Irawati was born in 1905 and named after the river Irawaddy in Burma where her father, Ganesh Hari Karmarkar worked. At seven, she was sent to the Huzur Paga boarding school for girls in Pune. One of her classmates at the school was Shakuntala Paranjapye, daughter of Wrangler Paranjapye, Principal of Fergusson College, Pune. Shakuntala’s mother took an instant liking to Irawati and adopted her as her second child. In her new home, Irawati experienced a stimulating intellectual atmosphere and was introduced to a variety of books. Irawati studied Philosophy at the Fergusson College, graduating in 1926. She then got the Dakshina Fellowship to work under G. S. Ghurye, the head of the Department of Sociology at Bombay University. In the meantime, she got married to the chemist Dinkar Dhondo Karve – son of the great social reformer Maharishi Karve – pioneer of widow remarriage and women’s education in Maharashtra. Getting married into a ‘progressive’ family did not prove advantageous. For, while Maharishi Karve encouraged women in public, this liberalism did not extend to his own family. Karve opposed Irawati’s attempts to go to Germany for higher studies. Despite opposition in 1928, Irawati went to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology to do her PhD. Her thesis topic was: The normal asymmetry of the human skull. Irawati and her husband realized early that they were not cut out for social reform work. So, they both stuck to research and teaching. Dinkar taught chemistry and later became the Principal of the Fergusson College.Dinkar recognized the exceptional intellectual abilities of his wife and solidly stood behind her. Her work brought her recognition in India and abroad. She was elected President of the Anthropology section of the Indian Science Congress in 1947 and was offered a lecturership in the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University.
Areas of interest:
She was an Indologist, a collector of folk songs and a translator of feminist poems. She was interested in surveys of castes and tribes in order to piece together a more comprehensive picture of society. Irawati was inherently curious and was passionate about doing field work in new areas of research – like archaeological explorations. Her interests ranged over Indology, social anthropology and physical anthropology. Her’s was a one person enterprise, unaided by infrastructural facilities of an organisation or funding by a project.
Throughout her life, she retained classical anthropology’s preoccupation with the question of human origins, as applied to the Indian social context. The intellectual, atheistic household, she was exposed to a wide range of books and people, one of whom was judge Balakram, who instilled in her an interest in anthropology, a field in which she was to work and leave her mark. After returning to India, she worked for a brief period as Registrar of S.N.D.T. College in Pune. Her real interest, however, lay not in the administrative field but in scientific research and the academic field.
The goal she thus set for herself was very much in line with the general aims and objects of anthropology. Specific questions she sought answers to were:
i) Whether more detailed cultural and physical configurations can be established in India in terms of historical, proto-historical folk movements?
ii) What were the physical features of the people who were responsible for the numerous historic and proto-historic sites found all over India?
iii) What is caste?
To find answers to such questions, her approach was ethno-historical, perhaps the result of her training in Berlin. She started simultaneous investigations in four inter-disciplinary branches: Paleo-anthropology, Indological studies, epics and oral traditions, systematic physical anthropological investigations in various regions, and detailed sociological studies in different linguistic areas.