MN Srinivas: The Oxford sociologist who studied caste in Indian society

MN Srinivas was a world-renowned sociologist from Mysore who made “vote bank,” “dominant caste” and “Sankritisation” household phrases.

Janaki Murali May 14, 2016 10:41:33 IST
MN Srinivas: The Oxford sociologist who studied caste in Indian society

With the Karnataka government deciding to grant Rs 1 crore to the University of Oxford, UK for a Chair in Anthropology of India, the birth centenary of world-renowned sociologist MN Srinivas has kicked off in right earnest. The grant, once it gets its final nod from the Cabinet, will not only honour MNS’ memory, but it will also allow the work of a man who made “vote bank,” “dominant caste” and “Sankritisation” household phrases, to be carried on at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

According to the university's website, the endowment of the MN Srinivas Professorship in the Anthropology of India will ensure that the study of India and South Asia gets the prominence it deserves. Oxford hopes that students of MSc and MPhil will receive the best possible grounding, including the anthropological view, to provide bottom-up, field-based perspectives which Srinivas popularised.

MN Srinivas The Oxford sociologist who studied caste in Indian society

MN Srinivas

After Srinivas, the Oxford lectureship was held by important and influential European Anthropologists of India of the 20th century. It has been vacant since 2008.

In 2014, Oxford University Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton reached out to the Karnataka government and explained that the university is establishing an MN Srinivas Professorship in Anthropology of India. He sought a grant from the government. The Karnataka State Higher Education Council then requested former vice chancellor of Karnataka Women’s University, Geetha Bali, to lead a team to work out the modalities.

Mysuru’s own homegrown sociologist, Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas (16 November 1916 – 30 November 1999), introduced concepts that are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago, when he carried out a study on Indian society. The elections in West Bengal and Tamilnadu, the Jat stir, the Patel stir and the drama unfolding at Uttarakhand – all of them will find echoes in MNS’ seminal work The Remembered Village, while describes Rampura, a village about 30 kms from Mysuru.

The Remembered Village (1976) delves into the Indian caste and social system. He described the different castes in the village as being interdependent. He returned to Mysuru from Oxford to undertake his study in August 1947, just after India became independent. For a long time after the study was conducted, Rampura was considered a mythical village, but in 2007, a group of anthropologists from Mysore University and Anthropological Survey of India undertook a trip to locate it. They concluded that Kodagahalli was actually Srinivas’ Rampura. Sociologists and students who undertook several trips to Kodagahalli after that, found the village stuck in a time warp and just the way Srinivas described it all those years ago.

The Remembered Village almost didn't get written. When Srinivas was in Stanford in the 1970s, his Rampura notes were burnt down during an anti-Vietnam protest. He wrote the book from salvaged notes and largely from memory. The book was thus, not so much an academic book, but written in the easy style of a novelist, with his rich descriptions of village life. In all probability he was influenced by his famous fellow Mysurean and good friend, author RK Narayan.

Srinivas begins The Remembered Village by talking about three important men in the village: the headman, Kulle Gowda and Nadu Gowda who contributed significantly to his understanding of village life and culture. Much like an accomplished novelist, he then goes on to describe the three men. Here’s a vignette from his description of the headman:

“The first thing that struck me about the headman was that he looked like one. He was tall, well and muscularly built, his face seemed as though it had been carved out of the dark granite boulders which were dotted about the countryside.”

Other than The Remembered Village, Srinivas has written several books and essays (Marriage and Family in Mysore, Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India) on Indian society, caste and social change. He passed away at the age of 83.

Srinivas was the first JRD Tata Visiting Professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies and weeks before his death spoke at NIAS on the Obituary on Caste as a System. He stated that the old economic and social relationships, characteristic of the caste system had broken down, but that caste had survived as a means for securing access to resources of different kinds.

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