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The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library


Cities of the Past, Cities of the Present and the City as Utopia', 11th July, 2014


Much of the renewed interest in the idea of utopia in recent years has focused on the “western” world----signaled, for example, in North America by the New York Public Library’s exhibition on utopias (October 2000-January 2001) as well as a journal, Utopian Studies, now in its second decade of publication. However, South Asia has long been fertile ground for utopian experimentation and, as Omvedt reminds us, there are traditions of utopian thought and practice in South Asia contemporaneous with Thomas More’s Utopia including Ravidas (c. 1450-1520) in his song, Begumpura, where he offers a “city without sorrow” (Omvedt 2008: 7) as well as more recent Non-Brahmin and Gandhian manifestos (Geetha and Rajadurai 1998; Nandy 1987). This talk focuses on the case of the Theosophical Society in its international headquarters in Adyar, Madras, and the ways in which it provided a context for the spiritualist and ecological dimensions of utopian thought---"ecotopia"---and a specific type of South Indian garden design in the 20th century.


Dr. Smriti Srinivas is Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Davis, USA. She did her PhD. from the University of Delhi, 1995. Her research and teaching interests include urban cultures, place-making, utopias, social memory, cultures of the body and performance, religion, South Asia within a comparative context. Some of her major projects include the following: Her doctoral dissertation (published as The Mouths of People, the Voice of God: Buddhists and Muslims in a Frontier Community of Ladakh, 1998) was a study of two Himalayan villages on the geopolitical boundaries between India, China, and Pakistan. It embeds constructions of cultural identity and cases of spirit possession within the context of borderland political economy. Her next major research project focused on Bangalore City, described as India’s “Silicon Valley”. The outcome of this research, Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India’s High Tech City (2001), examines the various pathways that memory and the body take in a city inserted within global processes. Its central focus is the large civic ritual dedicated to Draupadi carried out by a Backward Class Tamil-speaking community of horticulturalists in the city . The book as a whole interrogates dominant models of Bangalore as a science city and presents other paradigms of urban space emerging from religious cultures in the city. Her book, In the Presence of Sai Baba (2008), focuses on a transnational religious movement centered on the Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba (b. 1926), who attracts a global following from Japan to South Africa. Her book examines the movement in three cities---Bangalore, Nairobi, and Atlanta---linking regimes of spatial, somatic, and symbolic production. It presents insights for the understanding of "urban religion" as well as the relationship between a religious imaginary, understandings of citizenship, sites of sociality, and devotional memory. Dr. Srinivas’s research has been supported over the years by a Mellon fellowship, a Rockefeller Humanities fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, a Delhi University National Fellowship, and the UC Humanities Network Multi-Campus Working Group and Multi-Campus Research Group Awards. She has also received grants from the American Academy of Religion, the Mershon Centre at Ohio State University, the Atlanta History Center, India Foundation for the Arts (Bangalore), the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (Delhi), Humanistic Institute for Co-operation with Developing Societies (Netherlands), the Institute for Social and Economic Change (Bengaluru), Action Aid (Bengaluru), Ohio State University, and the University of California, Davis.

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