It is with shock and sadness that I convey the news that Isabelle Clark-Decès, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies, has died in an accidental fall from a steep mountain walking path in the north Indian hill station of Mussourie, where she had been leading a Princeton summer program. It was midday, and she was walking alone on a familiar trail, when she slipped and tumbled down the slope. Help arrived quickly, but she could not be revived. Her partner Prof. Fred Smith (Univ of Iowa) was summoned from his research site several hours away, and he was quickly joined by personal friends and colleagues from Delhi and Pune. Arrangements will be made to spread her ashes near her home on the Pacific coastline north of San Francisco.
Professor Clark-Decès received her Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1995. She was a highly respected and well-published anthropologist of religion, caste, and kinship in Tamil Nadu, and she had recently begun a new fieldwork project in Jaffna, Sri Lanka in 2015-2016 supported by an AISLS research fellowship. Before turning to her new project in Sri Lanka, she had published four rich ethnographic monographs based upon fieldwork in Tamilnadu: Religion Against the Self: An Ethnography of Tamil Rituals (Oxford 2000, under the name Isabelle Nabokov), No One Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs and Graveyard Petitions (California 2005), The Encounter Never Ends: A Return to the Field of Tamil Rituals (SUNY 2007), and The Right Spouse: Preferential Marriages in Tamil Nadu (Stanford 2014).
She was an absolutely dedicated ethnographer, always seeking in her fieldwork to grasp the cultural and emotional lives of her interlocutors though dialogues and case studies pursued in the local Tamil dialect. Fred Smith remarked that she was an indefatigable researcher and writer: “In a few short months in Jaffna in 2015, she accumulated perhaps 400 pages of notes, where she was one of the the first anthropologists to work after the trauma of the 26 year civil war in Sri Lanka.” Anyone who met Isabelle would attest to her contagious and ebullient French-American personality. Her contribution to south Indian anthropology will be remembered by close colleagues and friends she made throughout her career. For Sri Lankan studies, her death represents a missed opportunity for new knowledge and understanding of Jaffna society. AISLS shares her loss with everyone who felt her love and admired her scholarship.
President, American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies