CHATLINE In the light of “Social Traditions”, his newest book, veteran academic T.N. Madan talks to SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY about the journey of sociology in India

Past ends where present begins, so history is largely a construct of sociology. Going by this interlock, it is natural then that veteran academic T.N. Madan's fascination for history as a student eventually transformed into an abiding interest in social studies. Madan, professor emeritus at Delhi University's Institute of Economic Growth, has largely witnessed sociology coil out of its nascence in India to develop into a subject of significance in today's times. The veracity of it can be traced in Madan's line of study itself. Though widely known for his ground-breaking study of Indian family system and kinship — a close peek at our traditions that way, this native of Kashmir also explored swathes of modernity sweeping through our society. He, in fact, divides his long academic career into three distinct parts.

“The study of family relations and kinship covered the first phase of my academic career; in the second phase, I focussed broadly on the medical profession, about the culture of private practice of doctors and their significance in towns like Ghaziabad and in institutions like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and then moved on to the study of religion,” he explains. His latest book “Sociological Traditions – Methods and Perspectives in the Sociology of India” (a Sage publication) has ample evidence of his last phase of study. The discerning essays on Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, their progression and continued stabs at trying to find relevance in the shifting times, makes the book a precious read.

Points out Madan, “Most Indian sociologists bypass study of religion and thus ignore the fact that it is an important part of our society. Studies on class division, farmers' suicide, etc, are important and so is the study on religion. Though religion enters fewer parts of our life today, it is still a vital element of most Indians, a marker of identity; most names give a clue to one's religion and cultural background. In the 2001 Census, when people were asked about religious beliefs, only a fraction of one per cent said I have no religion.” Madan points out subtle markers like noticing “framed idols of Ganesha and Lakshmi in nationalised banks.” The study of religion is important, he says, “Because it is important for the people.”

Though he is a non-believer, the sociologist in Madan appreciates that “usually, most South Indians are less apologetic about their religion than North Indians; this may be because of the fractured cultural history of the North.” He also points out that study of religion is hardly popular among our intellectuals unlike the West. “This is because we don't teach religion in our universities. Universities like Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, etc. have separate departments for religious studies. In America, private universities teach religion and that way, there can be right appreciation of the significance of a religion.”

His essay on Islam in the book particularly is a message in celebration of pluralism. Giving examples of societies like Indonesia and their own form of Islam, he points out the juggling it is undergoing vis-à-vis attempts by “the Arab heartland to homogenise Muslims across the world”. “It is sad that Islam is threatened today from insiders who make it look as a fanatical, dogmatic, violent religion which doesn't give space to an individual. The answer lies in allowing the many varieties of it to thrive. For centuries it has remained like that. Indonesians are devout Muslims but the symbol of their national airline is a garuda, a Hindu religious figure.” In the same vein, he talks about how it is important that different versions of the Hindu epic Ramayana, followed in countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Maldives and Laos, should thrive.

Talking about his childhood days in Srinagar, Madan is nostalgic, particularly about social amity. “Our neighbours were Muslims and we were Pandits. Each had the sense of the ‘other' but that never came in the way of our closeness because our culture was the same. Kashmiris are the most peaceful people in the world. Muslims among them follow the order of Sufis called Rishi who spread Islam in the Valley and are vegetarians.” He points out surnames of Kashmiri Muslims like Bhatt to underline his point.

Besides expounding on religion, Madan, also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in India, delineates in the book the salad days of sociology in India. He illustrates the work of three of our greatest interpreters of society — Radhakamal Mukherjee, D.P. Mukherji and M.N. Srinivas. The book also notes the contributions of yet another great who brought Indian society under the scanner — Louis Dumont, with whom Madan developed a long friendship.

Madan explains the genesis of the book, “Sociology emerged in Europe in the 18th-19th Century. The history of it there is well documented unlike in India. So in this book, I tried to look at what happened when sociology travelled to India (in the '20s), what did the first generation of sociologist do, how did they develop research methods, what moved them.” Two of these first generation sociologists — D.P. Mukerji and Radha Kamal Mukherjee — were his teachers at the Lucknow University, one of the firsts to get a sociology department in India. So the book naturally has a lot of data that has roots in his personal experience.

To take this exploratory project further, Madan is already well into his next book. “It will be on sociology at the Lucknow University and will be brought out by Oxford University Press next year.”

More In: Books | Delhi | Metroplus | Features