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IRAWATI KARVE (1905-1970)

Irawati Karve was an anthropologist who studied Indian social systems. She was born in Mynjin in Burma as her father, Hari Ganesh Karve, was working as an engineer there, and she was named after the river Irawady. Aged seven she was sent to Pune to be schooled at Huzoor Page, one of the first schools for girls in Maharashtra. There she befriended Shakuntala Paranjpye (q.v.) who took her to stay at her home. Here she was exposed to a wide range of people and ideas. The ideas included anthropology, and the people included Dinkar Karve, professor of chemistry at Fergusson College and son of Maharshi Dhondho Keshav Karve, pioneer in women’s education. Dinkar later became her husband.

Having graduated from Fergusson College, Irawati got her M.A. in sociology under the famous scholar G.S. Ghurye, who succeeded Sir Patrick Geddes as head of the department of sociology at Bombay University in 1924. She then went to Berlin and obtained a Ph.D. in anthropology from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Eugenics and Human Heredity in 1930 under Professor Eugene Fischer. On returning to India she spent some time as Registrar of SNDT College in Pune, then taught at the Deccan College Post-Graduate Research Institute where she remained all her life. Here she began investigated the origins of the caste system, using not only traditional anthropological sources of data but also epics, folklore and ethno-history. She believed in in-depth study of local populations and proposed that castes differed in status from location to location. She studied kinship terms, relationships and family structures in the epics and the Vedas. She was elected President of the Anthropology Section of the Indian Science Congress in 1957. She was also offered a lecturer- ship at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She wrote many books including Kinship Organisation in India (1953), Hindu Society: An Interpretation (1961), Maharashtra: Land and People (1968), and Yuganta, a critique in Marathi and English of the Mahabharata in which she dissects the human aspects of the epic. This last book became immensely popular and is still selling thirty years after her death. It won her the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1968. She also wrote Paripurti, Bhovara, Amachi Samskruti, Samskruti, and Gangajal in Marathi. Her daughter Gauri Deshpande (q.v.) also became a writer.
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