Professor L P Vidyarthi

Professor L P Vidyarthi

(February 28, 1931- December 1, 1985)

This extraordinary internationally acclaimed anthropologist of the Third World spent his childhood very ordinarily (Sahay, 1988, 2001). Born in a remote village of Bariyarpur, under the Barh Police Station, District Patna in the State of Bihar, Vidyarthi learned the initial alphabets under the shade of a tree in a gurupinda (a village school of traditional type). From this rural background, within a short span of fifty-six years of his active life, he became one of the most distinguished anthropologists of the world, whose contributions in the discipline of anthropology was internationally acclaimed. A leader of world anthropology, an advocate for the just cause of anthropology, an anthropologist who propelled the Indian anthropology since mid-fifties, and gave maximum momentum to anthropology in India during the post-Independent period; the man, who perhaps produced the largest number of professional anthropologists in the country after Independence; the man, who was elected as the President of the Xth IUAES and ICAES; the man, who lifelong remained the President of the Indian Anthropological Association; and the man, who received the 'Distinguished Service Award' in anthropology from the University of Chicago, died suddenly on December 1, 1985. In the death of Professor Vidyarthi an era of Indian anthropology had to an end. 


I had been associated with him under different capacities for over a decade and half. It was during the Xth ICAES in New Delhi in December 1978, that I apprised Professor Vidyarthi of my intention to write his biography. Thereafter, in a series of discussions with him at his residence, he narrated accounts of his childhood and early education; his schooling in Mahabir Middle School and matriculation in 1946 from City High School (Rajendra Vidyalaya) Gaya; graduation from Patna College in 1950; M.A. (Part I) in Geography in 1952 from Patna University; his somewhat accidental shift, from geography in Patna University to anthropology in Lucknow University; his flair for writing; his inclination towards anthropology, sociology and social psychology; his political awareness at Lucknow; his association with D. N. Majumdar and Acharya Narendra Dev- the then Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University, and so on. Vidyarthi was the 100th PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1958. 

Out of those discussions I had prepared a brief biographical account of him in 198l. Professor Vidyarthi told me to send this biographical account to Shelley Porteous, who was then working on the same line in Canada. In her article on Vidyarthi, Porteous (19865) extensively quoted from my write up, which appeared in a volume edited by M.K. Gautam and A.K. Singh (1986). Even earlier, a brief article by me, under the title In Search of Ranchi School of Anthropology (Sahay, 1981) appeared in a volume edited by Vidyarthi and Upadhyay (1981) that highlighted how overall anthropological researches and contributions of Vidyarthi and his followers in Ranchi University helped framing ‘Ranchi School of Anthropology.’ 


He was a great field worker. On our trip to Andamans for fieldwork in 1970, we found a number of tribal labourers from Ranchi on board the ship. I reported it to Vidyarthi. Immediately he became interested, and within a short time prepared an inventory and asked us to collect as much of information as possible. Frankly speaking, at that time we were in no mood to interview the labourers on board the ship. But I feel nostalgic today to recollect how Vidyarthi was then moving up and down the stairs of the vessel with a small group of students in search of information of anthropological interest. He mixed freely with the labourers. It only reflects Vidyarthi's love and dedication for fieldwork. He would extend hero's welcome to any of his students/scholars who returned from the field. 

There are many people from every walk of life, at least in Ranchi, who would claim that they were most close to Vidyarthi. It was perhaps an outstanding feature of his personality that people in distress or unable to take decision in their personal problems always confided with Vidyarthi, who gave them a very patient hearing. The hard-taskmaster Vidyarthi of the department, was very friendly, sociable and naive outside. One who has seen Vidyarthi playing Kabaddi (a rural Indian game) along the sprawling beach of Digha can hardly miss to see the social and friendly aspect of him. It was during an excursion trip in February 1970, that the staff and students had gone to Digha, a beautiful sea beach of Bay of Bengal in the coastal Midnapore district of West Bengal. While strolling along the beach in the evening, Vidyarthi suggested all of us to play kabaddi. He immediately took off his kurta (long shirt), and wearing only pajama and undershirt was soon lost in play with us. 

 Vidyarthi believed in the maxim 'Work is God'. He virtually venerated his work. He remained so absorbed in his works that he remained in his study room till midday dictating articles, letters, or speeches, which he had to deliver on different occasions. He used to derive great pleasure and self-satisfaction in his work. It seems incredible though, but it is true, that even just two days before his death (when doctors advised him for complete rest), and only a few hours before falling into coma, he worked for four hours. 

His public relations were very extensive. It included anthropologists as well as scholars of other disciplines, philanthropists, social workers, missionaries, industrialists, businessmen, administrators, bureaucrats and leaders of political parties; and thus, in general people from all walks of life. Obviously, such an extensive public relation was not developed in a few days; he had nurtured it for decades. 

Ranchi has twice led the anthropological researches in India. It has been the home of two 'veteran anthropologists of international repute', namely, S.C. Roy and L.P. Vidyarthi. With a band of disciples, they brought to light many of the unexplored fields of Indian life and culture. Their conceptual frameworks and methodologies have given light to many young researchers of their respective times. They, however, represent two different 'eras' of anthropological development in the country. While Roy focused his attention primarily on the tribes of South Bihar (now Jharkhand), Odisha, and Bengal, Vidyarthi's interest went throughout the length and breadth of the country; from Badrinath in the Himalaya's in the North to Rameshwaram in the south; and from the State of Meghalaya in the east to the sacred city of Dwarka in the west. Vidyarthi's manifold anthropological interest went as far as to the island culture of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. If Roy brought international repute to India by his selection as a member of the Council de Honour of the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Vidyarthi's election as the President of the Xth IUAES & ICAES (1973-78) marked the advent of a 'new era' in Indian anthropology. 

Having been trained initially under the leadership of D. N. Majumdar at Lucknow, in India, and later in the University of Chicago in America, Vidyarthi entered as a professional anthropologist understandably with American influence. However, soon he realized that the methodologies developed by the western anthropologists were not accurately suited to the study of complex Indian culture. Hence, he began to advocate to bring 'Indianness' in anthropology’. This is very much reflected in his Presidential Address at the Xth ICAES (1978) in New Delhi. 

Vidyarthi’s contributions in anthropology are exhaustive to behold. He authored 35 books and edited 37 volumes; wrote 159 articles for different national and international journals; and supervised three D. Litts., and 35 PhDs. Thematically, his contributions could be summed up under the following heads: Village Studies, Applied and Action Anthropology, Study on Scheduled Caste, Folklore Researches, Urban-Industrial Anthropology, Study on Leadership, Anthropological Theories; besides of course, formulating two very significant concepts in Indian Anthropology. Vidyarthi first proposed Sacred Complex (1961), and thereafter, Nature-Man-Spirit Complex (1963). He obtained his doctoral degree from the University of Chicago on Sacred Complex. 

To sum up, Vidyarthi is known for his volumes of works, but very few people know that he died much before completing two of the most ambitious projects of his life. The first, was on 'Anthropological Thought', incorporating the views of the eminent Indian social thinkers and those written in the ancient Indian scriptures. This work he intended to do with my assistance. The second, was on the 'Civilization'. He believed that India alone was a country where the people of all the stages of culture and civilization could be found. Once he told this author that he wanted to complete these two projects by 1992. It is to be noted that he was to retire in 1991. This also suggests his well-calculated and time-bound work programme. It is quite an irony that he left for heavenly abode much before even starting these two ambitious projects. Professor Vidyarthi is no more today. Regardless of all polemic, he has left his imprints in the annals of anthropology for the posterity. 

Vijoy S Sahay Editor-in-Chief  The Oriental Anthropologist.