Home > 2020 > How a Tragedy Gave Birth to the Legacy of M N Srinivas | Jos Chathukulam (...)

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 44, New Delhi, October 17, 2020

How a Tragedy Gave Birth to the Legacy of M N Srinivas | Jos Chathukulam and Manasi Joseph

Saturday 17 October 2020

by Jos Chathukulam and Manasi Joseph


M N Srinivas was a doyen in the field of Sociology and Social Anthropology. The year 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of a fire tragedy at Centre for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences (CASBS), Stanford University, USA, in which the processed file notes of his 18-year field study in the village of ‘Rampura’ (now Kodagahalli) were consumed by flames. Srinivas, who was pursuing a one-year fellowship at CASBS at that time was planning to write a book based on his field notes. The tragedy almost shattered his dream of translating his findings into the form of a book. Nevertheless, Srinivas wrote the book titled “the Remembered Village” by solely relying on his memory of his field visit and it later went on to become a world classic in sociological literature. It was a rare accomplishment given the fact that the book was conceived entirely through the memory of the author. Considered to be an authority on caste in India, Srinivas’s legacy needs to be revisited in the rapidly changing India. 

Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas, popularly known as M N Srinivas, was a world-renowned sociologist and social anthropologist. A pioneering architect of Indian Sociology and Anthropology, Srinivas coined phrases like “dominant caste”, “vote bank” and “sanskritization”. The first two have now become household names in India. In fact, the term “vote bank” is a buzz word during election seasons in the country, the largest vibrant democracy in the world.

Srinivas formulated the concept of “sanskritization” to explain social mobility within the traditional caste structure in India. He introduced this concept first in his book “Religion and Society Among Coorgs of India”. Srinivas defines “sanskritization” as a process where a low Hindu caste changes its customs, rituals, ideology and way of life in the direction of a high and frequently twice — born castes. To explain it further, it is a tendency to refashion lifestyles and habits of those of the dominant communities which results only in a positional change rather than a structural change [1].

However, not many are aware that they owe these words and concepts to this legendary man [2]. For a galaxy of sociologists and scholars, Srinivas was a born sociologist with keen observation and sharp memory skills. Srinivas was a staunch critic of “book view” [3] and a fierce advocate of “field view” [4]. He believed “participant observation” as an effective way by which sociologists cultivated empathy by observing the world as others would. He gave emphasis to ethnographic research based on fieldwork. Srinivas was of the opinion that a sociologist should look at the world from earthworm’s eye view [5] point rather than a bird’s eye view.

How a Tragedy Gave Birth to a Classic 

The year 2016 marked the birth centenary of this eminent social scientist. The year 2020 also has a close connection to Srinivas. In the year 1970, exactly 50 years ago, (on Friday, April 24, 1970 at 5 pm) a fire tragedy took place at Centre for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences, (CASBS), Stanford University, USA [6]. The protesters (anti — Vietnam protest) set fire to the buildings in CASBS [7]. It partially destroyed two buildings and works of several fellows and one of them lost almost everything and it was none other than M N Srinivas. He was doing a one — year fellowship at the CASBS at that time. Srinivas was planning to write a book based on the field notes he collected as part of his study in the village of ‘Rampura’ (now Kodagahalli). However, the draft monographs including 5,000 cards of hand-written, processed file notes and other research materials, he collected over a span of 18 years got destroyed in the fire.

Srinivas was shattered upon finding his years of hard work reduced to ashes and even contemplated of dropping this work altogether. However, Sol Tax, [8] an American anthropologist and a friend of Srinivas motivated him to work on it again by asking him to recollect memories of his field work and interactions he had made with the people as part of his extensive research. It first appeared to be a daunting task, indeed a terrifying prospect for a deeply devoted researcher, like Srinivas, that too in the absence of the vast inputs and findings he collected over the years. The only solace was that some of his raw field notes of his study were kept in Delhi. The Ford Foundation in Delhi microfilmed these raw field notes and airmailed the film rolls to CASBS. A grant from Wenner — Gren Foundation to CASBS supported Srinivas. However, those raw field notes were related to Srinivas’s first visit to Rampura and it did not contain corrections and addenda Srinivas recorded on cards on subsequent visits to Rampura. Meanwhile, despite all the obstacles and uncertainties, Srinivas, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he recollected the field notes and made it in to a book relying solely on his sharp memory power and with the help of a Dictaphone. The book was titled The Remembered Village, and it also does justice in such a scenario as the book was conceived entirely with the help of the memory of the author. In the first pages of the book, Srinivas has narrated the fire tragedy that took place on that fateful day of April 24 which destroyed his field notes. The book also contains an acknowledgment of the part played by the arsonists in the making of the book into a sort of ‘memoir’. The book was first published in 1976 by University of California Press. Srinivas’s seminal work The Remembered Village, delved into caste and social system in India.

The Remembered Village was not so much an academic book and was rather written in the form of a novel. One can even see some influence of the writing style of R K Narayan, a celebrated writer, who was also a close friend of Srinivas [9]. However, The Remembered Village is not just a lucid account of the village field study, but an ethnographic literature filled with anthropologist’s point of view on caste and class. It also provides a portrait of the lives and practices in an Indian village in the post — Independent India. The book showcases the complexities of inter and intra — caste relations in the Rampura community. It also offers insight into the nature of the ethnographic research. According to Srinivas, various castes in Rampura, do form hierarchy. The caste units in this village were separated by endogamy and commensality. At the same time, they are associated with rank differences in dietary habits and occupation. In The Remembered Village, Srinivas notes that the hierarchical system of caste was compounded by a hierarchical system-based on the possession of differential rights in land. According to the author, there was a two-way relationship between land ownership and caste rank.

The Remembered Village is set in Rampura, a multi — caste village about 34 kilometres from Mysore (now Mysuru). Till 2007, many thought Rampura as a mystical village. But studies and researches by anthropologists from Mysore University and Anthropological Survey of India led to the finding that Kodagahalli was actually the ‘Rampura’ of Srinivas.

The field study undertaken by M N Srinivas in the 1948 is also worth remembering especially in the context where the findings and notes Srinivas made were later consumed by fire in the 1970s. In 1948, Srinivas visited Rampura, a few days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. He came to the village to study the social structure and caste system of the village. Meanwhile, when Srinivas came to the village, the villagers mourning the death of the Father of the Nation, asked him to return after thirteen days of mourning. As per the request made by the villagers, Srinivas came back after the mourning was over. This time he came with a cook, 26 pieces of luggage and stayed in the village for 11 months to familiarise himself with social set up as well as culture and customs. He made frequent visits to the villages till 1970’s after which he returned to CASBS, Stanford University, to complete his work. While he was all set to finalize his monograph, the tragedy struck in the form of fire. However, his sharp memory skills came to his rescue to write the book. In 1976, The Remembered Village was published and it went to became an all time classic in ethnography studies. Through The Remembered Village, Srinivas highlighted the importance of caste loyalties in electoral politics, apart from the influence of ‘dominant caste groups’. The term ‘vote bank’ was coined by Srinivas to describe this patronage.

Caste and Class in Rapidly Changing India

M. N. Srinivas supported and propagated the perception that caste sans class represented “modern” India. Sanskritization and westernization were viewed as the vehicles for ushering “social change in modern India”. He mooted the notion of “dominant caste” in the 60s, in which caste was in title not in content. For Srinivas, the “dominant caste” has six attributes. They are (i) sizeable amount of the arable land locally available, (ii) strength of numbers, (iii) high place in the local hierarchy, (iv) western education, (v) jobs in the administration and (vi) urban sources of income [10]. This was an indirect way of bringing in class without being explicit about it. In addition to that, Srinivas in his last public lecture at the National Institute of Advanced Studies on “An Obituary on Caste as a System [11]said that lifestyle may assume increasing importance in social relations, especially in urban areas. So, with this view it is clear that eventually Srinivas came close to a class position, particularly in relation to the urban experience. Srinivas also talked about “malnourished underclass.” He said that it was necessary to ensure that social workers and nongovernmental organisations gave emphasis and attention on bringing power, nutritional standards to female children, especially in rural India. [12]

For Ram Manohar Lohia [13], class was the expression of the urge towards equality. Lohia viewed caste as the expression of the urge towards justice. He was of the opinion that what distinguished caste from class was the immobility that had crept into class relationships, the inability of an individual to move into a higher caste and that of a whole caste to move to an improved status or income. According to Lohia, class was mobile caste; caste was immobile class. He also talked of classes stabilizing into castes and castes loosening into classes. Lohia attributed three characteristics that distinguish India’s ruling classes; (i) high caste, (ii) English education, and (iii) wealth. In Lohia’s view point “the combination of any two of these three factors makes a person belong to the ruling class” [14].

Marxist theory gave importance to the class category rooted in the western epistemic model remains incomplete both as a theoretical and analytical category in the Indian context. Dhamodar Dharmananda Kosambi, a renowned Marxist historian applied a class framework to analyse caste—class intricacies in ancient India. Kosambi saw Asiatic mode of production, [15] caste-based inequality and exploitation as exceptional, but still used class as a category of analysis and the tool for emancipation. E M S Namboodiripad [16] and B T Ranadive [17] believed that integrating class struggle with the struggle against caste system in India and considered this integration a vital one for the success of proletarian revolution and the establishment of people’s democracy in India.

Many argue that M N Srinivas’s field — view failed to capture the holistic view of the social world of the village, the evolving relationship between caste, class and power, the subjective experiences and subalterns. It is true that a new sociological imagination is required to revise the legacy and literature of M N Srinivas in the rapidly changing India. So, what is the relevance of Srinivas’s conceptual architecture in today’s India? Does his legacy still have the power to survive? [18] The answer is Yes.

Caste in New “Avatars”

Srinivas was a doyen in the field of modern sociology and social anthropology. While India’s intelligentsia believed and proclaimed that caste system would disintegrate in the onslaught of modernisation, Srinivas, an international authority on India’s caste system for more than four decades, firmly believed that caste will not disappear but would transform in manifold ways. He argued that caste would continue to find expression in the lives of Indians and the society at large. It is also interesting to note that, Srinivas didn’t support caste — based reservation as a programme to alter unequal caste equations.

Srinivas’s “Obituary on Caste as a System” is not a requiem for the caste system. [19] Through this discourse he was once again asserting the persistence and longevity of caste in modern India and also deals with changing contours of the caste and the role played by rural economies in transforming caste as a system. So, what Srinivas told decades ago still remain true and alive even today as caste continues to encompass all walks of lives including socio — economic sphere as well as in realm of politics and politicians [20].

Srinivas, an expert on caste system in India laid the foundations of research into Indian village society in the post — independence years. In 1972, VKRV Rao and Srinivas co — founded the Institute of Socio — Economic Change (ISEC) in Bengaluru. Srinivas died on November 30, 1999. A M Shah [21], one of the first students of M N Srinivas said this about him “Perhaps we will never find a sociologist as great as Prof. M N Srinivas.” [22]

Jos Chathukulam (joschathukulam[at]
is Professor, Sri Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralization & Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, (ISEC), Bengaluru.

Manasi Joseph (manasijoseph[at] is Research Associate, Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala, 686 016.


  • Gaetani, Mike. (2020, April 24). 50 Years Ago, Tragedy Helped Deliver Triumph. Featured Stories, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) StanfordUniversity, Stanford CA, 94305 USA. Retrieved from
  • Indian Express: (December 1, 1999). Retrieved from
  • Kumar, Anand. (2010) Understanding Lohia’s Political Sociology: Intersectionality of Caste, Class, Gender and Language. Economic and Political Weekly. 45(40), 65 — 67.
  • Menon, Parvathi (1999, December 1). A Scholar Remembered. Frontline. Retrieved from :text=The%20hallmark%20of%20Srinivas’%20scholarship,discipline%20had%20till%20then%20rested%20.
  • Namboodiripad, E. M. S. (1967). Kerala: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Calcutta: National Book Agency.
  • Panini, N.M (2000). M N Srinivas and Sociology. Economic and Political Weekly, 35(4), 174-177.
  •  Patel, Sujata (2020). Foreword, In Sobin George, Manohar Yadav& Anand Inbanatthan (Eds.). Change and Mobility in Contemporary India. Thinking M N Srinivas Today, New York: Routledge.
  • Ranadive, B. T. (1982). Caste, Class and Property Relations. Calcutta: National Book Agency.
  • Sayeed Ahmad Vikhar (2016, November 25). Remembered Village. Frontline. Retrieved from
  • Srinivas, M. N (1966). Social Changes in Modern India. Berkley: University of California Press.
  • Srinivas, M. N (2003). Obituary on Caste as System. Economic and Political Weekly. 38 (5).
  • Srinivas, M. N. (1976). The Remembered Village. Berkley: University of California Press.
  • Srinivas, M. N. (1994), Review of the Aboriginal, New Series 12:4.
  • Srinivas, M. N. (1997). Practicing Social Anthropology in India, Annual Review of Anthropology. 26: 1, 1 - 24.
  • Srinivas, M.N. (ed). (1996) Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar. Delhi: Viking, Penguin India.
  • Srinivas, M.N. (1996). Indian Society through Personal Writings. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Stanford Daily (April 27, 1970.). Retrieved from
  • Tharamangalam, Joseph & Chathukulam, Jos. (2018). Revisiting the Legacy of M N Srinivas. Economic and Political Weekly.53 (25).
  • Tharamangalam, Joseph. (2020). M.N. Srinivas and his ‘Field-View’ of Society: Some Critical Reflections, In Sobin George, Manohar Yadav and Anand Inbanatthan (Eds.). Change and Mobility in Contemporary India. Thinking M N Srinivas Today, New York, NY: Routledge.

[1Srinivas in his book Social Changes in Modern India, opines that Sanskritization “normally presupposes the economic and political improvement of the concerned caste group or a higher group self consciousness due to contact with a source of the “great tradition” of Hinduism, like pilgrimage centre or monastery or proselytizing sect (Srinivas, M N. 1966: pp. 67 — 68). Though it is primarily a process that takes place within the Hindu community, Srinivas argued that it was visible even in sects and religious groups outside Hinduism.

[2Srinivas was born on November 16, 1916 in Mysore (now Mysuru) in a Brahmin family. Srinivas took an honours degree in social philosophy from Mysore University. From Mysore, Srinivas moved to Bombay and later to Oxford University, where he did his D.Phil. He did his Masters under G.S. Ghurye, at that time he did a dissertation which he later published as Marriage and Family in Mysore (1942). At Oxford, Srinivas worked under the two leading anthropologists A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and E.E Evans-Pritchard.

[3Book view is to understand society from books and available literature. It also known as indological or orientalist approach. Srinivas was a social anthropologist trained in the British tradition whereas majority of the Indian sociologists in the 1960s and 1970s followed American tradition. Critics argue that the legacy of the structural functionalism of the British Social Anthropology, a colonial discipline that hindered Srinivas to view Indian village and caste as a system of reciprocity, cooperation, interdependence and harmony. See Tharamangalam (2020)

[4Srinivas was in favour of “field view”, where understanding of society from field work was given importance. See, Tharamangalam & Chathukulam in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). Also see Tharamangalam (2020) and Panini (2000).

[5See the Indian Express (December 1, 1999)

[6See, The Stanford Daily, 27 April 1970.

[7See, Gaetani, Mike, in Feature Stories section of Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) Stanford University. April 24, 2020.

[8Sol Tax commented on the fire incident and the damage and afflictions caused to researchers like M N Srinivas. “His collection of notes has been burned. What is lost is the irreplaceable product of a great scientist from India where his science is sorely needed.” See, The Stanford Daily, 27 April 1970. Also, Tax, a renowned American Anthropologist was also the neighbour of Srinivas. Tax visited Srinivas two days after the fire incident and motivated him to recreate the book or conceive the book by recollecting memories of the field visit.

[9Sayeed Ahmed Vikhar (2016) in Frontline. Both Narayan and Srinivas were Mysoreans and good friends. In 1996, Srinivas wrote Indian Society through Personal Writings and dedicated it to Narayan.

[10See, Srinivas, M.N Social Change in Modern India.,1966.

[11This was posthumously published in Economic and Political Weekly in February 1,2003.

[12See, Srinivas, M. N (1994)

[13Lohia was a freedom fighter and a socialist political leader.

[14See Kumar, Anand in Economic and Political Weekly, 2010 (EPW).

[15Karl Marx’s definition of the Asiatic mode of production included the absence of private ownership of land, autonomous village communities, and a despotic centralized state in charge of public works, especially irrigation.

[16The then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) led by EMS Namboodiripad was one of the first democratically elected communist governments in the world. It was also democratic India’s first democratically elected communist government. It has been widely acknowledged that San Marino had the first elected communist government in the world.

[17B. T. Ranadive was a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the General Secretary of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions. Caste, Class and Property Relations is one of his notable work.

[18These questions were raised by Sujata Patel in the Foreword of the book titled Change and Mobility in Contemporary India: Thinking M N Srinivas Today (2020).

[19See Menon, Parvathy in Frontline (1999).

[20See, Srinivas, M. N, 1996

[21Prof. AM Shah was an internationally reputed sociologist who passed away on September 7, 2020. Shah was an authority in village studies for many decades and engaged in extensive field studies. His analysis of household dimension of family in India is widely recognised as a landmark study. He held several important fellowships including those at CASBS, Stanford, where the fire tragedy took place. He was initiated in to sociology by M N Srinivas with whom he completed his doctoral work. His last publication was a tribute to his teacher, titled, “The Legacy of MN Srinivas: His Contributions to Sociology and Social Anthropology in India”.

[22See, Indian Express, December 1, 1999

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