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In memoriam

M.N. Srinivas, 1916-1999

THE death of Professor M.N. Srinivas on the 30th of November was not only a great loss to the social sciences in India, but also a personal loss to his students and many admirers. I had the privilege of knowing him from 1964 when I joined the Department of Sociology as a Master’s student and was later accepted as a Ph.D. student under his supervision. Though in some ways I had known him for almost all my adult life, there remained a tremendous reserve between us. He was always generous in his praise, commented on everything I wrote, and conveyed the idea that he expected me to think much harder on many of the issues we discussed.

Srinivas’ contribution to the disciplines of sociology and social anthropology and to public life in India was unique. He received many honours from Bombay University, the Royal Anthropological Institute, Government of France, the Padma Shree from the President of India, and was honorary foreign member of the two most prestigious Academies – the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Without recounting all the directions that his research took, I believe that it was his capacity to break out of the strong mould in which area studies had been cast after the end of the Second World War on the one hand, and to experiment with the disciplinary grounding of social anthropology and sociology on the other, which marked his originality. Although he had already written a book on family and marriage in Mysore and completed his Ph.D. at Bombay University before he went to Oxford in the late forties, his training there was to play a significant role in the development of his ideas.

The generation of social scientists which came into academic adulthood, so to say, at the time of Independence, had to forge the idea of social sciences under the sign of the nation. It is these contradictory impulses – training into a discipline which had been part of the colonial enterprise (at least in the United Kingdom and France), yet participating in its establishment in a newly freed nation – that I believe shaped Srinivas’ major innovations in the discipline.

It may be important to point out that it was the conjuncture between Sanskritic scholarship and the strategic concerns of World War II which shaped South Asian area studies in the U.S. Already in the colonial period, the Pandits were accepted as important interlocutors of Hindu laws and customs to the colonial administrators. The colonial assumptions about an unchanging Indian society led to the curious assemblage of Sanskrit studies with contemporary issues in most South Asian departments in the U.S. and elsewhere. It was strongly believed that an Indian sociology must lie at the conjunction of Indology and sociology.

Srinivas’ suspicion of this view was articulated in his distinction between what he called the ‘book view’ and the ‘field view’ of Indian society. It is interesting to observe that he discovered the importance of Sanskrit, not because of assumptions about an unchanging India and through his studies of texts, but because of the possibility that sanskritization offered for upward mobility in the lives of people. He rejected the notion of Brahmanization because for him sanskritization was mediated in the lives of the peasant castes through local or regional models of dominant castes. If one recalls that immediately after Independence, scholars of Sanskrit such as V. Raghavan were trying to cast Sanskrit in the role of a national language which could promote emotional integrity through education and state ceremonial, we find that Srinivas’ concept was indeed extremely innovative for it dissociated Brahmanism with the spread and status of Sanskrit which could embody other values.

In my own development as a sociologist, he played a major role by suggesting that we need to look at texts in a completely new light. Thus I found that Sanskrit was by no means confined to the high texts of culture but was also the language in which local aspirations of castes, such as the wrestler castes, were expressed in the 12th and 13th centuries. It is now known that the relation between vernacularization and sanskritization was a complicated one and the first millennium was a period of radical reconceptualizations in the ideology of language. I believe that Srinivas’ ideas about what relation could be forged between Indology and sociology were subtle and we have yet to fully appreciate the intellectual milieu in which his notions of ‘book’ and ‘field’ were articulated.

Srinivas’ views on the importance of caste in the electoral processes in India are well known. While some have interpreted this to attest to the enduring structural principles of Indian society, for Srinivas this was a sign of the dynamic changes that were taking place as democracy spread and electoral politics became a resource in the local worlds of village society. By inclination he was not given to utopian constructions – his ideas about justice, equality and eradication of poverty were rooted in his experiences on the ground. His integrity in the face of demands that his sociology should take into account the new and radical aspirations was one of the most moving aspects of his writing.

I remember a seminar in the seventies, when a student asked him why he had not written at greater length about the experience of untouchability in Rampura, the village he had studied. His remark was candid. As a guest of the headman who knew that he was a Brahmin, he had not been allowed to mix freely with members of these castes: his experience was limited – hence he could not speak on their behalf. Their experiences were much better represented, he felt, in the literature produced by them. For sociology to integrate these questions in its conceptual fields was not something, he said, that could be done by waving a magical wand but instead, had to be patiently worked at. This is why he was passionately interested in expanding the base of the subject so that new kinds of experiences and voices could be brought centrally into its fold. He worked hard to establish a North Eastern Hill Areas Programme in the Department of Sociology at the University of Delhi in the early seventies so that new kinds of students could be trained to do research and the discipline renewed.

As part of his methodological practice, Srinivas strongly advocated fieldwork but his concept of fieldwork was tied to the notion of locally bounded sites. Thus some of his best papers, such as the paper on dominant caste and one on a joint family dispute, came from his participation in village life. Yet, Srinivas did not write only on the village. He wrote several papers on the themes of national integration, issues of gender, new technologies, and I have often wondered why he did not theorize on the methodological implications of writing on these issues which went beyond the village. The only inclination I had of how aware he was of breaking from the classical traditions of fieldwork was when he told me jokingly that he had decided to dedicate his book on Social Change in Modern India to Evans Pritchard because it represented a style of doing sociology that was completely the opposite of Evans Pritchard’s!

Srinivas had great literary skills. These are evident not only in his book on Rampura which he reconstructed from memory (A Remembered Village), but also in the many autobiographical pieces he wrote. These essays bring out his relationship with the major anthropologists with whom he interacted, his recollections of how he constructed the discipline not only as a scholar but also as one engaged in pedagogic practices and in building the institutional foundations of these subjects. Autobiography is not the favoured mode of doing anthropology or philosophy any more – the region of the self which he explored was that of the impersonal – hence his writing was quite different from the narcissistic renderings of the self one often finds passing as autobiography.

As a teacher, Srinivas was never intrusive. He let you discover your own passions. He had the wonderful quality of patience. Yet he seemed to instinctively know when you had touched rock bottom and was there to help pull you out of your despair. I remember most the days when I would hang around near the Delhi School gate as the time for him to go back home neared, hoping that I may be allowed to walk with him. We had stimulating conversations on books, music, and political events. Reading the 19th century ethnologies was his passion. And though in the classroom he completely supported Radcliffe Brown’s critique of ‘conjectural history’, he gave me many such books to read. I also shared his passion for detective novels which made for a nice relationship those days. In looking back, I think he may even have looked forward to those conversations.

Recently I had the opportunity to read a brilliant essay on film by his elder daughter, Lakshmi Srinivas. I recognized some traces of Srinivas’ style in her. As his most devoted disciple, I know that one inherited his concerns and his style not by replicating what he did but by finding what was at stake for oneself. Lakshmi’s paper made me feel that he must have communicated this to his two daughters, for here was no blind imitation or any claim over him by birthright as it were, but simply a testimony to a man who never imposed his brilliance on the younger generation. It accounts for the mixed feelings of joy at having known him and regret that I did not know him better. I hope he knew that his work and his life were an inspiration to those who knew him personally and many who encountered him only through his writing. His contributions to the making of sociology and social anthropology in India were unique. One hopes that his legacy will grow in the work of the younger generation he nourished and delighted in.

Veena Das