Biography of Guy Poitevin (1934-2004)

This is a modified and updated version of Guy Poitevin's self-introduction in a seminar in 2002.

[Version française]

Guy Poitevin was born in Mayenne (France) in 1934. He studied to become a priest in Laval and in Rome. After graduating in philosophy from the Sorbonne (University of Paris) and in theology from the Gregoriana University in Rome, he taught philosophy for twelve years (1958-1970) in a seminary in Western France.

His first encounter with India was (in his own words) "intellectual, aimed at including in (his) teaching elements of India's religious and philosophical traditions, mainly the Upanishads." He also got the opportunity to learn more about Indian society, culture and history when he spent a month with a Brahmin family in Pune in 1967. Guy was encouraged to visit India again in 1969 and also take up the study of Sanskrit in Paris. In the same year, he started studying Marathi as he intended to return to Pune for a long stay, his friends having convinced him that he would find it easier to keep in touch with students. His dream was realised in 1972 when his friends succeeded in obtaining a resident's visa for him.

During his early years in Pune, Guy Poitevin was able to come into close contact with Indian students through the Students' Welfare Association. He also taught at the Alliance Française and was a member of its committee. In addition to his teaching, these contacts led him to take up systematic research in the field of cultural anthropology. He undertook large-scale field studies on the attitudes and aspirations of students from an underprivileged background. The results of this study formed the subject of a doctoral thesis in developmental social sciences defended in the EHESS (School of Social Sciences), University of Paris, in 1978, as well as a book on the ideology of poverty.

He later conducted research projects on a wide variety of topics: grass-root development processes, social action, migration, health programmes, gender studies, participatory research, autobiographies of Dalits in Marathi, women coolies, etc. Guy Poitevin was associated at the time with an international group of research scholars under the leadership of Prof. Chombart de Lauwe (ARCI). The results of these studies were presented to this group by Guy Poitevin and published in several journals, UNESCO reports as well as in book form. His knowledge of Marathi enabled him to translate into French and publish documents on Maharashtra's social history, Dalit literature and oral traditions. But gradually, he began to concentrate more on popular oral traditions like the songs sung by women while grinding grain, oral myths circulating in lower social strata, the social memory of marginalised communities, the indigenous knowledge of traditional midwives and from the methodological viewpoint, experiments in the use of "cooperative" research methods in social sciences.

Guy finally decided to settle down in India and devote himself to creating awareness among people living in remote rural areas. He became an Indian citizen by naturalisation in 1978 and married Hema Rairkar the same year.

Later, he became involved in two types of theoretically related activities carried out through two small associations he set up for this purpose with friends and associates. The Village Community Development Association (VCDA) for socio-cultural action in remote rural areas was founded in 1978 and the Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences (CCRSS) in 1980. He devoted himself totally to the organisation and coordination of these activities by holding national and international seminars, conducting research projects and publishing articles and books in French and English.

The scientific goals of CCRSS were related to the fields mentioned earlier and issues such as the right to produce relevant social knowledge, the relevance of the unexpressed opinions of voiceless groups, acceptance of popular oral traditions as repositories of indigenous knowledge and cognitive forms associated with them, grass-root communication processes and cooperative research as a means of self-investigation through communication. The Centre has organised international seminars on topics like popular culture, power versus culture and communication, popular culture and cultural action, communication processes and tradition versus modernity. An account of these activities was published in 1996 by Jean Pacquement and Pierre Lachaier under the title "A propos et autour du séminaire 'Communication Processes and Social Transformation' (Pune, 8-13 January 1996)", in the Bulletin de l'Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient, Volume 83, pp. 336-346. Further information on the subject can be obtained on the CCRSS web-site (http://ccrss.ws) hosted by the Leiden University (IIAS).

In March 2004, Guy Poitevin played an active role in the organisation of a workshop of young researchers in the social sciences which brought together French research fellows preparing their doctoral theses on subjects related to the Indian subcontinent (Association des Jeunes Etudes Indiennes - AJEI).

Several projects undertaken by CCRSS and VCDA have received support from the Charles-Leopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind (Fondation pour le Progrès de l'Homme - FPH). Guy Poitevin was the author, translator and co-ordinator of a number of books, the more notable among them being Ma vie d'intouchable (My Life as an Untouchable by Daya Pawar, La Découverte, 1990), Parole de femmes intouchables (Untouchable Women Speak Up by Shantabai and Baby Kamble, Côté-femmes, 1991), Femmes coolie en Inde - salariat, culture et survive en ville (Women Coolies in India - Wages, Culture and Survival in Cities by G. Poitevin and H. Rairkar, Syros-FPH, 1994). Very recently, he co-edited with Vibodh Parthasarathi the English version of a trilingual book on communication titled L'idiot du Village Mondial - les citoyens de la planète face à l'explosion de la communication (An Idiot in the Global Village - Citizens of Planet Earth Faced with the Communication Explosion) to be published in September 2004 in Europe (Editions Charles Léopold Mayer and Editions Luc Pire) and in Brazil (Editora Vozes) and in 2005 in India under the title "Communication Processes" (Sage India). He was also part of an exchange programme between India and China sponsored by FPH following which he received a Chinese and a Vietnamese delegation from 9 to 15 January 2004 with the aim of introducing them to rural and urban India.

Seminars on communication, culture and power organised in Pune and New Delhi with support from FPH and the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi, led to the publication of a book in three volumes (forthcoming) titled "Communication Processes" edited by Guy Poitevin jointly with Bernard Bel, Biswajit Das and Vibodh Parthasarathi.

Guy Poitevin passed away in Pune on 29 August 2004. He was admitted to hospital on his return from France at the end of July as he was suffering from extreme fatigue and encephalic pain. He had just given the finishing touches to the manuscript of his last book Le chant d'Ambedkar, mémoire de soi de paysannes intouchables (Ambedkar's Song - Social Memory of Untouchable Women Peasants).


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