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Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose

Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose

During his checkered career taught Anthropology and Human Geography at Calcutta University, was Director, Anthropological Survey of India and Commissioner for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. He had served as Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary and interpreter during Gandhi’s famous trip to East Bengal at the height of communal violence there. He was editor of Man in India and continued to edit it even when he was seriously ill. He wrote profusely on subjects like: Anthropology, Temple Architecture, Pre-History, Geology, Human Geography, Social History, Art, Politics, Education, Social Work and even on Gandhi. (A detailed bibliography of his English and Bengali writings is published by Shyamal Kumar Ray in Passage Through Indian Civilization)[1].

[1] [eds.] R.K.Bhattacharya and Jayanta Sarkar, Kolkata: Anthropological Survey of India, 2002)

Surajit Sinha, his student reports him to be an outstanding exponent of Gandhian thought because of his versatile creativity and being a passionate nationalist. He holds the rare distinction of being the only practicing anthropologist who was jailed twice for participating in the freedom struggle for India’s Independence. Even in jail he gave a series of lectures on the structure of the Hindu society to fellow inmates. An edited version of those lectures was first published in Bengali as Hindu Samajer Garan in 1949 and was later translated by Andre Beteille and presented as The Structure of Hindu Society (1975). He wrote on varied subjects but thought himself to be first and foremost an anthropologist with a special focus on culture.

Bose was fascinated by Kroeber’s and Wissler’s studies on cultural traits and cultural integration and applied this approach in studying the spring festivals of India and discussing in Cultural Anthropology (1929) when he was just 28 years old. This book from “an unknown young Indian scholar attracted the attention of Kroeber (1930) who reviewed it favorably in the American Anthropologist. Later on Kroeber and Kluckhohn in their compendium Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (1952) included as many as ten citations from his Cultural Anthropology, according to Baidhyanath Saraswati.[1]


Sinha further writes that Bose was, “driven by an indomitable spirit of enquiry; he transgressed the boundaries of specific disciplines and the conventional divides between theoretical thinking and application of knowledge”[2] (1984). Bose was systematic in whatever he did and imposed a strict regimen on himself and those who were around him.  He always led from the front setting the pace for others.


The field of anthropology had been dominated by colonial concerns and for long Indian anthropologists did little to change them. Bose strongly felt that they simply copied what was prevalent in anthropology practiced in the West. In his essay of 1952, “Current Research Projects in Indian Anthropology” (Man in India, Vol.32 No.3) Bose noted that “by and large Indian Anthropologists had not been able to make any area of enquiry specially their own in which they developed their own methodology of approach or theoretical interest of ‘enquiry”.


In an article entitled “Fifty Years of Science in India: Progress of Anthropology and Archeology” based on a quick survey, he wrote “the position of Indian Anthropology has, on the whole, been colonial in relation to schools which have dominated the European or American scene from time to time” (Indian Science Congress, Calcutta, 1963). He wanted to chart a course that reflected Indian reality and knowledge and demonstrate the characteristic features of Indian civilization with its underlying unity by arguing that the unity existed in India’s variety. He wanted the reality and strength of India to be known so that the basic task of regenerating the colonially subjugated nation could be taken up in an earnest yet systematic manner.  Thus, Bose already had a design in his mind about the research in India even before he joined as the Director of the Anthropological Survey of India. Within a month of his assuming charge he launched his most talked about, first ever all India project, called the ‘Material Trait Survey’.

Bose had several objectives before him. One was to generate simple and basic information on peasants’ material life indicating their ingenuity in using local resources and giving expression to their cultural designs in a variety of ways.  The second one was to train young scholars to get acquainted with and gain the rich experience of rural India.  The third, was to make young researchers learn the techniques of observing and systematically recording field data on material traits all the while emphasizing scientific observation. The fourth objective was to inculcate a spirit of comradeship among the young research scholars in sharing data and ideas towards the larger goal of understanding India.


The report of the project was printed in August 1961 as Peasant Life in India: A study in Indian Unity and Diversity (Calcutta: Anthropological Survey of India). It provided an authentic picture of India’s cultural distribution at material level. It indicated the relationship with Southeast Asia as also countries lying in the West and Northwest of India. The introduction by Bose was, “India has been a land where cultures have mingled after flowing from both the West and the East. But what is original is that the new combinations have taken place here, and sometimes even new inventions.” The stage was set up for the next phase of studies which focused on the study of specialized occupational groups like the potters, fisher folk, metal workers etc., besides complex religious institutions like temples, sacred centers, and centers for Sanskrit learning etc., as also the groups who had created a special niche in supplying goods and services to the settled population like peripatetics.


In 1956 Bose published a paper on, “Some Observations on Nomadic Castes of India” ( Man in India Vol.36, No.1), a modified version of his speech delivered at the International Geographical Seminar held at Aligarh Muslim University in January 1956. This article is germane to his understanding of the structure of Indian society as well as his pioneering attempt to draw the attention of scholars to the role played by a generally overlooked population like the nomads.


He pointed out that “it was not entirely true that the villages in India were self-sufficient. There were villages of various kinds and some were specialized villages such as that of potters, weavers, blacksmiths etc. Then there are villages which specialized in trading and were located at river-side ports from where roads radiated to hinter lands. Such villages attracted the attention of specialized group to settle down which eventually led them to become trading and manufacturing villages.”


Apart from “complimentary functions between villages, occupational specialization of castes within the village, weekly markets, seasonal and specialized fairs they  were all tied in an economic, cultural and social network.”  He further argued that “since a variety of occupational groups” could not find regular patronage in a single village, they became wandering groups “forming a compliment to the settled residents who inhabit the villages of India”. He further indicated how “men of forest” were incorporated into this network and noted that despite such incorporation these groups retained their identity. This was an invaluable insight as it indicated a certain relationship between the forest dwellers and the peasantry which had been contrary to the understanding of the then colonial anthropology.


Considering their pervasiveness throughout the long history of humankind, the peripatetics are “persistent cultural systems within plural societies”. In spite of their being persistent cultural systems they remain outsiders and strangers to the sedentary society and remain impervious to the disdain and low status given to them.  It is poignant that later studies on peripatetics confirmed Bose’s preliminary observations.


Bose had the courage of his convictions. Even though he was devoted to Gandhi and served him during a very difficult period in Indian history, he let him know his differences with him and left the camp of a person who had already acquired the image of a colossus on the Indian scene. His contributions to India Anthropology shaped its destiny in the world leaving an indelible imprint. He has earned the description of Scholar, Wanderer, Concerned thinker, visionary and builder.


Contributed by Prof. P.K.Misra


[1] (Saraswati, B “ Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose: A Gandhian Anthropologist.” In R.K.Bhattacharya and Jayanta Sarkar [eds.] Passage Through Indian Civilization, 2002, Kolkata: Anthropological Survey of India.)

[2] (Nirmal Kumar Bose: Scholar Wanderer, New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1984)

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