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2024 MN Srinivas Lecture: Dr Piers Vitebsky
Tuesday 28 May 2024, 06:00pm - 07:30pm
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2024 MN Srinivas Lecture by Dr Piers Vitebsky: 'Adivasi futures and the vernacular afterlives of fieldnotes'

King's Building, Strand Campus, London

Dr Piers Vitebsky will deliver the 2024 MN Srinivas Lecture titled 'The village remembered, but by whom? Adivasi futures and the vernacular afterlives of fieldnotes'.

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M N Srinivas was an influential and pioneering Indian sociologist and anthropologist known for his work on caste, religion, village communities and social change. Srinivas’ Remembered Village is a classic tale of lost fieldnotes and an author’s effort to reconstruct his memories. But what if fieldnotes survive, and forty years later the community starts to use them to remember and appropriate a lost cultural past?

Since Dr Piers Vitebsky first lived with the Sora, a tribe in southern Odisha, in 1975, their world has changed out of all recognition. At that time, the non-literate Sora religion revolved around a unique form of dialogues with their dead, who spoke through the mouths of shamans in trance. In this intimate cyclical cosmology, dialogues with the dead blended a selective remembering with a ritually paced forgetting. Today, ancestors have become forgotten in a more abrupt and total way, abandoned by younger Sora who have entered government schooling and converted to a range of Christian or Hindu sects. These new religions offer their own gods, scripts and cosmic temporalities, but at the price of forgetting dead parents and rejecting their cultural forms.

The ethnographer has accumulated a huge archive of oral texts, recordings, photos and life stories. Initially these were for his own research purposes, but they are now acquiring an unforeseen role for young Sora themselves as they try to recall a way of life they have never experienced first-hand, and which left no written traces. When he returns extracts from this material, they go viral on mobile phones and provoke songs and weeping, as young Sora re-imagine their past and feed it into their construction of new Sora futures. The ethnographer is torn between memories of his old friends, now mostly dead, and his duty to the new imaginations and aspirations of their grandchildren.

About the speaker

Dr Piers Vitebsky

Piers studied ancient languages before becoming a social anthropologist specialising in the religions and ecologies of Indigenous peoples in India and the Russian Arctic. He studied at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, London and Delhi, and from 1986-2016 was Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

His books include Dialogues with the Dead: The Discussion of Mortality among the Sora of Eastern India (1993); Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia (2005), winner of the Kiriyama Prize for Non-Fiction; and Living without the Dead: Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos (2017), which was shortlisted for the New India Foundation’s Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay book prize. He is currently working on an interactive dictionary of Sora language, idiom and poetics, and is a member of the European Research Council-funded project on ‘India’s politics and its vernaculars’ based at the India Institute.