Teaching India: A Conversation with Tulasi Srinivas

This past fall, I taught a course on Indian Culture and Society to undergraduate and graduate students in Hong Kong. In preparing for the course, I browsed the Internet in search of available syllabi, watched documentaries, planned class activities, and selected readings—the usual. My syllabus included what I thought to be the most important subjects conventionally covered in the anthropology of India: caste and class, religion, nation-making, gender, media, colonialism, diaspora, and globalization. I was also careful to cover different Indias: young and old; urban and rural; militant and mindful; “timepassing” and on the move; not forgetting the country’s South, North, and Northeast. As a medical anthropologist, I also wanted to include readings on yoga, Ayurveda, and alternative health movements (which rarely appear on introductory syllabi).

One weekend, after I thought I was done with the syllabus, I went out to dinner with Indian friends (not anthropologists) and happened to mention what I had been working on. My friends immediately overwhelmed me with ideas about aspects of Indian culture that I needed to cover, among which one suggestion was unanimous: “You have to talk about cricket! Cricket is basically our modern religion.” I felt anxious: cricket was a topic I had not considered. None of the wonderful and carefully crafted readers I had considered for the course (Mines and Lamb 2010; Clark-Decès 2011; Berger and Heidemann 2013) included a chapter on cricket either. Just a handful of syllabi assigned a chapter by Arjun Appadurai (1996) on cricket and modernity that was now over twenty years old. I wondered why cricket—a central cultural practice of modern India—was absent from most teaching programs and textbooks on the anthropology of India?

I do not know the answer to this question, but the issue I am drawing attention to is not about cricket per se. Rather, I use this anecdote to ask more broadly: How do we teach the anthropology of a country, such as India (or China, Russia, Brazil, or the United States for that matter) without reducing it to a mosaic of academic curiosities? How do we balance the analytically established giants of caste, family, kinship, race, or gender with theoretically fringe, but popular phenomena like instant noodles, cricket, online dating, WhatsApp University, or stand-up comedy? What else might we be missing?

On the first day of class, I asked the students why they chose to enroll in my course. The responses largely fell into three groups: some students were attracted to Hinduism and other religious and philosophical traditions of India; other students wanted to know more about the birthplace of Aamir Khan—a Bollywood actor and movie director who has turned out to be astonishingly popular in China and Hong Kong; and still others were interested in India’s economic and political conditions. Clearly, then I saw that India was no tabula rasa and it would have been naive to teach the anthropology of India that way, without attending to the students’ preconceived ideas about Indian spirituality, Bollywood, or the IT industry. None of the students enrolled in my course were of Indian origin, nor had any of them visited India. Just two or three said that they had Indian friends, which meant that their knowledge of the country had so far been filtered through books and digital media.

How, then, does an instructor introduce India without orientalizing it or freezing it in time? How do we combine students’ interest in religious schools or the “third gender” in India with their fascinations with Aamir Khan’s movies and social transformations? I have attempted to address these questions through several strategies.

First, I carefully selected visual content to accompany lectures and assigned readings, so that students would literally see many faces of India. To give shape to the abstract notions of dharma, masculinity, and honor, or of the historical realities of Partition, Hindutva, and other dimensions of life in India, I included short videos or excerpts from longer films in every weekly session. These visuals include award-winning documentaries, Bollywood movies, songs, ScoopWhoop reportages, memes, and viral videos on YouTube. One of my favorite documentaries is Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her (2012), which interweaves the stories and daily training routines of the contenders in the Miss India beauty pageant with the members of a Hindu nationalist group known as Durga Vahini. The complexity of this documentary sparked discussions of varied gendered aspirations and views of modernity, nationalism, and morality.

A successful syllabus on India also has to present readings that collectively compose a historically and culturally multidimensional image of India—one that brings the country and culture to life. This is my second strategy, and assigning a good ethnography goes a long way. Earlier this year, I came across a recently published book by Tulasi Srinivas, The Cow in the Elevator: An Anthropology of Wonder (Duke University Press, 2018), in which she explores Hindu ritual life in a rapidly changing city of Bangalore. For Srinivas, wonder is a joyful feeling of being wonderstruck that turns the pursuit of “wow” moments into a driving force for innovation and creativity in religious life. Thus, we learn about Hindu priests’ experiments with technology: they FaceTime a ritual from Bangalore to Boston, hire a helicopter representing the divine bird Garuda to shower rose petals over the Vishnu temple, and invite a local engineer to build a robotic goddess Devi, whose mechanical, trident-wielding arm repeatedly “kills” an image of an evil buffalo during a temple ritual.

Yet wonder can also be ambiguous and not so joyful. Srinivas looks at the other side of wonder in the sense of a possible cognate, “wound” (from the Germanic wunder, for both wonder and wound), referring to a sense of bewilderment, confusion, and loss. One can be lost in this new world that forces people into economic, social, and moral precariousness. Wonder therefore becomes “a way for us to contend with the loss of the familiar, and the terror and amazement of the new and strange, to create and to share a world that we could bear to live in.”

Cover image for The Cow in the Elevator

In exploring the economies and technologies now embedded in the life of Hindu temples, Srinivas’s book brings the life of Indian devotees closer to readers from any part of the world. Based on sixteen years of fieldwork, the book includes insightful commentaries on gender, caste sentiment and class aspirations, family relations, emotion, morality, changing concepts of time and space, urbanization, migration, so-called black money and land markets, neoliberalism, the discourse on “fat” bodies, and ecological degradation. This is not just a beautifully written treatise of ritual life and experimental Hinduism, but a nuanced ethnography of an ever-changing India across different generations: from senior residents who are lifelong devotees at local temples to their children, young professionals who work in multinational IT companies and hang out at luxurious rooftop bars.

In the following section, I present a dialogue with Srinivas, in which the two of us reflect on her work and on shared challenges around teaching India.

Dialogue with Tulasi Srinivas

Venera Khalikova: I found your examination of Hinduism and Hindu ritual life by paying close attention to wonder compelling, and I am curious about how the wonder lens might apply to other dimensions of life in India. You have written extensively on foodways, globalization, gender, and migration: did you see moments of transformative wonder in your previous explorations? How do these other aspects of diverse Indian cultures relate (or not) to Hinduism and religious life, broadly speaking?

And, to push these questions even further, has your project on wonder altered the ways in which you have been teaching India and designing your courses? For instance, when I was planning my own course, I had a goal of going beyond images of “Hindu India.” Yet, without a doubt, Hindu symbols, ethics, and practices do punctuate the lives of the majority of Indians. So how might the study of wonder (in the context of Hinduism) be extended to thinking about Indian Muslims, Christians, or irreligious Indians?

Tulasi Srinivas: Let me start by saying that I truly enjoy bringing South Asia into the classroom in the United States. I have taught courses about India and South Asia for over fifteen years, and I have found that students display an innate curiosity, a wondering, about South Asia that needs some direction, as you have provided in your own class. The popular culture of South Asia—its movies, music, the global penetration of yoga, its dominance in cricket, and its well-known cuisine—make it instantly experience-able. This immediacy, combined with the global diaspora of its peoples, means that in most parts of the world students will have experienced some part of India or know someone who is Indian, which lends that curiosity, that wondering, an emotional quality. It’s not merely voyeuristic; it is a genuine curiosity to know more. I think we do this curiosity a disservice if we dismiss it as somehow superficial. I find my students’ curiosity about some aspect of Indian life to be a useful starting point in introducing them to the complexity and depth of India. And ethnographies of a place are a great start. They have the benefit of “hooking” the reader with storytelling, paired with analysis, and that can be compelling. I think of anthropology as the perfect discipline to both stoke that curiosity and to grow it.

But you asked what wonder does for education. In 1959, the scientist Isaac Asimov wrote a short unpublished essay in which he asked the vital question: “How do people get new ideas?” The essay was found by his friend Arthur Obermayer and published some fifty years later, and today it compels us to have a timely and much-needed conversation about creativity. How can we think differently? And equally importantly, how can we encourage creative thinking? This is, in a sense, one of the core questions of The Cow in the Elevator. Adbhutha was the word that priests and devotees in Bangalore used to describe the emotion that the rituals they were performing would evoke. Initially, I mistranslated it as “strange” or “odd.” But once I realized that they were talking about wonder and its pursuit, things became clearer. The pursuit of wonder involves creativity, experimentation, and joy.

Wonder and its companion, wondering, become the touchstones to move forward and to learn more. I wrote about wonder because I am convinced that wonder enables us to live in joy despite a deep understanding that the world is crumbling around us. Anthropology cannot be satisfied to train students for a crumbling world, but rather should allow them to imagine a world that could be and then give them the imagination to build a future that only they can see. As a professor and a constant learner, I invite my students to feel this wonder, this dynamic sense of possibility, and to understand it as a portal to a better world.

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The Devi goddess decorated with vegetables. Photo courtesy of Tulasi Srinivas.

Scholars have assumed that wonder strikes suddenly and moves its subject to a space of transcendence, but what I found in Bangalore is that priests and devotees pursued wonder systematically and strategically. I believe this is a good strategy for teaching as well. If we can move our students to a mment of wondrous clarity, a sudden “aha,” then learning becomes an illumination. I think that through the careful scaffolding of Hindu symbols, ethics, and quotidian practices that punctuate the life of the majority of Indians (though not all), one can try to stage moments of creativity in the classroom. Creativity requires basic competence in a broad array of disciplines, as well as the ability to break through the boundaries between them so as to pose new questions or formulate new answers. It requires exposure to diverse perspectives, methodologies, and standards of evidence. This is what we as anthropologists do. Anthropology also expects and encourages us to take risks—intellectual risks—and to think critically beyond convention. It shows us different ways of doing things and a diversity of perspectives and voices that require understanding and the appreciation of complexity.

Finally, I do think the notion of wonder is broad. All religions speak of their prophets and their people being dumbstruck with wonder at some moment in their history. In modern science and cosmology, the fields of quantum physics and medical technology speak of the wonders of the universe and of new technologies for life and living as well. Being wonderstruck is a human condition.

VK: In your book, you talk about many constituents of wonder and the ways in which wonder is intertwined with longing, loss, tension, waiting, power and status, aesthetics, visuality, ethics, and (dis)trust. All these aspects allow you to substantiate a dynamic and multifaceted vision of Indian society as it undergoes rapid socioeconomic changes. Despite its cheerful and humorous title, The Cow in the Elevator describes numerous instances of social fracture and precarity. At the same time, we learn that even within the precarious conditions of modern life many Indians are able to cultivate joy and radical hope, learning to be at home in a new world even when their social and geographical surroundings have transformed dramatically.

As you beautifully illustrate in the book, these metamorphoses in economy and landscape have brought about new imagery and dreams. You write: “The wonder previously located in the local landscape now was imagined as a foreign land or dreamed-of place.” As a result, although many Indians grieve these changes and losses of the past, they find ways to orient themselves toward the future, attuned to new neoliberal aspirations. But how exactly do these moments that you call fracture allow for the possibility of wonder? What about those who do not or cannot entertain wonder, but only skepticism? Can you speak more to the absence of wonder?

TS: Yesterday, I saw a beautiful sapling growing in a crack in the pavement. There is always a crack, an empty space, for creation to manifest. In Hindu theology, the sage Bhartṛhari is believed to have thought it was the sphoṭa or splitting of the Absolute itself that echoed in time and space, upon which the world came into being. This is an essential fracture, the sphota—one that allows for creativity.

The fractures that neoliberal global economics and local corruption causes in Bangalore, along with the precarities of life—the lack of jobs, the rolling blackouts, the lack of water, the cutting of trees, the overall destruction—these fractures are the bare ground on which ritual creativity lies. People go to the temples to seek help and understanding, to domesticate these bad forces that they cannot control. Ritual allows them to dream of a better tomorrow. Ritual is a subjunctive space. This space allows for building creativity by allowing—no, encouraging—failure. It allows original thinkers spaces for dead ends, for things that seem to go nowhere but, in reality, are the DNA of a later, successful idea. It supports us whether we are right or wrong, for to be wrong might just be the right answer at a different time. The courage to be wrong is to be celebrated, for creativity needs a thought laboratory in which one can, as Hannah Arendt put it so elegantly, “think without a banister” and not be afraid of failing. Experimentation is necessary for true originality.

But let me add that Indians are forever skeptical. The absence of wonder is all around us, in our social and political life. Corruption, lack of information, rigged political systems, the dominance of the powerful, the lack of truth, and partisan politics, combined with deep religious and other communitarian forces, render Indians permanently (and perhaps rightly) skeptical. The turnover of tremendous sums of money through the liberalization of the Indian economy, as well as the aspirations of middle-class Indians to be wealthy, have led to greater skepticism still, with respect to who is worthy and who is crooked. Yet I found that through ritual creativity, through pursuits of wonder in the temples, priests and devotees break through the pervasive skepticism to enable a small, tenuous return to wonder: first, to curiosity and then, through various emotional and performative linkages, to compassion for the Other.

If we are to embrace a world of change, to grow into it—as we undoubtedly have to—we fundamentally have to know ourselves. Anthropology allows students time and forces them to be reflexive about their abilities and choices; in a sense, then, it allows them to realize their own potential to “think different.” It engages their innate quirkiness, what Howard Gardner and his collaborators have called a “fruitful asynchrony,” in which originality develops into groundbreaking ideas and experiments with reality. It is this portal to the unknown, this wondering, this understanding of one’s ability to be and think differently (and to have the courage to do so) that anthropology values.

I learned from the priests that wonder has three primary constituents: curiosity, creativity, and compassion. When something is wonder-full it arouses curiosity, it poses a challenge to one’s knowledge of the world that thereby demands a creative response, and finally it moves one to compassion—to a connection with what is other. I have found these lessons significant in teaching; they moved me to become a better and, hopefully, a more inspiring teacher.

VK: In a Teaching Tools post on race, Indulata Prasad argues that caste and casteism are relevant concepts to teaching race and racism outside South Asia. By highlighting similar (yet not identical) forms of social categorization and discrimination, instructors can encourage students to think comparatively, making strange phenomena more familiar. Following the insights from this post, I incorporated a group discussion on race and historical cases of institutionalized segregation into a lecture on caste in India. We looked at incidents when Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) were denied access to village temples and wells or were subjected to segregation in schools, tea stalls, and other public areas. Then we reflected on the ways in which those examples compare to discrimination against African Americans in the United States, “black” and “coloured” groups in South Africa, and Tanka (“boat”) people in Hong Kong. In addition to deepening the students’ understanding of caste, this cross-cultural exercise aimed to give students a new perspective on social hierarchy at home.

In your book, you have a passage about categorization and its link to “the Hindu concern with jati—the logic of classes, of genre and of species, of which human jati are only an instance.” You go on to explain that the neoliberal time sometimes pushes people to bring modifications and adjustments to ritual life, which in turn can disrupt and reverse forms of categorization such as caste hierarchy. Can you say more about how the framework of wonder might work to help students understand concepts like jati and, perhaps, race? How might wonder relate to authority and status?

TS: I think a comparative take is really useful in getting across something as complicated as caste, provided that it does not dilute or misrepresent the original object of study. I think comparing caste to race is useful insofar as both are accidents of birth, strangling systems of hierarchy that define individuals and groups and justify widespread violence.

But I think there is additional complexity that needs to be elucidated in the classroom. For example, caste is not a color-based system in the same way that race is. So, when I speak about categorization and particularly with regard to caste, it is important to note that I speak about urban Bangalore or at the most about urban India, which is very different from rural India where caste still plays a significant and oppressive role. In Bangalore, particularly middle-class Bangalore, caste is becoming less important than class. People might know someone’s caste, but they are more concerned with class-based consumption practices: where one lives, what one wears, and what one drives are of more immediate significance than one’s caste, particularly for the middle class and the dominant caste. Caste undoubtedly plays more of a role if one is Dalit or poor: there, caste and poverty exacerbate each other and resonate to emphasize an outsider or marginal status that, in the current political climate, allows for the enactment of violence.

But among the middle classes of Bangalore, the fact that a devotee can pay for a huge glittering wonder-full puja is seen as important and valuable, largely regardless of his or her caste. I am not saying that caste is swept away completely, but in Bangalore (and globally) status now derives from what one consumes and how. Fancy foreign cars, big jewelry in the latest style, luxury vacations and cruises, destination weddings, children at Ivy League universities—these are all hallmarks of upper-middle-class success in Bangalore and the aspirational goal for many Indian families. But wonder breaks through categorizations and contexts to focus attention on the transcendent. It is beyond categorization and perhaps that is why its pursuit appeals to people of different classes and castes. As I understand it from living with devotees in Bangalore for over sxiteen years, for them wonder makes life and hope possible. It allows for a rupture of the neoliberal enterprise, a sort of resistance, a kind of radical hope that is cleverly couched in a capture of its essentials.

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An invitation to a temple, featuring the goddess decorated in Disney and Pixar toys. Photo courtesy of Tulasi Srinivas.

VK: What are other concepts and cultural practices from India that might be pedagogically useful to general anthropology courses? In particular, how might the study of Hinduism help students challenge and develop a broader interpretation of religion or tradition? As you write in The Cow in the Elevator, “representing neither diffusion of Western ideas outward, nor distinctly Indian forms, the understanding of creative ritual practices attuned to wonder involves a transnational history of modernity, one shaped by global conversations about creativity, change, and society.” Can you elaborate on this position and share your view on how experimental Hinduism in India can be connected to rituals and religious innovations elsewhere?

TS: In religious studies, the general understanding (drawn from Talal Asad’s work) is that Hinduism has been defined and even named by colonial powers. Its very definition has been in relation to Western, largely Christian, understandings of what constitutes religion. So there has been a robust debate among scholars of Hinduism and Buddhism in religious studies—including Richard King (1999) and Will Sweetman and Aditya Malik (2016)— as to whether Hinduism is a religion by that definition, as well as what it means if yes and what it means if no. While I think that debate is fascinating intellectually, there are some central problems with it. Most importantly, it looks to history and to textual understandings of Hinduism to debate the contours of religious life when we know that Hinduism is less a religion of the book and more a religion of practice. In that sense, this argument is still trapped by the history of religious studies, for it looks from within the textual tradition of Western understandings of the world.

Anthropology, on the other hand, looks at both text and practice. By doing so and by looking at the endless experiments around Hinduism in Bangalore, I hoped to move the discussion forward, away from the entrapments of history and toward what priests and devotees in Bangalore valued and found important. I see them engaging the problems of the world and making them opportunities for understanding. So I seek not to explain their concerns away through philosophy, but to validate them as a philosophy of life itself.

I find that all students, like all devotees, wish for an experience of recognition. It’s a wish to be seen and a wish to be understood.

I believe that anthropology is a space to which we can and should turn for this wonderment.  For, as Margaret Mead said, anthropology begins with wondering. Anthropology is a magical alchemy bringing an Other into our own and vice versa. In every semester, in every class, I find at least one student who experiences a breakthrough—that singular moment of wonder in the classroom at an idea, an image, a thought that they had never dreamed possible, one that ignites their imagination and drives them into worlds on the horizon that only they can see.

Afterword

The anthropology of wonder acknowledges not only the wonder of different worlds but also our own wonder as anthropologists encountering them. After reading Srinivas’s book, I realized that my students, too, were motivated by the pursuit of the unknown and wondrous, enrolling in my course to explore the wonders of Hindu rituals, yogis, and philosophy, Bollywood, or “Indian curry.” Moreover, something personal stirred in me when I was thinking about the book and preparing for the course. Wasn’t it wonder that fueled my own interest in India many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student? Isn’t it a desire to fuel my students’ curiosity and wonder that motivates my teaching? If the pursuit of wonder is central to human experience, then it should certainly be central to teaching.

This is the thinking behind my third pedagogical strategy—engaging students in outdoor learning activities. Toward the end of the semester, I decided that we would play kabaddi, a traditional South Asian game that in the past two decades has become a professional sport with its own leagues: Asia Games and World Cup. For many Indians, though, it is still a game played on the streets by children, who run to the opposing team’s half of the court while holding their breath and humming “kabaddikabaddikabaddikabaddi.” Neither I nor my students had ever played kabaddi before. But I knew that it would be wonderful.

References

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. “Playing with Modernity: The Decolonization of India Cricket.” In Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 89–113. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Berger, Peter, and Frank Heidemann, eds. 2013. The Modern Anthropology of India: Ethnography, Themes, and Theory. New York: Routledge.

Clark-Decès, Isabelle, ed. 2011. A Companion to the Anthropology of India. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.

King, Richard. 1999. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and “the Mystic East.” New York: Routledge.

Mines, Diane P., and Sarah Lamb, eds. 2010. Everyday Life in South Asia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sweetman, Will, and Aditya Malik, eds. 2016. Hinduism in India: Modern and Contemporary Movements. Delhi: SAGE.