A People’s Anthropologist L K Mahapatra (29 October 1929- 1 June 2020)

By Dr. Manoranjan Mohanty

Retired Professor of Political Science, Delhi University

L K Mahapatra was a world-renowned scholar with feet on the ground. All anthropologists base their research on fieldwork, especially in tribal areas and depict their conditions in vivid detail. They deeply sympathise with their subject of study as well. L K Mahapatra did not stop at that. He discerned the power and logic of the institutions, practices and belief systems of the people he studied and made that the basis of his analysis and proposals for intervention. A people’s anthropologist, L K Mahapatra never subscribed to the ‘civilising mission’ of either the colonialists or of the enthusiastic modernisers.

His pioneering study of the people of the Bonda Hills discovered the capacity of the Bondas to cope with new challenges while maintaining their unique cultural and productive practices. His concept of ‘self-managed development’ for the Bondas represented a key perspective on sustainable tribal development which has eluded the policy-makers till today.

He was among the first to put Odisha folklore studies in the global academic realm. That live folklore represented a world view and rational cultural practice that should be taken seriously was his persuasive argument.

When I started studying caste and class in Odisha L K Mahapatra was the main reference. Until he looked at the data on caste scholars and social workers generally refrained from discussing the issue of upper caste domination in the state. I have many personal memories of our exciting conversations on academic questions which provided much insight to my thinking.

As an institution-builder- as Vice-chancellor of Utkal and Sambalpur Universities, and Director of NCDS, above all as the Head of the Anthropology Department, he captured the future trends in social sciences and built structures and platforms for launching innovative programmes. Introduction of South East Asian Studies in Utkal University, promoting Development Anthropology as a new subject to put the discipline at the centre of development practice. Programmes on displacement and rehabilitation were among some of his early initiatives. Because of his leadership the Department of Anthropology of Utkal University evolved into one of India’s foremost centres of academic excellence.

I cannot forget our last meeting in 2017 at Lohia Academy, Bhubaneswar where, while releasing my book, Uddipta Odisha Ebe Bi Daridra Kahinki, he bemoaned that Odisha’s rulers hardly understood my thesis on why Odisha continued to be poor. The reason, he said was that they profited much from the extractive economy.

The hospitality that Bidyut and I received at his house from him and his wife, Hiranaprabha Mahapatra, was always generous each time with some surprise item on the menu. It took me some time to convince him that his son Sujit who chose to plunge into a rare adventure of promoting books and art for the young instead of becoming an English Lecturer was bound to make a mark in that. In his last years he was indeed proud of the work done by the Bakul Foundation.

Hiranprabha Debi passed away in October 2019. L K Mahapatra died on 1 June 2020. A year after his death, I worry about the poor and the dispossessed, who have lost an ardent and persuasive thinker and influencer in Professor Mahapatra.