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Legacy Of a Legendary Field Anthropologist

Professor Samita Manna,

Former Vice-Chancellor, SKB University, Purulia,

West Bengal, India

Department of Sociology,

University of Kalyani, Kalyani, Nadia,

West Bengal


Professor Prabodh Kumar Bhowmick Quintessential Field Anthropologist (6th September 1926–5th February 2003)

Professor Prabodh Kumar Bhowmick, epitomizes scholarship, diligence with humility and dedication. He was a nationalist who sacrificed his youth and formative years of learning for India’s freedom. Following Gandhian philosophy, he lived life of an ascetic wearing white Dhoti and kurta and becoming actively engaged in India’s freedom movement from a young age. He raised his voice against social practices that deprived communities of their fundamental rights. Activist in him came to the fore in early childhood and remained part of his being throughout his life. Being his daughter[1], I had the privilege of mirroring his life from close quarters.


On 9th August 2023, while delivering the inaugural address of the WAC-23, Prof. Kamal k. Misra mentioned names of two Indian anthropologists Prof. Nirmal Kumar Bose and his student Prof. P.K. Bhowmick for their invaluable contribution to the tradition of field work in Indian anthropology. At that moment sitting in a hall with nearly 2000 anthropologists from India and abroad, I felt exhilarated and nostalgic remembering my father!


My father, P.K. Bhowmick was Nirmal Kumar Bose’s student and later became his close associate and confidante. Nirmal Babu moulded my father’s personae as a field anthropologist. His constant encouragement and admiration for my father’s ability to connect with the people in the field helped baba become a brilliant applied and action anthropologist. 


My father lived in a rented accommodation in Paikpara, North of Calcutta, in the 1950s, while pursuing his Ph.D. under the guidance of N. K. Bose. Prof. Bose also lived in the same Lane and would cycle regularly to my father’s rented accommodation to discuss his research work and to explore new ideas. I have been a student and teacher of sociology for decades, but do not recollect any of my teachers or colleagues or even myself cycling regularly to scholars houses to discuss their research work. This was an extraordinary bond that nurtured a synergetic relationship.



Prof. P. K. Bhowmick with Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose (1962)

 It was activist anthropologist in Bhomick’s personae that took cudgels with British administration on labelling Lodha Adivasi as a criminal tribe. This derogatory connotation was an attempt by the colonial administration to dehumanize some sections of India’s indigenous communities. To counter the colonial move, he established a kind of natural laboratory, commonly referred in anthropological parlance as the Bidisa Project. He demonstrated with irrefutable evidence that the members of the Lodha community are not born criminals.  If one or two members of the community were ever caught in committing minor crimes of stealing, it was primarily because of their impoverished status.


LEARNER PAR EXCELLENCE

P.K. Bhowmick’s life was full of struggles which added to his rebellious nature making him a fighter. Born in the British colonial period in 1926 in an affluent Mahisya (land holding class) family in an interior village named Amdabad, under the Nandigram Police Station of erstwhile Midnapur District (at present Purba Midnapur after the bifurcation of the district in 2002). His early schooling started in a rural school named Kalagachia Jagadish Vidyapith-a national school, four miles from his home. He had to stay in a hostel. His family was caught up in the ‘swadeshi’ movement. His native home was frequently attacked by the local police under the colonial administration. Male members of his family were arrested. His primary socialization was in an environment of ‘Swashiana’ or ‘the culture of nationalism’. His mother, Swarnamoyee worked on the spinning wheel or ‘charkha’ and the family wore hand-spun Khadi. They were sworn to ‘swadeshi’.


Culturally, animal sacrifice was customary for worshipping goddess Kali in Bengal. As a child, he abhorred animal sacrifice and compelled his family to stop this practise. He went to the extent of hiding the ‘hadi kath’ (wooden scaffold in which the head of the goat or any other animal is tied, for making the sacrifice) from the family to prevent them from killing innocent animal. Respecting his sentiments, ritual animal sacrifice was stopped by the family.

Baba often played pranks as a child and was regularly punished for the same. Once he trimmed the ‘tiki’ (ritual braid) of a Brahmin home tutor because the tutor was dozing in the class instead of teaching. His father was livid and whipped him thirty-two licks with a ‘bet’ (stick of thin bamboo reed) because his act was disrespectful and offensive to the teacher.

As a researcher and enlightened mind, Bhowmick challenged belief in the existence of ghosts and evil spirits that were preponderant in the 20th century. He visited the cremation grounds of his village to know more about ghosts and the soul, ‘bhut’ or ghost and or evil spirits. He examined the occult cult in depth and wrote a book explaining its complexities titled ‘Occultism in Fringe Bengal’ (1978).


Professor Bhowmick was actively involved in the freedom movement from a very young age. When he was a student of class ninth of Kalagachia High School[2], (Khejuri police station in Purba Medinipur) he was arrested for participating in August Kranti of 1942 called by Mahatma Gandhi. The movement gave a call for ‘Karengey Ya Morangey’ meaning ‘Do or Die’ and this fifteen years old brave son of India was ready to sacrifice his life for his country. Though he was a minor, British Police arrested him on 15th September 1942 and sent him to Medinipur Jail. He was designated a third-class prisoner and placed with thieves and dacoits. This did not deter his indomitable spirit. After release from the prison in April 1944, he went back to national school and excelled in all other subjects except mathematics. He stayed in the school hostel and came under the influence of great teachers like Girish Chandra Maity, Santosh Kumar Bera, and Sedheswar Sahu.  One of them Sedheswar Babu later joined the Belur Ramakrishna Math and was called Swami Amalananda.


ACADEMIC JOURNEY

Young Bhowmick passed the Prabeshika examination in 1945. He then joined the I.SC. course at Bangabasi College, Kolkata and his tryst with anthropology begin here. He completed B.Sc. Honours in 1949 and M.Sc. in anthropology in 1951 from Ballygunge Science College, University of Calcutta. Some of his teachers included eminent anthropologist, like Professors M. N. Basu, T. C. Roy Chaudhuri, T. C. Das, Dharani Sen, Goutam Sankar Roy, and S. S. Sarkar. His classmates and contemporaries were Professor Bikram Kesari Roy Burman (a veteran anthropologist and former director of Census of India), Dr. Hirendranath Rakshit (ex-Director, AnSI), Professor Debiprasad Mukherjee (Department of Anthropology, University of Calcutta), Professor Pranab Ganguli (Founder Head, Anthropology Department, Vidyasagar University), Dr. Manish Chakravorty (ex-Superintending Anthropologist, AnSI), Dr. Kamalesh Guha (Ex-Museum Keeper, Department of Anthropology, Delhi University), among others. In his professional life, he had excellent equation with Prof. L.P. Vidyarthi (Ranchi University), Prof. I. P. Singh (Delhi University), Prof. B.N. Saraswati (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts), Prof. Sachchidananda (Patna University), Prof. S. N. Ratha (Sambalpur University), Prof. Borthakur (Dibrugarh University), Prof. V.S. Sahay (Allahabad University), and most other renowned scholars of the discipline.

Professor Bhowmick joined the Department of Anthropology at Bangabasi College, Kolkata, as a lecturer in 1952. In 1960, he got a teaching assignment at Calcutta University. He retired in 1994 but remained busy throughout his life as a sincere and untiring researcher with several contributions to action anthropology through his distinguished thoughts, and creative writings. His doctoral work on the Lodhas of West Bengal was completed under the supervision of Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose in 1960. He was awarded Degree of Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) in 1967 for his work on Socio-Cultural Profile of Frontier Bengal. He was first Asian scholar to be honoured with D.Sc. in social anthropology. He was elevated to professorship in 1976 and held coveted position of the head of the department as well as the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Calcutta University.


In his prolific career, he supervised 60 Ph.D. thesis from India and other parts of the world. Research supervised by him was innovative and importantly interdisciplinary. In the mid-twentieth century it was an exceptionally challenging task, as young disciplines were being compartmentalized with rigid boundaries. His research interests traversed through various communities. Some of these are The Bauries, Savaras- a community of snake-charmers, Koras and Mahalis in Medinipur, West Bengal, the Nicobaries in Nicobar Island, Bhoksas in Uttar Pradesh, Kondhs in Orrisa, Kukis and Marings in Manipur, Dhimals in Nepal, Rauts in Chattishgarh, Dimasas in Assam, and Gadabas in Andhra Pradesh. Under his supervision, some extraordinary ethnographies were generated that have immense value.


P.K. Bhowmick published consistently in his long career span. One of his most cited works is on The Lodhas of West Bengal (1963) which is an edited version of his Ph.D. thesis. He vividly recalls his journey of perseverance for establishing rapport with the Lodha community. He talks about resistance and threats that he received from some locals when he made initial inroads into the community. It was after several visits that they started trusting him and shared intimate details of their lives and discrimination they experienced. With guidance and persistent encouragement form N.K. Bose, he developed Bidisa Samaj Sevak Sangha in 1960, for which he received support from former Prime Minister Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru and former Chief Minister Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy.


His commitment to Lodha cause and intimate relation he developed with them that he was nicknamed Lodha Bhowmick.  Children from the community addressed him as jathababu. Prof. Vijay Sahay (2003) called him “Messiah of the Lodhas” and attributed this to his ability to merge and assimilate with the community. He is one of the few anthropologists credited with social engineering skills that helped him develop institutional support for Lodha Children in his cherished project Bidisa. It is often described as Prof. Bhowmick’s social laboratory.


BIDISA

It is not only a daughter saying, but all those from the fraternity of anthropologists, who ever interacted with him or knew about his work described him as an “institution in himself”. Metaphorically speaking, he was the pranpurush-the founder of Bidisa. Etymologically Bidisa, means that which ‘diffuses light’. Bidisa is situated in Narayangarh Police Station area of Paschim Medinipur District in West Bengal. He built Samaj Sevak Sangha, a voluntary organization in 1955, that was developed like a dedicated ashram on a fifty-acre land.  Lodha children were housed, educated, and trained to honour their identity. Gradually, his dream project evolved to become a reputed Institute of Social Research and Applied Anthropology (ISRAA). Some researchers call it a social laboratory of Action and Applied Anthropology whose architect was P.K. Bhowmick.



BIDISA AT A GLANCE




P.K. Bhowmick with Lodha students in Bidisa (1990)

The Chenchus of Forests and Plateaux published in 1992 is another momentous work from his pen. He started studying the Chenchus of Andhra Pradesh in 1979. The community was earlier studied by British anthropologist Haimendorf in1943. Prof. Bhowmick observed that the community looked and behaved differently from what was described earlier. He inferred that these social transformations are a consequence of planned interventions and enhanced frequency of interactions with neighbouring communities. He received several accolades for this work and was felicitated by various organizations.


His classic study Socio-Cultural Profile of Frontier Bengal (1976) focussed on the characteristics of Frontier Bengal. He dwelled on how the Frontier Zone creates a mixed culture of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. He described this as a fluid zone due to migration and the movement of outsiders over centuries, largely comprising of Santal, Lodha, Ho, Kheria, Bhumij, Kora, Mahali and others. The co-habitation of tribal and non- tribal culture is visible in the everyday lives of the people. The folksongs, folk dances, rituals, and religiosity of everyday lives of the local people is governed by the plural culture. Another classic study was Occultism in Fringe Bengal (1978). This study explored the realities of the socio-cultural life of Bengal.



P.K. Bhowmick with a Chenchu man in the field Andhra Pradesh (1970)

He was a prolific writer and published regularly in academic journals, research bulletins, edited books, leading magazines, census reports, and daily newspapers from 1954 to 1987. He also wrote several articles in Bangla. His writings focused on various issues in anthropology, folklore, sociology, and rural development. He often discussed social issues that emerging India was experiencing and travails of common masses, particularly the most marginalized. He encouraged young scholars to publish and initiated academic journal titled Man and Life.  


He was a member of the Indian Anthropological Society (IAS) and Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), the West Bengal Child Welfare society, Calcutta, and The Asiatic Society, Calcutta. He served as President of the IAS and sectional president of ISCA. He received the prestigious S.C. Roy Gold Medal and was elected as the President of the Anthropology and Archaeology sections of the Indian Science Congress.


He was also attached to the Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management at the University of Calcutta. Through Jana Siksha Prachar Kendra and Mahisya Samaj, he attempted to restore the cultural heritage of undivided Medinipur. He contributed to establishing Nandigram Sitananda College, Medinipur district, and Pathankhali College, South 24 Paraganas, and many schools in Medinipur district. He was instrumental in establishing the Vidyasagar University with Professor Anil Kumar Gayen of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.


As a member of the Public Service Commission of Nepal, he introduced the departments of Anthropology in both Nepal and Bangladesh. For seventeen years along with Prof. Vidyarthi and Prof. I. P. Singh, he was on every Committee constituted by the Government of India for the development of anthropology. They framed the syllabi for various courses in Anthropology, including the IAS and Public Service Commissions of different States. They introduced anthropology in Viswa Bharati.

 



Students of Bidsa Ashram with former Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi New Delhi (1975)

Prof. Bhowmick received international recognition and laurels from some of the most eminent world anthropologist.



Sol Tax Calcutta (Bidisa:1978)

American anthropologist Prof. Sol Tax, founder of prestigious journal Current anthropology and known for introducing the debate on applied and action anthropology called Bhowmick’s Bidisa project- “a social laboratory”. He called my Baba an action anthropologist par excellence who changed the lives of Lodha Janjati by bringing them to the Ashram school. He heaved praise on the Ashram for its diligent work culture, discipline and organizational set up.


Distinguished sociologist, Irwin Deutscher, in the foreword to the book, Explorations in Anthropology (21stOctober, 2004) commended Prof. Bhowmick for raising concerns on injustices and deprivations meted out to the marginalized communities and then striving hard to find a solution to eliminate those conditions.


Prof. Bhowmick’s work received appreciation from Bill Clinton, Former President of America (1993 – 2001)

Baba was fearless! Prof. Vijay Sahay recalls his conversations with British anthropologist Raymond Firth and how Firth repeatedly regretted “many wrongs done by the British in India” (Sahay 2003:184-199). He travelled to several countries in Eastern Europe and met Noble Laurette Gunnar Myrdal and imbibed his philosophy of ‘importance of cottage industry’ for young India.  

His work is aptly reviewed by his colleague Prof. Baidyanath Saraswati describing it as a synergized concern “with social philosophy as well as social work, portraying the inner consistency of integral life and culture” (2006: 198-199). His former student and now Professor of Anthropology at Dhaka University, Dr. Ahasan Ali followed his footsteps and established Institute of Social Research and Applied Anthropology (ISRAA) (Rajshahi, 2010) on the principles of Bidhsa Ashram. Commenting on Prof. Bhowmick’s work methodology, Dr. M. Afsaruddin, Professor of Sociology, Dhaka University, pointed out that he “studied Anthropology as a holistic human science and by practising that he entered into the inner soul of the underprivileged and deprived communities” (2006:80).



Prof. L.P. Vidyarthi, Dept. of Anthropology, Ranchi University, Prof. Satyen Sen, V.C., University of Calcutta in a national seminar, Bidisa (1975)

 

Moving away from the tradition of “armchair” anthropology, Bhowmick crafted his journey as a field anthropologist, listening to voices coming from the field and responding to their immediate needs. At a time when anthropology was still trapped in colonial understanding of the discipline that prevented it from moving beyond data collection, Bhowmick became an activist anthropologist. His in-depth understanding of the people he was researching with made rapport with communities amicable. He emphasized social history to reconstruct cultural specifications of indifferent historical epochs. He could easily identify himself as the man of that region (Midnapur district). Marginalized sections of the communities he worked with addressed him as ‘Amather Babu “(Our Master)” out of affection and because of his compassion for them. The underlying philosophy of his life was Satatar Joy Hobeyee or translated from Bangla “Honesty carries victory”.

Following footsteps of his mentor Nirmal Babu, he would go to college street in Kolkata every evening to meet his colleagues, research fellows, former and present students and discussed their problems for hours. He was born a nationalist and lived with his ideals till the end of his life. Governance concerns of his village were as important as that of the nation. He also cared deeply for his family that included his wife Latika and his four children-two sons and two daughters. His younger daughter died young in an unfortunate accident. This left him badly bruised, and I had often seen him crying alone sitting in a corner. He was a man with a tender heart but a sense of determination. He died on 5th February 2003 and left a vacuum that world of Indian anthropology is finding it difficult to fill. Even after 21years, his words resonate, and his spiritual presence is felt in every gathering of anthropologists.

 


Memorial of Prabodh Bhowmick

Endnotes

  • I am much indebted to Sahay’s article (2003) entitled ‘Messiah of the Lodhas: Professor P.K. Bhowmick’ published in The Oriental Anthropologist (Vol. 3 (2): 184-199) which is an important source material about P.K. Bhowmick collected from direct interviews with Professor Bhowmick (at the threshold of 21st Century).

  • The book entitled Exploration in Anthropology – P.K. Bhowmick and his collaborative Research Work (2006), edited by Swapan Kumar Pramanick and Samita Manna, Published by ISRAA. This book is an outcome of the research endeavours of the students of Professor Bhowmick since the 2nd half of the 20th centuries.

  • The book entitled Professor P.K. Bhowmick: A legendary Leader in Indian Anthropology (2021), edited by Pradip Kumar Bhowmick. Samita Manna and Palash Chandra Coomar by Avhijeet Publication. It is also an important source material for this article.

 

Major Publications (Book)

Bhowmick, P. K. 1961. Four Midnapore Villages. Census of India, Govt. of India.

Bhowmick, P.K. 1963. The Lodhas of West Bengal. Kolkata: ISRAA.

Bhowmick, P.K. 1976. Socio-cultural Profile of Frontier Bengal. Calcutta: Puthi Pustak.

Bhowmick, P. K. 1978. Occultism in Fringe Bengal. Calcutta: Subarnarekha.

Bhowmick, P. K. 1990. Applied-Action Development Anthropology. Calcutta: Institute

of Social Research and Applied Anthropology.

Bhowmick, P. K. 1992. Chenchus of the Forest and Plateaux. Calcutta: Institute of Social

Research and Applied Anthropology.

Bhowmick, P. K. 1994. Primitive Tribal Groups in Eastern India: Welfare and Evaluation. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.

Bhowmick, P. K. 2002. Caste in Border Bengal. Kolkata: R.N. Bhattacharya.


[1] I felt privileged when Prof Shalina Mehta, Senior Vice President of UIAF, asked me to write about my father renowned anthropologist Prof. P. K. Bhowmick after the inaugural function of WAC-23, held on August 9, 2023, at KISS (Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences), Deemed to be University, Bhubaneshwar.

 

[2] School was later renamed Kalagachia Jagadish Vidyapith

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