Irawati Karve

The 1st woman #anthropologist of India, who used physical & cultural #anthropology to characterize society structure. A scientist of international repute, she created a nuanced understanding of the diverse #Indian society.

Irawati Karve, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork by Arghya Manna & words by Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

Irawati Karve (1905–1970) was the first woman anthropologist of India. She established the Anthropology Department at Pune University, when it was a fledgling field of study.

Her story began in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1905, where her father was working as an engineer. At age 7 she moved to Pune, Maharashtra, where she spent most of her latter life. Belonging to a well-to-do Brahmin family, good education was always a priority. After her B.A. from Fergusson College, Pune, & M.A. in Sociology from Bombay University, Irawati married Dr. Dinkar D. Karve, a chemistry professor at the Deccan College. She obtained her Ph. D. in 1930 from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology in Germany where she carried out comparative analysis of the human skull amongst supposedly diverse racial groups; & although this meant staying abroad for 2 years, her husband encouraged it & continued to be supportive throughout her career.

Between 1939–1970 she worked at the Deccan College as a professor. Her work involved collecting anthropometric & linguistic data from different parts of India. Despite being uncommon for women to do fieldwork back then, she undertook extensive travelling through out the country including to remote tribal areas, as she considered it crucial for her research.

Irawati’s multidisciplinary approach combined knowledge from physical & social anthropology to understand the organization of society. Her main focus was to uncover kinship dynamics in the Indian society & had divided kinship structures based on language & geographical regions of the country (north, south, central & eastern). Her many books, especially ‘Kinship Organization in India’ remains a cornerstone for understanding the basis of Hindu societal organization.

Irawati wore many scholastic hats. She is perhaps most famous for her Marathi literary works. Her renowned book ‘Yuganta’ is a radical interpretation of the epic ‘Mahabharata’, for which she received the Sahitya Academy award for Marathi in 1968. As an Indologist she used her knowledge of Sanskrit & Pali languages to mine ancient texts for obtaining sociological insights. Through her surveys of dam displaced people & tribal markets, she provided a critical commentary on the socio-economic condition of the nation. She spoke for women’s rights & was a translator of feminist poetry. She has published over 100 articles, 12 books in English & 10 in Marathi. The Irawati Karve Museum of Anthropology in Pune was established in recognition of her anthropological contributions.

Her illustrious career spanned from the time of colonial rule to the post-independent India. Irawati skillfully connected the fields of anthropology, sociology & archeology, to construct a unified identity of Indian society.


About the author:


Content Editor, Women In Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.

About the artist:


Contributing Artist, Sci-Illustrate stories

Arghya Manna is a comics artist and illustrator. He began his biomedical career as a doctoral student at Bose Institute, India working on Tumor Cell migration in a 3D environment, but soon left wet lab research and his doctoral studies to find refuge in art. Finding himself becoming increasingly passionate about visual science communication through comics, he now is an History of Science enthusiast and showcases his work through his blog “Drawing History of Science”.

Arghya, through his artwork, aspires to engage the readers of history and science with the amalgamation of images and texts.

About the series:

These are stories I wish I knew when I was growing up.

There are the stories of persistence, ingenuity, calibre, scientific achievement against all odds.

These are the stories of Indian women who were the pioneers of Science in India.

These are stories of lives that must be remembered and cherished.

Sci-Illustrate stories is proud to add a new chapter in our WIS series where through the words of the sci-illustrate team, complimented by the artwork of a very talented Indian artist Arghya Manna, we will be revisiting and highlighting the lives of some incredible Indian women in science.

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director



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Passion for science and art coming together in beautiful harmony to tell stories that inspire us