The History Room: Interview with Anupama Rao

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1. What led you to choose history as your area of work?

AR: I have an odd relationship to disciplinary history. I was fascinated by European history in high school, and decided to major in it at the University of Chicago, where I went to college. (This was in the late 1980s, when Foucault, Said, and postcolonial theory were becoming dominant in the U. S. academy.) It just so happened that the University of Chicago was among the more important institutions in the United States for South Asia scholarship. I came into contact with two faculty members, Bernard Cohn, and Ronald Inden, who inspired my shift away from Europe, and towards anthropology and South Asian studies. As I noted earlier, this was at a time when the critique of colonialism was transforming area studies, and the interpretive social sciences. I was deeply influenced by this focus on the politics of knowledge production, and on commitments to rigorous interdisciplinarity. I returned to history as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the (then) recently established Interdepartmental Program in Anthropology and History.

What has this kind of a trajectory meant for my relationship to disciplinary history? I tend to be conceptually oriented. I am committed to social theory, and bring an interest in comparative work on difference and alterity to my understanding of historical process.

2. Can you tell us a little about how your research interests evolved? Especially your interest in working in caste and gender (a field in which there hasn’t been a lot of research done).

AR: Let me offer both a more personal, as well as an intellectual accounting of my interest in caste and gender.

I grew up in Bangalore for the first decade of my life, and then moved to the south side of Chicago where I lived until I went to college. It is odd, though not unexpected that though caste was present all around me in Bangalore, I processed it perceptually through the ways in which we apprehend how bodies labor, what spaces they inhabit, and how we are trained into forms of caste respectability. Instead, as a young person whose parents came to the United States as graduate students, I had a more direct engagement with class and race: with class because we grew up in a state of genteel poverty, with lots of books and library visits, but very little by way of living the consumerist American dream; and with race because I was deeply drawn to African American literature and history in high school and identified with the city, rather than the suburbs where the bulk of Indians lived. While we are not defined by such experiences, many academics do end up working on issues and themes that preoccupy them as central political and ethical problems. I can only speculate that the issues of intimacy, difference, and equality with which I am deeply concerned are somehow connected with this set of grounding experiences.

That said, I turned to caste and gender as an intellectual problem, an underexplored, if essential interface for understanding Indian social life partly due to the intellectual ferment in Indian feminism in the late 1980s—from all the wonderful work on colonial gender formation, to contemporary debates about the Uniform Civil Code, and the ways in which issues of difference and inclusion, and of exception and equality were being debated at the time.

I was extremely lucky to have been working on Maharashtra because this is a region with a strong tradition of gender reform, caste radicalism, and of a deep history of conflict within upper-caste society around questions of tradition and modernity. (This last point, about the conflicted modernity of the Maharashtrian upper-castes is of course what makes the region so different from South India, where such processes were exceedingly muted, though caste radicalism was equally intense.) I think Marathi debates about the continued impact and relevance of the Satyashodak movement and Dalit critique provided a context for my efforts to address the relationship between a rich tradition of caste-gender critique which explored how caste structured sexual and social orders, and its contemporary divergence into caste and gender-identified projects of social transformation. Instead, I was trying to understand the afterlife of history, of history in the present, as well as what significant breaks and ruptures had altered earlier debate and dialogue. Looking back, there were four main interventions my work made: rethinking feminist agency, problematizing caste identitarianism, providing a model for thinking about the relationship between caste and gender violence, and arguing that caste posed a problem of ethics for us all.

Finally, I owe deep thanks to Dr. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, who was instrumental in encouraging me to put together the reader on gender and caste for the Kali series, “Debates in Indian Feminism,” she edited.

3. What is your current research project?

AR: I have just returned from a stint as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford) followed by six months of research in Mumbai, India after publishing The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India (University of California Press, 2009). The fellowship and research leave were in aid of a new project, tentatively entitled Dalit Bombay: Stigma, Precarity, and Everyday Life, which addresses the local itineraries of global Marxism in its confrontation with the resistant materiality of caste stigma and outcaste labor in Bombay/Mumbai, the epicenter of India’s working-class radicalism for most of the twentieth century. The project revisits the relationship between caste and class through debates that structured the public and political culture of western India in the first half of the twentieth century. As well, Dalit Bombay asks how the realities of caste and class were embedded in spatial practices and forms of inhabitation that impacted social life. At its broadest level this book project is an exploration of the politics of precarity and personhood in the aftermath of collective utopias of emancipation, and in the wake of neoliberal governance and the accelerated urbanization of the global South.

The book grows out of a collaborative translation project focused on the biography and autobiography of a Dalit Communist which provides a rare account of subaltern Bombay, and the public and political culture that sustained the lives of the working poor.

I am also working on a critical study of B. R. Ambedkar, the celebrated Dalit leader, constitutional lawyer, political theorist, and “architect” of India’s Constitution. I am especially interested in connecting key terms and ideas in Ambedkar’s oeuvre as these were affected by the inter-war intellectual cultures of American liberalism, on the one hand, and British and German social democratic thought on the other.

4. What in your view is its significance–for scholars and for society?

AR: Thought and academic writing are slow, and do not have the immediate impact of policy, with its means-end relationship between analysis and outcome. Very often thought is experimental, it asks what might have been, or better yet, it opens us to thinking “otherwise” and to resist the persistent fixation on making academic work relevant to social problems and contemporary reality. It may sound odd for me as someone working on issues that directly impact social action to say this. And I should clarify that I am not suggesting that academics should not influence the way things are thought and done. However I do want to challenge what we value as useful scholarship. I think what I am saying is deeply significant for a caste (and casteist) society like India’s, because it asks that we democratize thought and theorizing, and remove it from the idea of education as vocational training. We should have a patient relationship to this question of significance. Often it is too soon to tell!

However if I were to take a stab at responding to this question, I could say the following. Beginning with The Caste Question, I have brought the concerns of feminist theory into work that is not necessarily focused on women, or gender. That is to say, much of the ways in which I came to understand the project of Dalit emancipation was indebted to forms of thought that I would call “feminist” even when it was not engaging an explicitly gendered domain of action. (Of course my book also works through more explicitly through gender and sexuality to show how these structure instabilities of personhood and political projects.)

More broadly, the significance of my work is that it makes thought, and not merely resistance, the site of agonism and conflict. I track the systematicities of subaltern thought—its deep investment in history, in writing alternative accounts of labor, and in describing the precarity of everyday life, not to mention the central yet unacknowledged ways in which we have inherited the postcolonial state as an Ambedkarite legacy. I think all my writings attempt to think about the relationship between thought and social life as an embodied one.

5. Can you share a glimpse into your research wishlist? If time and resources were abundant, what would you work on?

AR: I am very lucky to be able to draw on the work of friends and colleagues, and in having time to research and write. However if I could have all the time and resources in the world, I think I would want to do more cross-regional work in South Asia, and to explore the world south of the Vindhyas by way of its oral and subaltern cultural histories.

6. What are some under-studied areas and un-asked questions relating to women, gender and history?

AR: This is such a rich and vibrant field that I would hesitate to talk about understudied areas. But what has happened to sex/gender in a postfeminist world? Many people no longer feel the “need” for feminism as an organizing politics of our time, yet we are in a period where gender and sexuality matter, and matter deeply. Or, how is queer critique opening up new ways of thinking about sexual and social difference? How can revisiting questions of political economy (and its new practices of predation) allow us to understand gendered labor? All of these issues remain important. So too, does the question of gender and religion. I think this is an especially difficult issue given global geopolitics.

I think feminism’s adjacencies to socialism and other progressive movements is a part of its complex, and underexplored history. We Too Made History, and some recent work on women in the Naxalite movement have addressed this complex engagement. But I think we need richer intellectual histories of what and how women read, and ways to understand the circulation of feminism in global frame.

Another interesting area is the work on early modernity, which puts pressure on modern categories such as gender. For example the work of my colleague, Dorothy Ko, who has worked on female scholars in seventeenth century China, and on the changing history of footbinding across five centuries is especially interesting to me. This work, like other work on early modernity in South Asia, explores how “gender” is embedded in courtly, literary, or performative cultures, and thus how gender is inhabited.

Interview publication date: March 8, 2012.

Email interview by Archana Venkatesh.

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