Leela Dube, who passed away in New Delhi on Sunday aged 89, was one of the early pioneers of feminist scholarship in India along with Irawati Karve, Vina Majumdar, and Lotika Sarkar. Scan through the acknowledgements and citations of any sociological or anthropological book on kinship or gender in India, from the 1960s till the present, and her name comes up with unfailing regularity.
In a delightful autobiographical essay published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2000 (‘Doing Kinship and Gender'), Leela Dube nee Ambardekar describes the early influences that determined her future interests – her middle class Marathi Brahmin upbringing (her sister, Sumati Mutatkar went on to become a renowned classical vocalist), her mother's generosity within the family, literature that showed both the suffering and the strength of women, the everyday gossip around familial politics and intrigues, and the nationalist movement. Given the inchoate feminism of the time, she felt she had to marry but if she was to do so, she wanted a partner who would encourage rather than stultify her intellectually. While doing an MA in Political Science at Nagpur University she heard of Shyama Charan Dube, a reputedly brilliant student, and decided to propose to him. He later became a well-known anthropologist. Inevitably, Leela Dube had to carve her career around his, the fate of many women not just of her generation but also today. However, as with other such inspiring women, she managed to balance both home and work, and one might even say, surpassed her husband in her sociological legacy. She taught at Sagar University from 1960-75, and held several fellowships at the ICSSR, Teen Murti, the Centre for Women's Development Studies among others.
Leela Dube's Ph.D. (1953, Anthropology) was on women in three adivasi groups, comparing their lives to upper caste women, but she is best known for her work on Muslim matriliny in Lakshwadeep, Matriliny and Islam: Religion and society in the Laccadives (1969) and marriage and kinship relations more broadly. Like many women scholars, it is her own experience which deeply shaped her interests - marriage as she describes it was a relation of both “gratification” and “agony”. In between, she also collaborated with S.C. Dube on research among rural communities in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. However, it was her work as a member of the National Committee on the Status of Women between 1971 and 1974 which transformed her into an established and internationally recognised feminist scholar. She served on several boards, including as chairperson of the Commission on Women of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, from 1976-1993, and as series editor of the women and household volumes published by Sage.
In 2007, Leela Dube was given the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Indian Sociological Society, and was awarded the UGC National Swami Pranavananda Saraswati Award for 2005. She remained active and engaged with scholarship till almost the very end. Her book, Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Intersecting fields, was published by Sage in 2001. Of a generation of multilingual scholars that is now sadly passing away, her very last publication was the Marathi Manavashastratil lingbhavachi shodhamohim (2009).(Keith Hart speaks is the Hindu newspaper of 21 May 2012.)