The SOAS Fürer-Haimendorf Collection: a detailed insight into South Asian tribal culture

Nepalese family; Fürer-Haimendorf

A family of three in Patan, Nepal poses in front of the camera. The man seems a little distracted, whereas his wife looks at the lens coyly, as the toddler she is holding in her arms, clutches on to her beaded necklace. 

Another family, a slightly larger one is waddling in the waters off the coast in Sri Lanka. The sky appears grey and dramatic, but the Sinhalese group seems carefree as they enjoy their bath.

A Khasi man is hard at work somewhere in Northeastern India. His young daughter sits on her hunches with a frown on her face, as she watches him make pots alongside others in the potter community. 

These are just three of the thousands of photographs in the digitized Fürer-Haimendorf Collection available as an archive in the SOAS Digital Collections. The three might give an idea on the extensive fieldwork done by anthropologist Fürer-Haimendorf on tribal societies in South Asia, but his work extends much beyond photographs and includes journals, books, film material, slides and more.

Born, and raised in Austria, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf pursued a PhD in anthropology from the University of Vienna in 1931, followed by a study at the London School of Economics, under the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. In 1936, Fürer-Haimendorf travelled to the Naga hills in northeastern India for his first fieldwork on the Konyak tribes. After doing a detailed ethnographic study of the Konyak tribals, his anthropological fieldwork took him to Central and Southern India, Sri Lanka and Nepal where he worked extensively for the next forty years. In 1950, Fürer-Haimendorf was appointed as the Professor of Anthropology at SOAS, where he established the Department of Anthropology. He served as the President of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1975-77) and published 17 books on ethnographies of South Asian tribal cultures in his career. 

South Asia
Photograph: Fürer-Haimendorf archive/SOAS Digital Collections

In a 1983 interview with anthropologist Alan Macfarlane as part of the World Oral Literature Project, Fürer-Haimendorf reveals his desires of becoming an anthropologist, his interest in travelling to India and doing fieldwork in South Asia. However, it is surprising to find out that the latter inspired the former. Fürer-Haimendorf states, “I got to anthropology through India. As a schoolboy of age 15 or 16, I got very interested in India, I read Tagore, I read about Gandhi and so on, and so I thought ‘Ah well, if I take anthropology I might have the chance once to go to India’, so really India was the first interest, and from that, I got on to anthropology”.

Fürer-Haimendorf’s detailed interview with Alan Macfarlane reveals many interesting anecdotes and ethnographic insights about his fieldwork experience in several of these areas. He is regarded as one of the pioneers of understanding and documenting the tribal culture of South Asia. From the Raj Gond tribes of Central India to the Konyaks of Nagaland and the Gurkhas of present-day Nepal, his seminal studies established the base of the academic and journalistic study of the tribal societies in these regions. Post the Second World War, Fürer-Haimendorf was named Advisor for Tribes and Backward Classes to the Nizam’s Government of Hyderabad. He even has a memorial in Adilabad where Fürer-Haimendorf researched the Raj Gonds in the 1940s.

India, like most other countries in the Global South, has been a popular site of cultural enquiry for Europeans, especially during colonial times. The work of white academics and researchers has often been criticized for showcasing tribal cultures of the Global South in a ‘primitive light’ as they exercise their own ideas of ‘western modernity’ and often engage in a kind of salvage anthropology, perhaps encouraged by the ‘white saviour complex’. 

Potter; South Asia
Photograph: Fürer-Haimendorf/SOAS Digital Collections

However, the works of Fürer-Haimendorf are considered to be some of the most objective and informed accounts of tribal societies in South Asia. His gaze is empathetic and his writing, lucid and detailed with fewer assumptions. He described the headhunter Naga tribe, otherwise perceived as wild, backward and dangerous’ as a warm, self-sufficient and an intelligent community. He also does not hold back in his criticism for the colonial government and their inefficiencies in approaching and upholding the welfare of tribals in India. He writes in detail about the impacts of heavy industrialisation in tribal belts, poorly executed rehabilitation schemes and more in his book ‘ Tribes Of India: The Struggle For Survival’ published in 1982.

His scholarship and the snippets of his glorious career spanning over 50 years is visible in the Fürer-Haimendorf Digital collection that has an archive of about 15,000 items, with descriptions alongside a browsing map, spatial and other details. The physical collections from which this digital collection is drawn includes more than 21,000 photographs, 3,200 slides and over 100 hours of cinefilm; alongside field notes, diaries, essays, conference papers and lectures. It was donated to SOAS by Fürer-Haimendorf’s son Nicholas Haimendorf in 1995 and then deposited in the Archives & Special Collections. 

As most of the world, now seeps into isolation, this digitized ethnographic archive is an insightful resource to delve into — to decode complex ethnographic histories or simply enjoy the pleasures of photographic narratives and empathetically understand the tribal cultures of the Indian subcontinent.

Explore the digitized Fürer-Haimendorf SOAS Collection. Watch Fürer-Haimendorf’s interview with Alan Macfarlane, or read the transcription here.

Devyani Nighoskar is a student of Critical Media and Cultural Studies at SOAS. 

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