Migrant Knowledge

The Contradictions of Irawati Karve: A Conversation

Thiago Pinto Barbosa
Urmilla Deshpande

Thiago: While researching the global circulation of knowledge on “race” I came across one historical figure with a very special position in transnational networks of racial sciences: Irawati Karve (1905–1970). Born in Burma (present-day Myanmar), she came to Berlin in the late 1920s for her doctoral research at the once-famous, now-infamous Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics (KWI-A). The institute was a well-established center for research on “racial hygiene” and, during the Nazi regime, had a very close connection to the formulation of eugenicist policies. My archival research for the first exhibition about its history, Manufacturing Race, surprisingly revealed that other non-white, non-European students came there to research—from Korea, China, Venezuela, and India, like Karve. Why would students from groups often racially inferiorized in mainstream theories of that time and place want to learn about and research race and eugenics at the KWI-A? And what kind of knowledge did they make and remake? Did they come to different conclusions from their white colleagues and mentors? Did they see and defy the racist bias of their professors, adapt racial theories, or conform to them? In part because I was a foreign student in Berlin myself, these questions motivated my research.

Irawati Karve left India to study abroad as a young woman at a time when this was uncommon. She came to Berlin in a turbulent period, when the city lived in a state of decay following World War I, yet cultivated cultural openness, only to succumb, a few years later, to a dictatorial regime. Karve’s dissertation was supervised by the German anthropologist Eugen Fischer, well-known for his studies on “race mixing” in German South West Africa (today Namibia) and later a supporter of the forced sterilization of hundreds of “racially mixed” children in Germany, among other eugenicist policies. Fischer gave Karve the task of proving a correlation between race and skull asymmetry, a physical feature that supposedly accounted for better development of the right side of the brain and thus of intelligence and civilization, a feature that Fischer expected would correlate with European races. Karve undertook measurements on hundreds of skulls, many obtained in German colonial territories. Her conclusion was blunt, and unexpected by her mentor: she proved the racist hypothesis was false. She could not see any correlation between race and measured skull shape. Among all the theses and articles published at the KWI-A, Karve’s on the “normal asymmetry of the human skull” was the only piece that so directly negated a racial theory of that time.1

Karve’s scholarly trajectory took me to India, where she returned after completing her dissertation in 1931. Karve was a sociologist-anthropologist in India who in her rather short life became renowned for her feminist cultural and social commentaries and for her studies on the Indian caste system. Less known are her racial studies of India’s castes and “tribes”: Employing the same methods and instruments she learned to use in Berlin, she measured and analyzed several anthropometric, racial features of different social groups in India. In this way, she contributed to the racialization of human difference there, continuing a legacy that had begun with colonial British anthropology. Although she was outspoken about women’s issues she was silent about caste and religious discrimination, especially in her early work decades (1930s–1950s). She did embrace a multiculturalist rhetoric and antiracist stance in the last decade of her life, but she used racial methods in her research long after World War II, including as late as 1968, two years before her sudden death. I have been asking how I can account for the nuances, incongruences, ambivalences, and tensions in Karve’s scholarly trajectory. How can I account for both Karve’s progressive views and her shortcomings and attachments to a racist scientific legacy? How can a text manage to be critical and empathic about the same historical figure?

In the course of my work, I was introduced to Karve’s granddaughter, writer Urmilla Deshpande, with whom I began a collaboration and a friendship. Urmilla wanted to learn more about her long-deceased grandmother and write a fictional version of her.

Irawati Karvé and a diagram of a skull from her dissertation via Manufacturing Race.

Thiago: Umi, how did your interest in writing about Karve come about?

Umi: Iru died when I was seven. The idea of a novel based on Irawati’s time as a young woman in (Weimar) Berlin is irresistible. But, how to be clear-eyed about a woman who is part of me? When I started research, like you, I felt ambiguous and conflicted about what I encountered. I think we have the same underpinnings to our quite different projects: we want to be, as you said, at once critical and empathic.

Thiago: I often find myself oscillating between being overly critical and overly empathic towards Karve, depending on who I’m talking to (she has left many fans and a few sharp critics) and which of her texts I’m reading read. I admire the proto-feminist voice in her brilliant book about the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, Yuganta, but, as someone who researches critically the idea of “race” in science, I was troubled by her assertions on “racial elements” of castes and so-called tribes, and by her anti-Muslim utterances in 1947 (the year of the Partition of India). However, as Simone Lässig reminds us, each life is fragmented, and when we write a biography, we might not be able (or want) to create a coherent whole by putting together the heterogenous fragments of a person’s life and personality.2 And although Karve, who even had a museum named after her, might be seen as a heroine, I have to think of what Levke Harders, for example, describes as a post-heroic approach in biography writing, when biographies take up figures known as heroes and present more nuanced insights about their lives and work.3 Umi, how do you deal with balancing these different, sometimes conflicting fragments in your practice of research and writing? Is the Karve you’re describing a character afflicted by contradictions?

Umi: I wish I had a fully developed Irawati inhabiting Berlin in its pages. Truth is, I am still thinking, reading, looking at photographic documentation, being in Berlin to put color and air and trees into the city of my imagination.

As for Irawati herself, how to create a person that would, could, grow into the person (we think) she became. This is fiction, so I’m tempted to create a version that is different from what she was. But I don’t want to whitewash her failings. I find it exciting that she was not who we would have liked her to be. What is so brilliant about Yuganta is that very postheroic approach you talk about: Irawati presents the heroes of the Mahabharata as human, as men and women. And therefore heroic. Perhaps we just need to follow her lead. Just let her be who she will be, with all her flaws, with all her arrogance as a privileged Brahmin woman, thrown into this situation where her superior is white, racist, and demanding that she prove him right. Through this conduit of the primary character of my novel, I get to say things that I would like to say.

Thiago: It’s interesting you mention Karve’s “Brahmin arrogance.” There is definitely a sense of proud self-assertiveness in the published version of her dissertation. She opens it with an autobiographical note in a very confident, first-person voice; she is blunt and direct in her anti-racist conclusion. I guess it took confidence, righteousness, and some entitlement, to dare defy a (racist) doctoral supervisor of such high status. Many years after her stay in Germany, she wrote a footnote in one her most famous books, “Hindu Society” which gives a clue about how she felt: she says she “remembers vividly how Germans and Englishmen refused to see any comparison between the institutions of the primitive people and their own institutions. Every time the author [Karve], then a student or a much younger teacher, suggested such a comparison it was brushed aside. After this experience one learnt to keep one’s thoughts to oneself.”4 To keep one’s thoughts to oneself, to be silenced, couldn’t have been easy in her position at that time in Berlin, especially as she might have been aware of the racist Eurocentricity of her professors’ assumptions.

Umi: This may come as a surprise, but I did not know what “caste” was till I was in my teens (a sign of privilege!). I don’t know if this knowledge was deliberately hidden, or whether it was because the family was full of “intercaste” and “interfaith” marriages, or whether it was a way of dealing with this perverse and pervasive fact of Indian society. I remember my mother, not the most tolerant about intolerance, offering tea to visitors at her house in rural Maharashtra. The lady who came to cook for her, and who was also a beloved friend, belonged to the lowest of Indian “castes,” still referred to by the vile term “untouchable.” No one ever accepted tea. Of course, my mother was able to undermine these conventions because she was a Karve, a family which, in its way, had outsider status.

Irawati’s father sent her from Burma, where she was born and her father worked, to India, where she lived with a famously subversive Brahmin family, the Paranjpyes, who valued education above all else. Irawati embraced their values. She then married into the Karvés—educators and social reformers. So by the time she got to Germany, she was steeped in a culture unlike that of most of India. What I mean is, that the privilege, if that was what it was, because it came with a price, ran deep in her experience and existence.

When I moved to the American South twenty years ago, I came from a similar experience. I see my own transition from privilege through uncertainty to understanding: In my first years in America, I was confused. I did not recognize daily, casual racism as such. This experience very much colors my thinking about Iru in Berlin. She must have seen she was treated differently from white Germans, but also very differently from what she was accustomed to. I wonder if she, surrounded by, embedded in, and even, I have to say, a participant in the instruments of racism, recognized it as such, even if she didn’t put a name to it.

Thiago: Yes, it’s sometimes too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one single social status influences a person’s view. But of course each person is more complex than their assigned belonging to a given social group, and so was Irawati. I’m trying, instead, to understand the different positionalities that she might have occupied and from which she looked at social reality, and these positions are, as we learn from the feminist debate around standpoint theory, always situational or contextual.5 I also like to think with Gloria Anzaldua’s poetic ruminations about identity across/between borders and Floya Anthias’ idea of “translocation of positionality.”6 These frameworks help us think about the relationalities involved in a migrant’s change of social position and their ensuing standpoints in the making of knowledge. Interestingly, Karve’s most socially and politically critical insights were developed from those standpoints in which she found herself in a socially disadvantaged and peripheral positionality. We could speculate, thinking with Sandra Harding,7 that the view from a minoritized position can be especially insightful for the articulation of socially progressive, critical knowledge.

Thiago Pinto Barbosa is a research associate and lecturer at the University of Bayreuth, where he is pursuing his PhD. His Twitter handle is @thiago_asobrab.
Urmilla Deshpande is the author of several novels and short story collections whose characters frequently cross boundaries. Photo by Frank-Udo Tielmann.
  1. Irawati Karve, Normale Asymmetrie des menschlichen Schädels (Leipzig: Schwarzenberg & Schumann, 1931). This was her dissertation at the University of Berlin (now Humboldt University of Berlin), with whom she and other KWI-A scholars were affiliated because their institute was not a degree-granting institution. ↩︎
  2. Simone Lässig, “Die historische Biographie auf neuen Wegen?,” Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 10 (2009): 540–53. ↩︎
  3. Levke Harders, “Historische Biografieforschung,” Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, October 31, 2020, https://doi.org/10.14765/zzf.dok-2014. ↩︎
  4. Irawati Karve, Hindu Society: An Interpretation (Poona: Deccan College, 1961), 179. ↩︎
  5. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99. ↩︎
  6. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1991); Floya Anthias, “Thinking through the Lens of Translocational Positionality: An Intersectionality Frame for Understanding Identity and Belonging,” Translocations: Migration and Social Change 4 no. 1 (2008): 5–20. ↩︎
  7. Sandra Harding, Objectivity and Diversity. Another Logic of Scientific Research (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015). ↩︎

Suggested citation: Thiago Pinto Barbosa and Urmilla Deshpande, "The Contradictions of Irawati Karve: A Conversation," Migrant Knowledge, November 9, 2021, https://migrantknowledge.org/2021/11/09/contradictions-of-irawati-karve/.