HOMAGE TO A PUBLIC ANTHROPOLOGIST

Updated: Mar 13

PROFESSOR B. M. DAS

4TH OCTOBER 1931 - 22ND JANUARY 2008


Mini Bhattacharyya Thakur

Professor, Dept. of Anthropology,

Gauhati University. Guwahati Assam

Email: mbthakuranth@gauhati.ac.in


Tribute from a daughter:

Deuta* (Father)

He left all his shirts

stacked neatly in his wardrobe,

his trousers hanging down

the aluminium rod.

but he forgot to take the smell of his cigar

from his array of clothes.

He left his cell phone behind,

his contacts containing the special names

he kept for me and my children.

but he forgot to take the

sound of his voice -

the way he said our names.

He left his study table neat and tidy,

with the files organised,

all-important papers up to date,

but he forgot to take our moments together -

spent in his study over cups of coffee.

He left the photographs behind,

the holidays we spent every year together,

posing on hills and seas and glittering cities,

but he forgot to fill the space of emptiness

that hangs in our lonely home.

--------

Dr Srutimala Duarah 16th January 2022

Associate professor

Handique College,

(Guwahati)



Professor Bhuban Mohan Das had many caps that he donned. He was a renowned Physical Anthropologist. He nurtured students from across the country. His popularity transcended far and beyond his parent department of Anthropology at Gauhati University. His book titled Outlines of Physical Anthropology a concise book, giving the essence of the nuances of human evolution and human diversity was like the bible for the students of biological anthropology and UPSC aspirants.

Prof. Das is generally recognised as a distinguished Physical Anthropologist both nationally and internationally. However, he felt that for a believer in the holistic tradition of anthropology these tags of superspecialist are counterproductive. He identified himself as an ‘Anthropologist without prefix’ (Duarah nd). It was this conviction that helped him contribute significantly and extensively to knowledge generation in different domains of the discipline. He believed in anthropological epistemology’s ability to contribute to humanism, public discourse on policy and planning without intellectual hubris. Other than anthropology, B. M. Das’s contributions to Assamese literature are both immense and intense. Baruah (in Choudhury & Mahanta 2009) in an article titled The Public Presentation of an Anthropologist commends B.M. Das’s ability to bring anthropology into public discourse. She contends:

Very few academicians are there, who have done so much to enlighten the public about the subject he studied, taught, and researched throughout his life. Professor Bhuban Mohan Das was one of them and is remembered today not only as a teacher or an Anthropologist of international repute but a popular writer too who had carved a niche for himself in the literary world.

JOURNEY OF A LEGEND

Born into an educationist family in 1931, B.M. Das was the fourth among six children in the family. His father, Hara Mohan Das was a noted author and philologist and teacher in Assam during the colonial regime. His mother, Jagaddhatri, lovingly moulded his personality along with his siblings. His elder brother, Biraj Mohan Das, was instrumental in cultivating his interest in Anthropology.

After completing matriculation from Calcutta University in 1947, he was advised to pursue Anthropology at the Intermediate Level, in Cotton College, Guwahati, a subject introduced for the first time in Assam. Lack of availability of textbooks in the subject, dissuaded young students to persist with it. He opted to discontinue it, but at the insistence of his brother, he opted for it again, and thus begin his tryst with the discipline.

B.M.Das was a brilliant student to have graduated in the first batch of undergraduate (honours) course in the Anthropology of Gauhati University in 1951. To pursue his dream of specializing in the discipline, he went to Calcutta University to do his master’s as post-graduate classes were yet to start at his alma mater. Deeply influenced by his teacher, Kantibhusan Pakrashi who was then teaching there, he was drawn towards Physical Anthropology and enrolled for this specialization in post-graduation. During his formative years at Calcutta, he was fortunate to get training from doyens of Indian anthropology like S. S. Sarkar, N.K.Bose, M.N.Basu and K.P.Chattopadhyay. Their scholarly merit influenced him greatly and moulded his intellectual acumen further.

Being a diligent and intelligent student, he came out with flying colours with first class in M.Sc. He was a keen fieldworker. His research potential manifested itself early in his disciplinary training. Two research papers titled An Oraon Death Ceremony(co-authored with G.S.Roy) and Anglo Indians of Calcutta(co-authored with SS Sarkar & KK Agarwal) were published in the prestigious journal Man in India in 1953. This is no mean feat considering he was only a student at that time. Both the papers were based on his fieldwork during his master’s programme. The years in Calcutta University and the academic excellence of his mentors infused in him a deeper commitment and desire to take it to the highest echelons.

He enrolled for his doctoral research under Dr S.S.Sarkar and decided to work in the communities of Assam. The data on the biological parameters of these communities was rather negligible in those days. Political and geographical constraints made it difficult for any researcher to pursue anthropometric or serological mapping of any population in the region. It was only after independence that serious investigations on these parameters started, primarily due to the leadership and pioneer efforts of this affable man popularly addressed as Bhuban Da.

He first opted to work in a community called Rabha, a plains tribe of Assam. From an academic perspective, it was a virgin field. Only previous resources available on any information about the community was limited to a few district Gazettes and a study by Waddell published in 1901. Prof. S.K.Bhuyan, a famous historian of Assam, advised the young researcher, “….if you want to read a book on the Rabha you shall have to write it first”(Das 2003). Thus coaxed, following years of relentless research, came several books and the first among them was, Ethnic Affinities of the Rabha in 1960. Its publication marked a watershed moment in Anthropological studies since it was the first monograph in Physical Anthropology from Northeast India.

His initial research focused on various physical characteristics of the Rabha, a plains tribe of Assam. He compared the data generated from these findings with Garo, Kachari and Rajbanshis populations and concluded that the Rabha were ethnically closer to the Garos.In this landmark research, he analysed Somatoscopic observations, Somatometric measurements, finger, and palm prints. His work pioneered research in sexual variation in physical characteristics and ABO blood groups, of which little information was available in the Indian population.

While a substantial body of data was being generated with fascinating findings and his doctoral work nearing completion, his supervisor, advised him to extend his study to the Rajbanshis, who originally shared the same ecozone as the Kachari, Rabha and the Garos. He then embarked on the study of what is known as ‘Microevolution’, then a very new and emerging area of research. Supported by whatever little published works he could access, he started his path-breaking work on microevolution of the ethnic groups of Assam and received Doctorate Degree from Calcutta University in 1959 for his thesis on Somatic Variability among some populations of South Goalpara, Assam.

He extended the study of microevolution among the Khasis of Meghalaya, a Monkhmer speaking group. In this study, he also included PTC taste sensitivity. As he was completing data collection, he received Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship to pursue post-Doctoral research. He went to Institut fur Anthropologie, Freie Universitat, Berlin for two years from 1968-70. He carried Khasi data along with hair samples of some population groups from northeast India for laboratory analyses in Germany. After his return, he submitted his post-doctoral research to Calcutta University and received the coveted D.Sc. Degree in 1972. This seminal research was published in 1978 in a book titled Variations in Physical Characteristics in the Khasi Population of Northeast India.

ACADEMIC PROFILE

He started his teaching career when he was only twenty-two years old. His first assignment was as a Lecturer in Anthropology at the prestigious Cotton College in Guwahati in 1953. He served there for two years. Then he joined the Department of Anthropology at Gauhati University in the year 1956 and became a professor and Head there. He retired from there in the year 1992. He contributed immensely to the growth of the department with his erudite leadership and innovative thinking. From 1973 to 1976, he moved to Dibrugarh University as Professor and Head of the Department of Anthropology. After a short tenure of three years there, he returned to Gauhati University. as Professor and Head. He also served as Dean of the Faculty of science there.

In his distinguished tenure, he held many coveted positions and received many honours and awards. In the year 2000, he was appointed Member, National Commission for Backward Classes. In 2004, The Asiatic Society, Calcutta conferred the Annandal Memorial Award for distinguished service for the development of anthropology in Asia. He was the president of the Anthropology and Archaeology Section of the Indian Science Congress in 1979. University Grants Commission bestowed on him the honour of being the national Lecturer from 1979-80. In his illustrious career of more than forty years, his participation and contribution to prominent organizations of anthropology were always coveted. One of the largest organizations of academic and practising anthropologists Indian National Confederation and Academy of Anthropologists (INCAA) was honoured to have him as its founder president. B.M. Das memorial lecture was held in his honour on 21st February during the annual meeting of INCAA from 21st to 23rd February every year. It is one of the most awaited events. These lectures are delivered by the most distinguished scholars of the discipline.

SEMINAL CONTRIBUTION TO ANTHROPOLOGY

B.M Das had a long and productive scholarly life which began early from his post-graduation days and augmented with his doctoral work among the populations of South Goalpara, Assam. His relentless pursuit of academic excellence continued till the last days of his life. He published findings from the data he generated for his PhD in different journals. Choudhury (2009) finds his contributions to Microevolutionary trends in the hills and the plains Garos (1960c) and the other one among the four Bodo groups (1964) of immense significance.

He also studied the Chutiya community of Assam which are divided into three subgroups-Ahom Chutiya, DeuriChutiya and Hindu Chutiya. He tried to understand microevolutionary trends in the latter two groups with respect to anthropometry, ABO blood group, dermatoglyphics and some behavioural traits. On the findings of this and two earlier studies, he published a book entitled Microevolution in 1981. He also delivered lectures on his research on Microevolution in various universities of India and abroad and reinvigorated more research in this area by encouraging his research scholars to work on these issues. In 1982, B.M. Das delivered lectures in three universities in Italy under Indo-Italian Cultural Exchange Programme. In the same year, he visited Hamburg, Bremen, and Hanover for academic purposes.

While undertaking a major research project in 1976, he studied 13 population groups of Mongoloid, Muslims, and Hindus. The data was analysed in collaboration with a team of German anthropologists and the findings were published in various national and international journals. This study is significant as its scope encompasses a wide array of populations that have never been studied before from the perspective of biological parameters. He examined Intra and intergroup variability enriching scientific literature on the subject. Bapukan Choudhury (2009:61) rightly pointed out, “it is for the first time, the genetic distance between different groups have been measured following different models of multivariate analysis”

He extended his innovative research paradigm of Biochemical Genetics in various collaborative research programmes. Along with G.Flatz; B.M.Dasexamined the prevalence of HbE among the Khasis of Meghalaya and the Ahomsof Assam. Both these population groups belong to Austro Asiatic linguistic group. Empirical evidence generated from this linguistic group in SE Asia had confirmed the high prevalence of HbE. This study was followed by exploring the prevalence of HbE among the Tibeto-Burman people of Assam in 1974. In this study, researchers found the highest frequency of this abnormal gene among the Sonowalkacharis.