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Professor Surajit Chandra Sinha

Professor Surajit Chandra Sinha

The Journal of Indian Anthropological Society brought out a special issue in memory of Surajit Chandra Sinha (2003) in which certain aspects of his life and work were written besides there were twenty two other papers covering topics in which Sinha was directly or indirectly interested.  Here the focus will be on two aspects: one on his persona and second on his consistent life-long perusal of studies on tribes in the larger context of Indian civilization. These contributions are seminal in understanding the position of the tribes in Indian society and culture.  Both of these aspects are closely linked for students of anthropology particularly in India, which has a history of colonial domination, under the shadow of which anthropology developed, specifically the study of tribes.         

Anthropology and Social and Cultural Anthropology in particular are at once a humanistic science.A stint of intensive field investigation is a humbling experience and tends to make a deep and ever lasting impression on the basic values of human kind.It becomes still denser because anthropologists have been advocating participant observation in order to get insiders point of view and to have an idea of their vision of life.This could be achieved if one stays in the field for a long time, mixes with the people, participates in their day to day activities, and has genuine empathy for their way of life. The experience gained through intensive anthropological fieldwork is extremely valuable keeping in view the class and caste ridden Indian society.

However, this is indeed an ideal position but the reality has been very different if we keep the history of Anthropology in perspective.  History is on record that in the process of colonization of the new world, the indigenous people were indiscriminately killed, maimed, enslaved and uprooted.  While colonization was in full merciless swing some speculations about the human evolution too were building up. The indigenous people who were later, in most of the places, called as tribes became major focus of anthropological studies to provide evidence to Victorian evolutionist theorists.  From collection of stray data the need was felt for more detailed and systematic studies of the tribes which in a way were one of the factors in giving birth to the discipline of anthropology.  Speculation and weaving stories about early man has been rife in every society but in the post-enlightenment era, the West took it for granted that they have ‘arrived’ and the early man was savage (see Misra 2012:533-561).  But the situation in India has been different.  The relationship of the larger society in prehistoric (Lukacs 2002) and ancient India, with the people who inhabited forest areas, was varied and complex. Lukacs writes,’ all the sources emphasize “the broad spectrum” nature of hunting-foraging adaptation which includes trade of “forest products” with settled agriculturist’ (ibid: 57). On the other hand it is also true that from sheer materialistic interest there were persistent efforts by the peasantry to expand agriculture and occupy more and more forest areas which resulted in conflict with forest dwellers but forest was also a place for joy hunting, retreat, introspection and learning in traditional India.   This apparent contradiction can be understood if we keep in view that in the long history of India the population living in the forest, in the fringes of the forest, on hills, on sea shores, river banks and in islands have been interacting with the larger society in a variety of ways which to some extent was possible also on account of slow rate of technological development.  In pre-colonial India, Sinha observed that the classical dimension of the great tradition maintained a nourishing contact with the communities living in forest and other fringe areas.  This extremely important insight led him to conclude that the tribal cultures in peninsular India as representing the core dimension of Indian civilization (1958).  This was indeed a major and bold departure from existing understanding about the tribes.  Here it will suffice to say that the communities called tribes did not have an all India identity, at the regional level they were known by their specific names and interacted with other jatis and communities inhabiting the region (Misra 1977). In pre industrial India forest was a major source of resources.  With the establishment of the colonial rule the situation in the country with regard to these communities got drastically changed. The British Colonist also came to the conclusion partly on account of political reasons, partly on account of their experience with such population elsewhere and also to propagate missionary activities (see the section on Christianity in Susanga in Maharaja Bhupendra Chandra Sinha’s Changing Times1965[1]) that the communities living in the forest and other fringe areas were different from the rest of the people.  A new term ‘tribe’ came into discourse on the communities in India, and also that they were isolated people which is not only oversold idea but distinctively partisan. In course of time owing to an intensive curiosity about the exoticness a number of studies were conducted on tribes in various parts of the country. They were considered well enough for providing data for weaving theories about human evolution, developing categories, and fulfilling the political, ecclesiastical, and administrative objectives of the colonial administration.  This situation prevailed to a great extent even in the post-colonial period.  One of the reasons for this is the nature of anthropological enquiry which is rooted in colonial thought pattern and colonial values.  For instance, Malinowski was one of the scholars who enthusiastically pleaded for intensive field investigation.  But when one reads his diary, one gets unmistaken impression that he had intense negative feelings about the people he was studying and yet he liked to convey that he was producing a value-free and scientific account of the people.  Even eminent scholar like Raymond Firth in his foreword to the diary wanted to gloss over the darker side of the relation of an anthropologist with his human material (see Misra 1978).  This is an area of anthropological field enquiry in which the relationship between investigator and investigated has not been discussed in detail but if anything it has been hierarchical.  How far this kind of relationship influences the anthropological enquiry and its results is an important question but has been consistently overlooked. Although in post colonial India most of the anthropological enquiries have been conducted by the Indians on fellow Indians, the relationship between the investigators and investigated has not changed much.  Eminent scholars like Srinivas recognize this pitfall in social sciences and in particular in the field of anthropology but he rationalizes this position by saying that anthropologist have to be twice born.  First he has to identify himself with the people to collect data and second when he has to put the people he has studied in the background in order to communicate with his fellow academics (Srinivas 2002).  This theory of twice born may appeal to the observer and is clever but does not answer the most important question as to what interest observed has in the enquiry of the observer. Theoretically, this contradiction has been resolved by Marxian thinkers by taking an unequivocal position in stating that man’s knowledge depends mainly on his activity in material production through which he comes gradually to understand the phenomena. They categorically state that knowledge cannot be acquired apart from activity in production.  What they advocate will be revolutionary in caste, class ridden and colonially dominated values of India but the inherent contradiction between observers and observed can be mitigated to some extent by the persona of the observer.  Personality of the fieldworker is an important index of the success of fieldwork.  Srinivas writes ‘what an anthropologist regards as significant for observation will to some extent depend on his social background, personality, academic history and of course his intellectual ability and his capacity for empathizing with the indigenes’ (ibid; 550).

Purnimadi writes that she ‘collaborated informally with Surajit for almost all his works, but I remained in the green room and he was in the central stage’.  She says that while ‘Surajit was working on his tribe-caste continuum paper on the basis of songs he had collected I was writing on tribe/folk classical music continuum’.  This collaboration between them became more intensive while they were in Santiniketan.  There they had the opportunity to interact with both classical and folk artists.  Together they brought to light the work of Jiban, a terracotta artist who was a daily laborer.  They published the poems of a rickshaw puller entitled ‘Rickshaw Chalak Kabi Mahabir Roy’.  They set up a school for tribal children in Santiniketan and named it as Melameshar Patasala.  In the same period they gave a sort of formal shape to their dream concept ‘Paribrajak Mandali’, society of wanderers – that is what had attracted Sinha to anthropology and Purnimadi to Surajit Sinha.  Both loved freedom and liberation from hierarchies, domination and regimentation.  Their getting involved with a daily laborer or a rickshaw puller should not be merely read as act of kindness, which of course it was but should be also seen as attempt to break the class barriers and most importantly search for creative urges wherever they exist.  Anthropological fieldwork is not one time or one place activity.  It is journey of life.  It certainly requires training, attitude and alertness to pick up the impulses and vibrations all around.  Merely hearing is not listening as seeing is not observing.  In order to listen and observe, it is necessary to transcend the limitations imposed by notions of hierarchy, culture etc. and develop intense human orientation.  In case of Sinhas they combined so very well, both were trained as scientists but were genuine humanist. Das Gupta who jointly did fieldwork with Sinha writes ‘Surajit Sinha started his career as a true anthropologist believing that intensive and prolonged fieldwork was the backbone of anthropological research….For Sinha “field” was his second home and continued to keep constant touch with the field and with his informants just as he kept close contact with his own kith and kin.  This naturally meant visiting a field occasionally and collecting the data round the year’ (2003: 107).

Persona of Sinha

Surajit Sinha was a leading anthropologist of the country.  During his life time he headed many important positions notably such as being the Director of the Anthropological Survey of India, Vice-chancellor of Vishwa Bharati, and Director, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, besides being in various committees of national and regional importance. 

Informal aspect

For details of his education, training in anthropology etc., see special issue brought out by the Indian Anthropological Society; a few more details are provided here which shed light on his persona which have been so very graciously provided by Purnimadi (Dr. [Mrs.] Surajit Sinha). Briefly, the two Purnimadi and Surajit Sinha were made for each other though one held a doctorate in Physics and other in Anthropology; they had a lot of common interests like music, art, and literature.  Both had the spirit of wanderer in them.  They were a wonderful foil to each other.  Purnimadi writes that Surajit had acquired B.Sc., degree with honors in Geology but he lost interest in that subject.  He loved to roam about and drew sketches of animals and human beings.  He was charmed by the dance of the Santhal.  He even began to learn dance from a student of Uday Shankar.  Surajit Sinha ‘was basically an artist, his sketches and paintings were abstract but original.  His lines were bold and confident where as my own works of art were more realistic and decorative’.  It was the interest in art, a relaxed and free attitude towards life that drew them together.  While Surajit Sinha was doing fieldwork among the Bhumij he wrote to Purnimadi almost daily.  He was charmed by the Bhumij way of life.  These letters contained stories about Bhumij life along with numerous sketches from the field situation indicating the passion with which he pursued his anthropological fieldwork among the Bhumij.  Some of his drawings spilled on envelops, giving a tell tale sign of the state of the heart and mind of a young man out in the field among the people who were romantic, loved laughter and music.  Eventually they got married. Soon after his fieldwork he went to North Western University, USA to do his Ph.D and Purnimadi and now Mrs. Sinha remained in Kolkata to do her Ph.D.  Soon after he returned from USA he got a job in Anthropological Survey of India and joined at its Central India Station at Nagpur.

Formal Aspect

Surajit Sinha was a mentor of a generation of scholars of which I am one of the fortunate beings.  He joined Anthropological Survey of India in 1957 and soon after that Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose joined Anthropological Survey of India as its director, who was not only a mentor of Surajit Sinha but also made lasting impression on him.  Bose was a multifaceted personality, brilliant and a man with mission.  He was Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary and a close companion.  In the words of Surajit Sinha, ‘Bose was a leading anthropologist,  outstanding exponent of Gandhism, a rare example of versatile creativity and a great nationalist’ (1984: 1).    Bose was an explorer and wanderer and was driven by indomitable spirit of enquiry.  He was a concerned thinker, visionary and builder.  For Bose, Sinha was one of his most promising and brilliant students.  It is reported that Bose had given 100 out of 100 to Sinha on his M.Sc. dissertation.  Over years they bonded very well in a true guru-shisya relationship which continued throughout.    Within month of his assuming the charge of the Anthropological Survey of India, Bose launched his most talked about the first ever all India project called the Material Culture Trait Survey and entrusted the project to his trusted student Surajit Sinha to conduct it from Nagpur (Sarkar & Bhattacharya 2002: 85-11). In undertaking this project Bose had several objectives.  One was to generate some simple and basic information about the people of rural India.  He was determined to unshackle the Indian anthropology from the colonial yoke.  He was concerned to demonstrate the characteristic features of Indian civilization and show its underlying unity (Misra 2002: 57).  Second was to train young scholars to get acquainted and gain some experience of rural India.  Third was to train young scholars to observe and systematically record the data on simple material traits[1].  Fourth he wanted to begin his tenure in the Anthropological Survey of India with concrete contribution so that he could move to research programmes on complicated study of institutions and other abstract ideas step by step. This is the period when we got the opportunity to interact with Sinha on a regular basis, got some glimpses of his personality and learn his ways of doing things.  The most outstanding feature of which was that, he hardly maintained a distinction between formal and informal interactions.  It was a period of intensive work for Sinha and all those who worked with him. In order to meet the dead lines work was being done day and night.  Moving behind this feverish activity was the inspiring and friendly spirit of Sinha.  He was available to the staff working with him at any time. In between such a busy, hectic and demanding schedule of work, he would suddenly drop in just to enquire as to how the work was going on and stay for a discussion on some academic issue. 

Later in the evening or even late in the night he may drop in the office and invite us to play a game of chess with him.  In the same busy period he participated in cricket matches, picnics and also music sessions.  Recollecting all that, it may be stated that it was his way of managing administration of office, guiding research, exploring new ideas and interacting with young scholars under his charge.  In spite of the fact that he was the boss but he never allowed the official status in human interactions.  Even with the junior most staff he addressed them with respect and invited them to join in picnics or musical sessions.  He always had a ready wit and appeared to be relaxed even in the most trying and dense situations.  He was never overbearing and this continued even when he became the director of the Anthropological Survey of India (see Bhattacharya & Bhattacharya 2003: 159-165).

Misra had written ‘the young researchers working with him had all the freedom to think independently and argue out their point of views.  Sinha’s leadership was democratic, liberal and humane to the core.  He encouraged and inspired the young researchers to develop their own interests.  Sinha was quick in discovering a new idea or a point in the young researchers’ deliberations, which he would refer in his talks, discussions, letters and papers.  This had a tremendous effect on the young researchers.  They were transformed into persons having ideas.  This stimulated them to no end and led them to work with zeal, which hitherto was unknown in a government research organization’ (2003: 142).  The most significant change that Sinha brought into the Anthropological Survey of India was a sense of freedom, participation and dignity among the research staff in spite of its built-in bureaucratic culture.  His endeavor was to develop a colligate of concerned scholars. He encouraged impromptu colloquiums and continuously stressed on dialogue which generated stimulation for research and self confidence in the minds of young scholars.

Studies on Tribes

A most significant paper that he wrote on tribes is ‘Tribal Cultures of peninsular India as a dimension of little tradition in the study of Indian civilization: A preliminary statement’ published in the Journal of American Folklore in the year 1958.  The earlier version of this paper was presented by him in a seminar organized by Robert Redfield, Milton Singer and Sinha, at the University of Chicago in 1956.  This was done soon after he had completed his doctoral work on the Bhumij which clearly indicates the direction in which he was thinking.  This paper in a way can be considered as exploratory as he was laying down the foundation of his future researches.  He kept on pursuing the questions which he had raised in this paper, throughout his professional career which enabled him to fine tune the understanding of tribes in India which ultimately culminated in the book Tribes and Indian Civilization: Structure and Transformation (1982).          

His 1956 (1958) paper is all the more important because the prevailing dominant view as (in fact it continues to be so even now) that the tribes were considered to be isolated and were a different people.  It is remarkable and indeed bold that Sinha took the position that tribal cultures are a strand in understanding Indian civilization. This he stated in 50s when he was barely 30.  This paper is outstanding and systematically done.  To validate his position he methodically showed the areas of articulation, discontinuities between tribes and Hindu peasants and also the transformation scene of tribes.                        

To begin with he takes the position that though the tribal belt of Central and southern India is huge in terms of area as well as number of people, their articulation with the larger universe of Indian civilization is relatively restricted and interrupted, but ‘in not a single case is the community completely shut off from the contact with what we call the great culture community of India’ (504).  These tribal communities everywhere within the Indian mainland have been in touch with the traditional network in observance of rituals, common festivals, ceremonial friendship etc.  It may be further added that they have been supplying forest resources to the larger community for thousands of years, in protecting and maintaining frontier areas, playing bridge and buffer roles between powerful states and also in looking after sacred Hindu centers located in the forests and on top of the hills (see Misra 2014).  On the basis of these observations Sinha came to the conclusion that these little tribal communities fall within the “social field” of the Great Tradition of India but whether they fall within the “ideological field” of the Great Indian Tradition or not demands closer examination.  Having laid down the basis of his search he outlines three possible ways of conceptualizing the position of the little traditions of these tribal communities.  First is that these cultures have been outside the main historical current of the development of Indian civilization.  Second is that the tribal cultures can be conceived of as backward branch of traditional Indian civilization. Lastly, the tribal cultures provided the raw materials that contributed to the development of Indian civilization.  The contemporary tribes represent a relatively untransformed section.  Their growth was arrested owing to their isolation and a series of historical circumstances.  Of these, he kept aside the first two possibilities and opted to examine the third which of course he felt was most promising and challenging. He was conscious that there was no way to provide a long range historical documentation to support the third possibility but it can be fruitfully done at synchronic level.  He found Redfield’s writing, favorable in selecting third option who thought that growth of indigenous civilization was conversion of self contained[1] tribal people into peasantry and continuous interaction between little and great  traditions .  Obviously this conversion is indeed a long drawn process.  In order to validate the third possibility he began to examine one by one the features of little communities of tribal people and Hindu peasantry.  He took into account habitat, economy, social structure and ideological. In ideological, he considered the belief in supernatural value system, world view and man to man relationship and finally he considered the inspirational level of the little community of tribes and of the Hindu peasantry.  Based on this analysis of these features he highlighted the common denominators and also the discontinuity between the little communities of tribes and the Hindu peasantry.  His overall conclusion was ‘within the limitations of our present endeavor, as mentioned above, we may say that we have been able to demonstrate the possibility of orthogenetic development of civilization in India from a primitive cultural level roughly comparable to cultures of the less acculturated tribes of Peninsular India. We have pointed vital elements of continuity between tribal cultures and Hindu traditions. We have also been able to isolate some potential elements of transition in the direction of peasant cultures in tendencies towards feudalization, stratification, specialization of roles and so on (1958: 517 emphases added).  The other papers that Sinha did in his professional career on tribes in the Indian context are so to say were in the womb of this paper which he did as early as 1956.  What is remarkable in his case is that he kept on pursuing the main theme of this paper in his future researches which he did by widening the context in space, time and ethnicity (Sinha 1978: 155).  This pursuit resulted in much cited papers such as State Formation and Rajput Myth in Tribal Central India (1962), Tribe-caste and Tribe-Peasant continua in Central India (1968), Vaisnava Influence on a Tribal Culture (1966), Tribal Solidarity and Messianic Movements: A Review Article (1968), Co-existence of Multiple Scales and Networks of a Civilization: India (1978), Space, Time and Ethnicity: Fieldwork Among the Bhumij of Barabhum (1978), Social and Ecological Context of Rice Cultivation in India (1985), Introduction in Tribal Polities and State Systems in Pre-colonial Eastern and North-Eastern India (1987), Agriculture Crafts and Weekly Markets of South Manbhum (1961), Ethnic Group Villages and Towns of Pargana Barabhum (1966), and finally Tribes and Indian Civilization (1982). Most of these papers have been well discussed in anthropological literature and issues emerging out of them have been themes of numerous researches and therefore  need not be discussed here except two namely Social and Ecological Context of Rice Cultivation in India (1985) and Tribes and Indian Civilization (1982).  The former  has  been selected as in this study he adopted a rigorous and most appropriate technique in order to illustrate the similarity and difference between tribes and the Hindu peasantry and the latter because he briefly re-examined his position in order to explain emergent vibrations among the tribes.

Context of Rice Cultivation

Though rice cultivation covers a huge area in the world (see Bhattacharya 2011) its relationship within culture and social formation have not been adequately explored by the social scientists.  Sinha in his paper examined rice cultivation in a hilly tract inhabited by the Santal and in a plain tract village inhabited by castes of upper, middle and lower strata in order to find out if there were significant differences and similarities between the two.  He found that though there was considerable similarity in the traditional technology of rice cultivation adapted to distinct ecological situation, there were some significant differences too.  In the Santal village, egalitarian socially cohesive ethics continued to pervade though with the growth of wet rice cultivation there was ‘an incipient tendency towards class formation’ (p.91).  Sinha found that land and cereals in Santal village did not move out of the village or into it therefore he came to the conclusion that ‘the incipient tendency for class formation had to operate within a tribal style’.  Whereas in the multi-caste village there was a clear division between two essential classes ‘those who own and supervise land and those who do the manual work.  It was observed that the binary agrarian class division operated in caste style.  Tentatively, we may describe the two situations, as representing tribal and caste modes of productive organization, of rice cultivation’ (92).  It needs to be highlighted that his interest in social formation among the tribes and the Hindu peasantry and the relationship between the two remained consistent.

Tribe and Indian Civilization

In 1973 he slightly modified his position as regards the relationship between tribe and Indian civilization as expressed in his 1958 paper.  This was done to accommodate the changes that were occurring in the tribal belt of peninsular India. In re-examining the process of state formation as well as the nature of tribe-caste/peasant continua he noticed that the movement from tribes to peasant was not unidirectional.  There have been cases of devolution from state to segmentary, tribal state, secondary primitivization, withdrawal, oscillation, regional universalization etc., which were basically responses to the impulses generated by the larger socio-political-economic system to which one can add various movements that have been generated in tribal areas in the last few decades.  He observed that his return to the perspective of tribes as dependent historic structures which he had rejected in his earlier evolutionary formulation, clarified many of the apparently anomalous observations in the tribal transformation in India.  He writes ‘the perspective of dependent historic structures helps us to identify not only the cultural concomitants of solidarity movements as mechanism for the preservation of tribal identity, other adaptive mechanism of persistence such as – withdrawal and eco-cultural adjustments outside the adaptive reaches of the encroaching civilization, maintenance of hostile stance, existence of special networks for far flung intra and inter-tribal communication, and playing bridge and buffer roles – becomes meaningful in the same perspective’ (1973: 106). This rethinking by Sinha about the position of tribes in Indian society is fully reflected in his book Tribe and Indian Civilization (1982). Any discussion on the tribes of India cannot be concluded without underlining the fact that the tribes in India have retained their identity.  Productive relations, power dynamics and specific historical conditions certainly provide partial explanations but there is something deeper and philosophical about their everlasting values which have not received the attention they deserve.


[1]  Surajit Chandra Sinha was the eldest son of the Maharaja Bhupendra Chandra Sinha whose ancestors had established a kingdom in Susanga (the then East Bengal) which was later liquidated by the machinations of the colonial rulers. He on persuasion of Robert Redfield wrote his memoir Changing Times which is a treasure trove for those looking for regional histories.


[2] From hindsight I realize how important it is to train young minds to make scientific observations, a habit of life in order to become competent anthropologist.  It is best to start training young minds to observe tangible objects so that it becomes easier to observe intangible and abstract aspects of culture.  Both for Bose and Sinha research in Anthropology was not merely an activity between 10 AM and 5 PM.  It should reflect an attitude, and skills for observations and record.  Anthropology for them was a mission in life.


[3]  There are reservations in accepting widely referred concept of Redfield that folk societies are self contained and whole societies. This is neither empirically correct nor acceptable from evolutionary perspective. Food production has evolved out of foraging and there must have been a long period of transition. Besides in pre-industrial phase there has been a substantial dependence of food producers on forest foragers.


Written By


Mysore, India.


 Photograph has been provided by Sukanya Sinha, the eldest daughter of Dr. Surajit Sinha.

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