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II.4.2 Sarat Chandra Roy

Roy was marginal to the discipline of anthropology. A lawyer by profession and an anthropologist only out of interest, it was his concern for the ‘aboriginal’ with whom he had often dealt in court, that had prompted him to dabble in anthropology. He borrowed from the theoretical constructs of the West and applied these to the Indian context.

The post-Renaissance awareness of and subsequent inquiry into the origins and meaning of cultural and social variety encountered by Europe found its legacy in the emergence of anthropology, a subject which, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, finaly established itself among academic disciplines in Europe.

Roy’s work was partly a heritage of this understanding. Roy acknowledged that Gait, the Census Commissioner of 1911, had initiated him to anthropology . He generously quoted statistics and observations from the census reports, Buchanan’s reports, survey and settlement records, Dalton’s writings etc, all products of British enquiry. Roy saw these as products of careful and objective analysis, and therefore, as usually uncontestable.

His interest into the plight of the “tribal” people developed in the course of his visits as a lawyer, in the interior areas of the Chota Nagpur Division. He was deeply moved by the plight of the Munda, Oraon and other tribal groups, who were subjected to the continued oppression by an apathetic colonial administration, and by a general contempt towards them in courts of law, as “upper-caste” Hindu lawyers had little knowledge of their customs, religions, customary laws and languages. Keeping all this in perspective, he decided to spend years and decades among tribal folks to study their languages, conduct ethnography, and interpret their customs, practices, religion and laws for the benefit of humanity, and also for the established system of colonial civil jurisprudence. In so doing, he wrote pioneering monographs, that would set the ground for broader understanding and future research. Thus although he was not formally trained in either ethnology or anthropology, he is regarded the first Indian ethnologist, or ethnographer or an Indian anthropologist.

Roy had intended to paint an image of the Oraons that would be ‘complete’, and he sought to identify their tribal characteristics. He drew upon the differing streams of anthropology, upon the accumulated knowledge ofthe tribe in official discourse and upon his own experiences and understanding His intention was to combine western anthropology with an Indian viewpoint, to locate himself in the academia, in missionary and official circles and in the Oraon villages ofChhotanagpur, and to make himself acceptable both to the machinery of the colonial state and to local tribal communities. And as his interaction with different ideas, ideologies and people grew, his image of the Oraons and that of the tribe shifted. The shift from his earlier positions was particularly marked from the 1930s. A study of Roy’s writings on the Oraons is thus illustrative of the fertile, sensitive and ever evolving imagination of a lawyer turned anthropologist whose commitment to the discipline of anthropology was complete. On him rests largely, rightly or wrongly, the distinction of structuring our understanding and construct of the tribe and of the Oraons.

Books and monographs

  • The Mundas and Their Country (1912)
  • The Oraons of Chota Nagpur (1915)
  • The Birhors (1925)
  • Oraon Religion and Customs (1927)
  • The Hill Bhuiyas of Orissa (1935)
  • The Kharias vol.1 (1937)
  • The Kharias vol.2 (1937)

Journal contributions

  • Man in India, the first anthropological journal in India was started by him in 1921.
  • He wrote extensively on totemism among the Asur, the Ho people of Singhbhum, the Pahira of Chota Nagpur; on the Lepcha funeral; kinship among Sikkimese people, Khasi people; Khond human sacrifice; Korku memorial tablets; black Bhils of Jaisamand lake in Rajputana, and on the ethnic groups of Burma

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