Uncivilising the Mind

How anthropology shaped the discourse on tribes in India

An eight-volume study titled The People of India, which was compiled in the late nineteenth century, contained annotated photographs of Indian castes and tribes. The People of India / The New York Public Library
01 March, 2021

AS AN OVERPROTECTED BRAHMIN boy growing up on College Road, I experienced my first culture shocks not more than fifty yards from the back wall of our house … The entire culture of Bandikeri (the area behind our house where lived a colony of Shepherds, immigrants from their village, located a few miles from Mysore) was visibly and olfactorily different from that of College Road. Bandikeri was my Trobriand Islands, my Nuerland, my Navaho country and what have you. In retrospect, it is not surprising that I became an anthropologist, all of whose fieldwork was in his own country.

These lines crop up in The Legacy of MN Srinivas, a book celebrating the work of the titular sociologist and social anthropologist. Written by Srinivas’s former student and colleague AM Shah, the book appraises Srinivas’s work, stating that his “vigorous advocacy of village studies as critical for developing Indian sociology and social anthropology led many to identify him as the village studies man.” Srinivas’s description of his first experience with the communities behind his house figures as a passing aside in the text. Despite the “culture shocks” he may have had, as his self-description in the Annual Review of Anthropology suggests, Srinivas was lauded for focussing on Indian communities: “As an anthropologist, I am somewhat of a maverick in that I study my own culture and not any distant Other.”

But the analogy he makes, between the residents of Bandikeri presenting him with the opportunity to study them—note the use of the personal pronoun too—and ethnic communities in New Guinea and around the world betrays his emulation of a lens inherited from Western anthropologists. Contemporary sociologists have addressed this at length. Sujata Patel, for instance, has acknowledged how Srinivas’s focus on intensive fieldwork differed from his early mentor GS Ghurye’s Orientalist perspective. But an article on a conference to mark Srinivas’s hundredth-year birth anniversary claims she argued that “Srinivas could never free himself from the legacy of colonial ethnography, and asserted that such a legacy ‘should be completely erased’ from the sociological imagination of India.”

Shah writes at length about Sanskritisation—Srinivas’s widely cited concept of social mobility, premised on the idea that oppressed castes in India have increasingly imitated the culture and traditions of dominant castes. Shah himself issues a caveat of sorts, saying that he would like to be cautious on the subject of Sanskritisation among tribes, because of his lack of extensive field experience and insufficient reading on them. But Srinivas appears to have thought of Sanskritisation as having value when it came to aligning tribal people with Hindu society, with tribal communities “absorbed” into Hindu society and “many of them entering the kshatriya order.” In his study Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India, he writes that Sanskritisation tends to “weld the hundreds of sub-castes, and tribes all over India into a single community.” He continues, though, to elide the violence inherent to the existing hierarchy between tribes and Hindu society, writing that it is “easy to see how Sanskritic ideas and beliefs penetrated the remotest hill tribes in such a manner as not to do violence to their traditional beliefs. Caste enabled Hinduism to proselytize without the aid of a church.”