Veena Das

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Veena Das (Hindi: वीना दास; born 1945) is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University. She also serves on the Executive Board of the Institute of Socio-Economic Research on Development and Democracy in India. She studied at the Indraprastha College for Women and Delhi School of Economics at the University of Delhi and taught there from 1967 to 2000. She has published extensively as an ethnographer of India and thus is an established figure within Indian anthropology. Beyond India, her research has broad appeal within the anthropology of violence, suffering, and the State. Some of her PhD students went on to become distinguished sociologists and social anthropologists; such as Susan Visvanathan (JNU),Roma Chatterjee (DU) and many others in India and abroad.


Das completed her Ph.D. in 1970 at the University of Delhi under the supervision of M.N. Srinivas. She was Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research from 1997-2000 before moving to the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. Some of her research interests include: feminist movements, gender studies, sectarian violence, medical anthropology, post-colonial and post-structural theory.


Her first book Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1977) brought the textual practices of 13th to 17th century in relation to self representation of caste groups in focus. Her identification of the structure of Hindu thought in terms of the tripartite division between priesthood, kinship and renunciation proved to be an extremely important structuralist interpretation of the important poles within which innovations and claims to new status by caste groups took place.

Veena Das's most recent book is Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, California University Press, 2006. As the title implies, Das sees violence not as an interruption of ordinary life but as something that is implicated in the ordinary. The philosopher Stanley Cavell has written a memorable foreword to the book in which he says that one way of reading it is as a companion to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. One of the chapters in the book deals with the state of abducted women in the post-independence time period and has been the interest of various legal historians. Life and Words is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell, but it also deals with particular moments …

Two moments are addressed:

The Partition of India in 1947 (she worked with urban Punjabi families who survived and migrated after the riots in ’47)

The assassination of Indira Gandhi 1984 (she worked with survivors of riots against Sikhs)

But Life and Words is not about events per se, rather… the book ‘narrates the lives of particular persons and communities who were deeply embedded in these events, and it describes the way that the event attaches itself with its tentacles into everyday life and folds itself into the recesses of the ordinary.’


Since the eighties she became engrossed in the study of violence and social suffering. Her edited book, Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia published by Oxford University Press in 1990 was one of the first to bring issues of violence within anthropology of South Asia. A trilogy on these subjects that she edited with Arthur Kleinman and others in the late nineties and early twenties gave a new direction to these fields. The volumes are titled Social Suffering; Violence and Subjectivity; and Remaking a World.


She received the Anders Retzius Gold Medal from the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography in 1995,[1] and an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2000.[2] She is a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences[3] and a fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences. In 2007, Das delivered the Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture at the University of Rochester, considered by many to be the most important annual lecture series in the field of Anthropology.[4]

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