How a tragedy gave birth to a classic

How a tragedy gave birth to a classic

M N Srinivas

Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas, popularly known as M N Srinivas, was a pioneering anthropologist and sociologist. Srinivas coined phrases like “dominant caste”, “vote bank” and “Sanskritization,” phrases that almost everyone knows and hears constantly during election season.

Fifty years ago, in April 1970, a fire tragedy took place at the Centre for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences (CASBS), Stanford University, USA. Anti-Vietnam war protesters set fire to CASBS buildings, partially destroying two buildings and the works of several scholars at the centre. One of them lost everything, it was none other than M N Srinivas. He was doing a one-year fellowship at the CASBS at the time. Srinivas was then working on his seminal work ‘The Remembered Village’, which delved into caste and the social system in India. All three copies he had of the draft monograph, including notes and other research materials that he had collected over a span of 18 years, were all destroyed in the fire. Books, charts, maps, photographs and correspondence relating to ethnography and 5,000 cards of handwritten, processed filed notes also perished. Srinivas recounts the story in the first pages of ‘The Remembered Village.’ The book also contains an acknowledgment of the part played by the arsonists in the making of the book into a sort of ‘memoir.’

Srinivas was shattered upon finding his years of hardwork reduced to ashes. He contemplated dropping this work altogether. However, Sol Tax, an American anthropologist and a friend of Srinivas, motivated him to work on it again by suggesting that he recollect memories of his field work and interactions he had with people as a part of his extensive research. At first, it appeared to be a daunting task, indeed a terrifying prospect for a deeply devoted researcher like Srinivas, in the absence of the vast inputs and findings he had collected over the years. The only solace was that the raw field notes of his study were kept in Delhi. The Ford Foundation in Delhi microfilmed these raw field notes and airmailed the film rolls to CASBS. A grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation to CASBS supported Srinivas.

However, the raw field notes were related to Srinivas’ first visit to Rampura and it did not contain corrections and addenda Srinivas had recorded on cards on subsequent visits there. Despite all the obstacles and uncertainties, Srinivas, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, recreated his work ‘The Remembered Village’, relying solely on his sharp memory and raw field notes. The title of the book also does justice in such a scenario. The book was first published in 1976 by University of California Press.

As a result, the book was not so much an academic book, and was rather written in the form of a novel. One can even see the influence of R K Narayan, the celebrated writer and literary figure, who was also a close friend of Srinivas. However, ‘The Remembered Village’ is not just lucid English prose or a lucid account of a village field study, but a piece of ethnographic literature filled with an anthropologist’s point of view on caste and class. It also provides a portrait of the lives and practices in an Indian village in post-Independence India. The book showcases the complexities of inter- and intra-caste relations in the Rampura community. It also offers insight into the nature of ethnographic research.

The book is set in Rampura (now known as Kodagahalli), a village about 34 kilometres from Mysore (now Mysuru). Till 2007, many thought of Rampura as a mystical village. But studies and researches by anthropologists from Mysore University and the Anthropological Survey of India led to the finding that Kodagahalli was actually the ‘Rampura’ of Srinivas.

The field study undertaken by Srinivas in 1948 is also worth remembering. He visited Rampura a few days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. He went to the village to study the social structure and caste system of the village. The villagers, then mourning the death of Gandhi, asked him to return after the thirteenth day of mourning. Srinivas returned after the period, this time taking along with him a cook and 26 pieces of luggage and stayed in the village for 11 months to familiarise himself with the social set-up and culture and customs. He made frequent visits to the villages till 1970, after which he returned to CASBS at Stanford University to complete his work. The fire tragedy struck when he was all set to finalize his monograph. It took another six years for Srinivas to finish ‘The Remembered Village,’ and when it was published in 1976, it went on to become an all-time classic in ethnographic studies. Through ‘The Remembered Village’, Srinivas highlighted the importance of caste loyalties in electoral politics, apart from the influence of ‘dominant caste groups.’

Srinivas laid the foundations of research into Indian village society in the post–Independence years. In 1972, Prof VKRV Rao and Srinivas co-founded the Institute of Social and Economic Change (ISEC) in Bengaluru. A Chair has been instituted at ISEC in the name of Prof M N Srinivas, who died in November 1999.

(The writer formerly held the Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralization and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru)