: Past and Present, Bhubaneswar 1989.
Mahapatra, L.K. 1994 “Classification and Enumeration of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes in Orissa” in Economic News and Views. Vol.2, New Delhi.
Behura, N.K. & K.C.Tripathy (ed.) 1992. Science, Culture, and Development: L K Mahapatra Felicitation Volume. Bhubaneswar: Paragon Publishers.
Danda, Ajit K. “In Memoriam: Professor Lakshman Kumar Mahapatra, M.A. (Calcutta), D.Phil. (Hamburg)”, https://www.lkmahapatra.org/anthropologists
Hocart, A.M.1970 (1936). Kings and councillors. An essay in the comapritive anatomy of human society Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mahapatra,L.K. 1977. “Gods, Kings and Caste System in India”in David, Kenneth, Ed.1977. The new wind: changing identities in South Asia. The Hague:Mouton. Hocart
Mishra, K.K. 2020. “A personal Homage to an extraordinary teacher: Professor Laxman Kumar Mahapatra, 29.10.1929-1.06.2020)”. Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society, 55: 122-125.
Nayak P.K . 2020. “Laxman Kumar Mahapatra. 29th October 1929-1st June 2020”, Man in India, 100 (3-4): 2020: 251-256
Sethi, Bishnupada, “The Guiding Father of Odisha’s Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy”, Mahapatra-memorial http://indr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/
Prof.A.B. Ota, IAS (Retd)
Director and Special Secretary,
Govt. of Odisha
UIAF & WAC editorial team
 Manoranjan Mohanty. A People’s Anthropologist, L K Mahapatra (29 October 1929- 1 June 2020), https://www.lkmahapatra.org/intellectuals-activists)