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Renowned Princeton Tamil scholar dies in Mussoorie, India, after accidental fall while leading summer class

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Clark-Decès is survived by her daughter Penelope Nabokov and longtime partner Frederick Smith.

Isabella Clark-Decès, a Princeton resident and an anthropology professor at Princeton University, died last week while leading a summer class in the Uttarakhand town of Mussoorie.

The 61-year-old professor died from an accidental fall on June 29, the university said in a statement.

Clark-Decès, a widely respected scholar of South Asia, was directing a global seminar offered by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

The six-week seminar, titled “At Home (And Abroad) in the Indian Himalayas,  was part of institute’s seven international seminars for small groups of undergraduates.

“We have lost a passionate teacher,” Carolyn Rouse, a professor of anthropology and department chair said in the statement. “Walking through the halls, one could often hear Isabelle mentoring her undergraduate students. She always provided clear and honest advice, delivered with encouragement and love. She absolutely adored her students and regularly praised them in faculty meetings.”

The professor, who joined Princeton faculty in 1996, was a frequent traveler to South Asia. Her research focused on the Tamils of South India and Sri Lanka.

“An inspiring and skilled field worker, she wrote rigorous, beautiful books about kinship and ritual, but at heart at work was about love and survival, and she pushed us to find what was human in the social structures scholars puzzle over,” said Pinto, an associate professor of anthropology at Tufts University. “Early in my career, Isabelle often reminded me to look for the joy, love, anger, and grief in social action – I continue to hear that message and will miss her and voice very much.”

Born in Paris, Clark-Decès earned her bachelor’s degree and Ph.D., both in anthropology, from the University of California- Berkeley.  She also published ethnographic research on Tamil funeral dirges, the relation between ethnographic field experience and anthropological knowledge, and South Indian kinship. She also edited a textbook titled “A Companion to the being means for villagers living in Karnataka.

Clark-Decès is survived by her daughter Penelope Nabokov and longtime partner Frederick Smith.