Boss lady #3: Dharma Kumar

India’s finest economic historian

Devaki Jain (Indian feminist economist from my previous blog) describes Dharma Kumar as “one of the most intelligent and charismatic women” she had ever known in her memoir.

Devaki met Dharma Kumar when the latter was working at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Triangulating from Ramchandra Guha’s article The Last Liberal, I figured these two women must have met when Dharma had returned from Cambridge and joined RBI, and she found her job and fiscal policy rather dreary it turns out — she was more interested in studying social inequality, as we find out later (which I was delighted to hear because I relate sorry not sorry!).

When asked why she became an academic in an interview in 1984, she characteristically said “Because I got tired of being other things”.

In any case, going back to Devaki’s encounters with Dharma Kumar, what I loved is the latter literally adopted Devaki during her time in Bombay and later in Delhi, as she was a few years younger and was still figuring out her place as a policy-economist-Gandhian-activist in India (female support system for the win!). Like most of the other women in my list, Dharma too was a polymath. “She ran an art circle, wrote about dance, contributed to the Economic Weekly (now EPW), and ran circles around the young men of Bombay — intellectually speaking”, writes Guha.

When Dharma Kumar got bored of her RBI gig, she decided to take an extended leave and apply for a PhD in economic history at Cambridge University. Her dissertation was published as a book titled Land and Caste in South India, which was also awarded the Ellen MacArthur Prize (a book I should get my hands on for my own research).

But her work was pioneering in that she sought to study Indian history by studying caste and socio-economic class and how they interact — a central theme across research in development economics focusing on social inequalities in India today, and the field is still far from mature.

From Guha’s article, I also learned that Dharma’s book was considered politically incorrect as it was not in line with the predominant Marxist talking point that socio-economic class is the single most important cleavage and caste was merely a consequence of class — Dharma’s book turns this theory around on it’s head. Today, however we know better, that caste is far more than a by-product of class in India. Her thesis was clearly ahead of it’s time.

Devaki talks about Dharma’s living room in her Pandara road house in Delhi. It was an intellectually stimulating civil society congregation at it’s finest on any given evening. Dharma was apparently at the center of it all. Devaki writes, “these were scenes straight out of Simone de Beauvoir’s novels about French intellectuals after the way, The Mandarins”. Khushwant Singh, in his tribute to Dharma, in the Tribune in 2001 corroborates this. In Delhi, Dharma was a revered professor at the Delhi School of Economics, where she ran the Indian Economic and Social History Review, and conceived the literary journal Civil Lines.

Finally, a fun fact I learned from Ram Guha’s article: “ A character who makes a cameo appearance in A Suitable Boy is based on Dharma. This is Ila Chattopadhyay, a professor of charm and eccentricity who refuses to rubber-stamp a selection committee’s choice of an unqualified candidate.” Though Dharma wasn’t pleased about this portrayal because she had a lot going on in her own life at the moment, I was delighted. Reminder: Ila Chattopadhyay’s advice to young Lata in the novel (paraphrased) was that a good marriage is one where your partner gives you space to grow, and gives you the peace of mind you need to evolve instead of consuming all your emotional energy. When I learned this, my reaction was “go figure, that makes perfect sense”.

I was sad to read that toward the end of her life when operations on a brain tumor impaired her speech and movement, Dharma wasn’t treated with the respect she deserved by the intellectual community. My guess is this was partly because she never held back from calling out double standards, and wasn’t afraid of challenging orthodoxy. It’s heart-rendering that her 94-year old mother-in-law stood by her till the very end as a care-giver. Dharma Kumar’s is the story of an extraordinary woman, and I cannot wait to dive into her work as an economic historian. I plan to start with her article on attitudes of Indian intellectuals toward the affirmative action debate in India (here).

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