Remembering Professor Arvind M. Shah, a Genial Doyen of Sociology

Thinking of him, we know that we cannot give up – whether through our continuing efforts at rigorous rather than quick-fix research or voicing our “unacceptable” views.

The news that Professor Arvind M. Shah had passed away on September 7, following a heart attack, came as a shock.

This, even though he was 89 and had lived a full life. He continued to be active in doing what he loved best – sociology.

His mind was sharp and his engagement intense. A couple of days earlier he had spoken on the phone to discuss comments he had generously sent a young colleague on an article she had written and pressed an author to submit her contribution to an edited book he was putting together, reminiscent for me of the long period I was working on my doctoral thesis under his supervision.

Professor Shah started his life in sociology as an undergraduate student at the MS University, Baroda. After a brief stint there as a teacher, he was among the first faculty members recruited by his teacher, Professor M.N. Srinivas, when sociology was started as a discipline in the University of Delhi.

When I joined the department as a young research student, Professor Srinivas had retired and there was a quartet of professors at the core – Professor M.S.A. Rao (who sadly died much before he was ready to even officially retire), Professor Uberoi, Professor Shah and Professor Beteille. The professor I had the most association with was, of course, my supervisor – Professor Shah.

The personality and work of each of the four professors were substantially different. Interactions with them, along with the many others on the faculty – if not already illustrious sociologists, certainly so in the years to come – shaped the tenor of research life.  Conversations on the lawns, in the library, the corridors and stairs, in one of their rooms, in the canteen or sitting on the parapet nearby, questions and answers in the research colloquium and other seminars.  Of course, at times we were trying to dodge them – a chapter not yet done or some other matter.

Professor Shah was painstaking in his research and his writing and wanted students to be the same.  He was insistent that flights of analytic imagination and interpretation had to be based on ethnographic detail, at times layer on layer. Thus, his significant and critical argument that division was as important as hierarchy in the structure, functioning and persistence of caste, contra Dumont, rested on a marshalling of ethnography regarding castes and their practices, claims, and internal dynamics in Gujarat, an area he had been studying for years (Division and Hierarchy: An Overview of Caste in Gujarat).

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He gave me and another one of his doctoral students, who was working specifically on caste, a draft –  a very polished draft I have to say – to read. I think he had a dual purpose for doing this – he made us, his doctoral students, into fellow researchers from whom he invited comments. And as I had in passing written in a paper that identity seemed the central caste issue for those in the middle of the caste hierarchy, he was also giving instructions to his doctoral student, instruction through practice rather than didactics – instruction on the need to make an argument not from one apt illustration, but by looking at the process and by accounting for details that seemed to contradict the argument one wished to make.

Careful writing and conceptual clarity were his benchmarks in evaluating work. One example was his irritation with people, who would make sweeping remarks and say that the joint family is on decline, not understanding the variety of joint and nuclear households and the difference between household and family and what this meant for familial and kinship dynamics.

He had taken this subject on with his first book, The Household Dimension of the Family in India, in which he also emphasised process and indicated his interest in historical sociology in his discussions of how ancient Hindu law is to be read as sociological fact or not. His demand for empirical grounding led to critiques and arguments with those he saw as reading more into the past from the little material they had at hand, when an anthropologist would hesitate to go so far with much more material.

Fieldwork was very precious to him – seen in his beautifully written and meticulous field diaries – before the time of computers.  His critique of the idea of the isolated Indian village and his pointers to the dynamics of sectarian and non-sectarian Hinduism were among the many other areas he wrote on.

Because he did not have a magnetic personality like Professor Srinivas or the perfect academic pause when speaking, the depth and productivity of the argument he was making could be overlooked – until one read a piece again. Then, even those he had critiqued would invite him to comment again or contribute.

Of course, he too shared a common academic disease – once we start speaking we do not easily stop!  Though he could go both silent and loquacious after a good whiskey. At a seminar in Baroda a few years ago, he particularly enjoyed taking the participants to the beautiful rooms and halls in MS University where he began his sociological education and told us about the social and political history of the university, showing us a beautiful and ancient stepwell nearby, speaking of the liberal and dissenting traditions of Baroda and of course ensuring we had the best of Gujarati food.

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The department has always been both a stimulating and a hard, demanding place. There were many bitter arguments in the department that we heard of when we were students or were part of as faculty.  What stood out was his commitment to the department, to the discipline, to the hard work of research, to the integrity and diversity of university life and to an idea of India that was plural, secular, respectful, and open to all views.

Professor Shah always put his teaching and the department first, even before his own publications – perhaps one reason that so many of his books have come out in the years after his formal retirement: his work on the history of a village in Gujarat, the compilation of election studies done at the department, collections of his articles and edited volumes of articles published between 1886-1936 in the journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay.

After retirement in Baroda and the family life he enjoyed, he still revelled in the life of the intellectual and the sociologist and the company of sociologists.  He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Indian Sociological Society in 2009. When he visited the department last year, his happiness was visible, despite the fears for the future of the idea of India he had upheld, the university, higher education, and the possibilities of solid and critical research in the present times that he often expressed.

In remembering Professor Shah, we also know that we cannot give up – whether through our continuing efforts at rigorous rather than quick-fix research, voicing our considered views even when they are “unacceptable”, and in sharing our work within the fraternity and in a larger public domain.

Rajni Palriwala is a Professor of Sociology at Delhi University.