Elwin’s Legacy

A recent story from the BBC ends with the words: “the romance between a teenage tribal girl and a British scholar was clearly doomed.” The British scholar in question was Verrier Elwin, one of the first anthropologists to work closely with India’s Adivasis. At the age of 37 he married a 13 year old Gond girl against the wishes of her parents. He divorced her ten years later. She is now old and destitute. Certainly not one of the high points in the history of Anthropology …

Despite his obvious ethical failings, as Shashwati says, “Verrier Elwin was one of the first anthropologists to write with great sympathy and understanding about India’s tribal communities.” For that reason one of my goals for this summer was to read his autobiography, as well as a more recent biography, and then maybe even have a go at writing the as-yet-nonexistant Wikipedia entry on him. I have to say, however, that the whole project suddenly seems somewhat less enticing.

12 thoughts on “Elwin’s Legacy

  1. Sounds a bit like anthropologist Kenneth Good and his 13 year old Yanomami bride, although in that case the marriage ended with her running away from him rather than the reverse.

    I can’t help wondering if

  2. it may seem less appetising but it also seems more interesting…..accomplished work way ahead of the standards of his time but also fell down, hard. there are no heroes, just real people. and in a larger context, the whole “native bride” phenom has never been measured, to my knowledge but it is a continuing shadow. from Pocahontas to Graham Greene? context is everything:)

  3. Verrier Elwin was a guardian against the onslaught and domination of the mainland Indians against the Northeast Indian tribals. These tribes are not Indian in any sense; by way of looks (they are mongoloid), culture, religion and philosophy. They have more affinity in all respects to Southeast Asians and their inclusion into India can be termed as “Historical Accident”.

  4. Instead of just stating one’s comment as “obviously wrong” it would be more reasonable to defend scholarly by putting reasonable points and references.

  5. I think You need to read this book about Verrier Elwin Written by Ramachandra Guha. Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India. Co-published with Oxford University Press, India,1999.

  6. I am familiar with Guha\’s book. In fact, it is linked to in my post. I don\’t think Guha would support your assertion that Adivasis are not Indian. There is no need to disprove such wild unsubstantiated and racist assertions.

  7. I am Verrier’s English relative (great-niece) and am studying Anthropology at LSE (1st year). I decided to do a presentation on Verrier as I knew nothing about him or his work & came accross the same article in BBC. I must say it was fairly crushing to read such a bad personal account. I really need to find some information on his approach / style to fit in with my assignment still and wondered if anyone had any info / quotes that may be useful? Our family has always had very mixed feelings about him, but I must say I still find him a fascinating character!

  8. No unfortunately not, I’ll try to get around to doing that soon. I have read lots about it, but haven’t had the time to find it and read it yet.
    I feel like I’ve unearthed something bigger than I’d intended.

  9. @susie,

    I am doing some research on Mr. Verrier Elwin. There is huge lack of information on Mr. Elwin’s life in Oxford before coming to India. Infact I am intersted to know what kind of childhood and youth days did he have, about family.. Would be kind of you if you respond @ my e mail id ‘bruise77@yahoo.co.in’, or leave a note here.
    thank you


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