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Lokvani Talks To Dr. Smitha Radhakrishnan

Ranjani Saigal

 Smitha Radhakrishnan is assistant professor of Sociology at Wellesley College. Her courses stem from her continued interests in the intersections between gender, class, nation, and political economy. She has recently published a book titled, Appropriately Indian: Gender and Culture in a New Transnational Class.  The book draws from her dissertation research on the new Indian middle class, which focused on information technology (IT) professionals working in Mumbai and Bangalore. Through a multi-sited ethnographic approach that also includes comparative pieces among the diaspora in the Silicon Valley and South Africa, she examines how gender and class shape a broader notion of India as an emerging nation. She is working on a new book with the Duke University Press, which  will be out by the end of the year. In her previous research, Professor Radhakrishnan has studied meanings of race, ethnicity, and femininity amongst South African Indians in Durban (South Africa), and has studied gender and development in Rajasthan and Kerala (India). Before coming to Wellesley, Professor Radhakrishnan was a Global Fellow at UCLA’s International Institute. Her recent publications have appeared in Theory and Society and in the Journal of Intercultural Studies. 

Sociology research is not a standard career choice for many second generation South Asians. How did you come about this career choice?

In Phoenix, my imagination of career choice was pretty limited.  I didn't even know that one could have a career in academia of any sort.  I knew I was an intellectual pretty early, and did some research work at a molecular bio lab as a high school student.  I decided that working in a lab wasn't gratifying enough for me, and I had no interest in being a doctor.  At Berkeley, I read the description of the Development Studies major and knew that's what I wanted to learn about, unequivocally.  Wanting to be an academic came a bit later.  After an amazing undergraduate research exerience in Rajasthan, I knew I wanted to research and teach as my career.  I lucked out with graduate admissions and fellowships and never looked back.

Could you describe your area of research for us?
This link sums it up better than the one on the Sociology site: http://www.wellesley.edu/SouthAsiaStudies/faculty.html#rad

You are a second generation Indian American.  What special
environmental influences would you say have been most important in shaping you as an individual? 

I think I've addressed most of this already.  I'll add that my parents never ever ever told me what to do, career-wise.  Were they worried when I went to Berkeley and said I wanted to study "Development Studies" (leaving behind years of research experience at one of the nation's top neurological institutes, where I worked as a high school student)?  Definitely.  Did we have a lot of conversations about what exactly I would do with that?  Oh yes.  But they never questioned my judgment and always wanted me to do what I loved (provided I was able to be financially independent, of course!).

You are very passionate about Indian classical dance. Do you consider classical dance a personal artistic exploration space or a medium to do something more?

Both!  Dance is deeply personal for me, something I have to do to feel like a whole person.  I think Bharatnatyam also has amazing transformative potentials (I've written a little about this in this http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=99207 article about Surialanga).  

Here's where I might diverge from many hard-core Bharatnatyam practitioners.  On one hand, I'm a stickler about technique, I'm very hard-core about my aesthetic preferences and convictions, and I love the form and the things that make it distinctive.  But I also think that trapping it in the box of "culture," as in--something that good middle-class Indian girls in the US should learn to "keep up the culture--limits its transformative potential.  If Indians in the US (and in India too!) insist on this, Bharatnatyam will always be a marginal "ethnic" form.  I want to see Bharatnatyam funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, I want to see excellent dancers imagine new ways to do it (this is happening in the UK in very exciting ways, I think), and I want people from every walk of life to see it as an art to learn and explore in its own right--not as just a way to know "Indianness" or "Indian culture."   We're not there yet.

There are many in the US , particularly second generation Indian
Americans like Mythili Prakash and others who not only excel in this art form but have made a career in Indian classical dance. They have also found acceptance amongst the dance elite in Chennai. Your brother has done this in the area of Carnatic music.  How do you think their practice of this art form differs from practitioners in India?

They have a unique challenge because they are truly in-between.  Artists in India have to show their legitimacy by showing they have performed in the US, and in the US, you have to show your legitimacy by being from  India.  Mythili and Prasant and others like them are neither.  But I think this is valuable.
Do you think they will change the course of the art form? 

The potential is there, absolutely.  Because those who have taken it on as a career have exploded that whole "I dance because I'm Indian" concept and have become true artists. . .they can speak in multiple artistic languages.  This multiplicity is enormously creative and can do artistic things that are not possible when you're completely wedded to either the Chennai scene or a more mainstream American artistic scene.  I'm very excited to see what these artists are going to produce in the coming years for all of us.

As a second generation Indian American, a sociologist , a professor and a parent what advice would you offer to South Asians who are raising children in this country?

I'm certainly not one to give advice of any kind!!  Giving advice of this kind presumes I have some greater experience/insight than others, and I cannot presume anything of the sort.  If there's anything I hope for, though, for my daughter, and for those growing up today, it's that they will be allowed the space to keep an imagination alive.  Without imagination, we risk living unexamined lives, and an unexamined life is hardly a life at all (no social scientific biases there, right?!)!! ;)
What motivated you to start the Desi Dilemma podcast?

The same thing that's motivating me to spend this morning answering these questions!  I want our immigrant community to question the orthodoxies that prevail in all of our communities, and know that questioning them doesn't mean giving anything up!!  And I guess I imagine that if a daughter of the subculture urges people to rethink "culture" and "identity," maybe people will listen.  But maybe not.  In the years I did Desi Dilemmas, I found that the people who listened were mostly those who already agreed with me.  But there were always some who were surprised, taken aback, or even offended by some of the things I said, so that made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile!

What advice do you have for students who want to have a career in
Sociology research and aspire to be faculty members?

The simple response is: Do what you're best at!

The longer response is:

DO NOT get a PhD if: a) you're not sure you can hack 6-8 years in school, b) you don't have full funding! or c) you're not willing to face an EXTREMELY arbritrary and competitive job market when you graduate after all those years.

DO get a PhD and enter academia if you a) have an absurd love for the life of the mind b) love teaching and research AND are REALLY good at both, and c) are okay with never making any serious money.  

Thank you for the time


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Dr. Smitha Radhakrishnan
Photo Credit: Ganesh Ramachandran, Lois Greenfield Workshop, New York 2008.

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