Smriti Srinivas: Crossing Boundaries

Smriti Srinivas’ research interests are wide ranging and include cities, utopias, religion, cultural memory, cultures of performance, the body, and South Asian and Indian Ocean worlds.

Yet a theme unifies her work: crossing boundaries between categories and cultures as well as well as academic disciplines.

“I think I’ve always asked questions about boundaries,” said Srinivas, who had an international upbringing as the daughter of an Indian diplomat in China and Malaysia.

Crossing disciplines

Her education also fostered her expansive vision. She earned her doctorate in sociology at India’s prestigious Delhi School of Economics.

“In the interests of decolonization, my department steadfastly refused to make the choice between anthropology and sociology ... with anthropology traditionally being the study of the ‘Other’ (usually non-Western, tribal, or peasant communities in the colonies or postcolonies) and sociology being the study of the ‘Self’ (usually Western, modern, industrialized, urban cultures),” she writes in the introduction to her book, In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement.

Instead, she said, she received “an ambidextrous training in the two disciplines along with an interest in history.”

Research at cultural, academic crossroads 

Altar at Sai Baba devotional center in Nairobi, KenyaThat training and her scholarship has led to the publication of four books hailed by other experts for their originality, scholarship, quality of writing, and scope:

  • A Place for Utopia: Urban Designs from South Asia (2015), described by reviewers as “distinctive in its breadth and in its transcultural scope” and a “work of deep and prescient intellectual insight.”
  • In the Presence of Sai Baba (2008), a study of the modern guru’s followers in India, Kenya and the U.S., described by one reviewer as “a rich, textured and insightful book on many different levels.” [Photo, right, shows a devotional center in Nairobi, Kenya.]
  • Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India’s High-Tech City (2001), a study of a traditional religious performance in Bangalore, a city often described as the “Silicon Valley” of India. Journals of ethnology, sociology, Asian studies, urban affairs and contemporary religion all called the book an important contribution to their fields.
  • The Mouths of People, the Voice of God: Buddhists and Muslims in a Frontier Community of Ladakh (1998), the first sociological study of the Nubra Valley, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir near the borders of Pakistan, China and Tibet.

The Mouths of People, the Voice of God was an outgrowth of her doctoral dissertation research in the militarized Ladakh region; when she first arrived there by truck in 1989, soldiers initially suspected her of being a spy.

Srinivas’ research in Ladakh focused on two villages—she stayed with a Buddhist family in one and with a Sunni Muslim family in the other. “I was completely at home there, even thought it’s a very militarized zone,” she said. “The people were very welcoming and it truly is the crossroads of Asia in many ways.”

Rethinking Indian Ocean, South Asian studies

Srinivas joined the sociocultural wing of the UC Davis Department of Anthropology in 2002, after teaching at Ohio State University, University of Maryland, College Park, and at the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bangalore, India.

In addition to her faculty position in anthropology, she directs the Middle East/South Asia Studies (ME/SA) program and co-directs a Mellon Foundation-funded research initiative called Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds. “The Indian Ocean is our way of understanding those relationalities between Asia and Africa in the present.”

She is also spearheading with other South Asia faculty a new South Asia Without Borders initiative, presenting the region across disciplines, around the world, and in its global role. California is home of one of the largest South Asian populations in the U.S.  

“The University of California as a whole is a great place to be,” she said. “And UC Davis is a great place to be because it allows all of these interdisciplinary possibilities.”

Kathleen Holder