Isabelle Clark-Decès was born in Paris on 19 June 1956 but, as “a wild, young French girl wanting experience in California” – in the words of her fellow Princeton anthropologist John Borneman – she decided to study anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley for both her first degree and her PhD.
She first travelled to India alone at the age of 20, taking buses and trains from Istanbul through Iran and Afghanistan, and was deeply struck by “the gentleness of the people” and “the invitation of women to sit with them”. She would return to southern India many times and became one of the world’s leading experts on Tamil culture.
In 1996, Professor Clark-Decès joined the faculty at Princeton University, where she served as professor of anthropology and, from 2007, director of South Asian studies, responsible for courses on India, ritual, kinship and religion. She was the author of Religion against the Self: An Ethnography of Tamil Rituals (2000), No One Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs, and Graveyard Petitions (2005), The Encounter Never Ends: A Return to the Field of Tamil Rituals (2007) and The Right Spouse: Preferential Marriages in Tamil Nadu (2014). She was also the editor of A Companion to the Anthropology of India (2011).
“Isabelle Clark-Decès was known for her analytical rigour and detailed knowledge of the religion and kinship of southern India,” said Carolyn Rouse, professor of anthropology and department chair at Princeton. Often regarded as “one of the top scholars of Tamil tradition and ritual practices in the world”, she also “proposed a theory of Tamil subjectivity that was profoundly distinct from Western subjectivity, where identities are generally understood as bounded and stable”.
Passionately committed to her students as well as to her research in India, in 2014 Professor Clark-Decès led a group of undergraduates on a “global seminar”, based in the city of Mysore, devoted to the theme of “Growing up in India”. She was following it up this year with another six-week study trip, featuring Hindi classes, guest lectures by scholars from local universities and excursions into the ecologically and culturally diverse Garhwal region, titled “At home (and abroad) in the Indian Himalayas”.
It was on 29 June, in the village of Mussoorie, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, that Professor Clark-Decès had a fatal fall. She is survived by her daughter Penelope Nabokov and long-term partner Frederick Smith.