A Student Of India

Susanne Rudolph helped explain Indian democracy in all its complexity

Written by Ronojoy Sen | Published:December 26, 2015 12:10 am
Susanne Hoeber Rudolph Susanne Hoeber Rudolph (Source: Youtube)

Susanne Rudolph, who passed away on December 23, represented an embattled and fast-disappearing strand of political science that seamlessly incorporated history, anthropology and political psychology. Along with her husband and long-time collaborator, Lloyd Rudolph, she was the author of seminal books on India and comparative politics, including The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India and In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State.

Susanne, the daughter of a German couple who fled Nazi Germany for the US in 1939, received her PhD from Harvard in 1955. It was at Harvard that she met Lloyd, a fellow graduate student. They married in 1952, marking the beginning of a scholarly partnership that has few parallels in academia. In 1956, the Rudolphs embarked on their first trip to India, driving from London to New Delhi in a Land Rover. In 2014, Susanne and Lloyd were awarded the Padma Bhushan.

The Modernity of Tradition, published in 1967, was a groundbreaking work that struck a different path from contemporary trends in political science in the study of developing and post-colonial nations. In the introduction to the book, Susanne and Lloyd wrote: “The myths and realities of Western experience set limits to the social scientific imagination, and modernity becomes what we imagine ourselves to be.” Instead they argued for according “tradition a higher priority in the study of modernisation than has often been the case in the previous analyses of it.” Accordingly, the Rudolphs studied three aspects of Indian life and society they believed were adapted to serve the needs of a modernising society: Caste, the traditional roots of charisma in the form of Mahatma Gandhi and legal cultures. Subsequently, the “modernity of tradition”, the idea and the phrase, influenced several scholars of India.

The themes in The Modernity of Tradition, particularly Gandhi, remained life-long concerns of Susanne. She not only co-taught with Lloyd a course on Gandhi at the University of Chicago, where they spent nearly 40 years beginning in 1964, but also published in 2006 a co-authored volume on Gandhi, Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays.

Susanne and Lloyd rebelled against the increasing hold of quantitative and mathematical methodology on political science. They were active in the “perestroika movement”, a loose-knit effort within the American Political Science Association, beginning in 2000, that sought to open political science to greater methodological pluralism.

Susanne and Lloyd lived in India every fourth year for nearly 50 years. Much of this time was spent in Jaipur. Jaipur and Rajasthan were very special to Susanne, and she and Lloyd spent 28 years editing and interpreting Rajput noble Amar Singh’s diaries, which ran into 89 bound volumes. The result was the edited volume, Reversing the Gaze: Amar Singh’s Diary, A Colonial Subject’s Narrative of Imperial India, published in 2000. They had also authored an earlier book, Essays on Rajputana. These books were an example of the extraordinary diversity of Susanne’s research interests, which ranged from polo to Tamil cinema. This diversity is captured in the Rudolphs’ three-volume collection of essays, Explaining Indian Democracy: A Fifty Year Perspective, 1956-2006.

It was not just her scholarship that made Susanne stand out. Along with Lloyd, she was mentor to a legion of students who have left their mark on the study of India. She forged a bond with students that went far beyond the usual teacher-student relationship. Many of her students at the University of Chicago, including myself, fondly remember the post-seminar gatherings at the Rudolphs’ lakeside apartment in Hyde Park, where food, beer and sparkling conversation flowed freely.

In recent years, Susanne’s physical movements had been hampered by illness. But she and Lloyd were present at Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2014 to receive the Padma Bhushan. Despite her illness, her mind remained razor sharp. When I saw her for the last time earlier this year at her home in Oakland, California, she was keenly interested in the reasons behind the success of the AAP in Delhi. She was also involved in editing the letters she had written during her years of research in India. One hopes those will be published as a tribute to an excellent scholar and an extraordinary person.

The writer, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, was a student of Susanne Rudolph at the University of Chicago

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  1. K
    K SHESHU
    Dec 26, 2015 at 6:08 am
    Works of such great personalities must be porised so that the diversity of Indian culture and democracy as understood by foreigners would add to the wealth of knowledge. Susanne has left a great treasure and the future generations should utilise it. Condolences.
    Reply
  2. A
    Adnan Buland
    Dec 26, 2015 at 4:42 am
    A good tribute gives by Ronojoy... Rgds Adnan Buland Khan~ABK
    Reply
  3. D
    Dominic Emmanuel
    Dec 26, 2015 at 10:04 am
    What a great mind. Missed her work completely during my Ph. D. in London on "Communication as Dialogue". Dominic Emmanuel
    Reply
  4. K
    KeepItHonest
    Dec 28, 2015 at 4:56 am
    I wonder what the Rudolphs' relationship with Wendy Doniger was like at the Univ. of Chicago? Hoping Ronojoy can shed some light on it as a followup.
    Reply
  5. B
    Binoy Shanker
    Dec 26, 2015 at 6:31 pm
    Susanne Rudolph was a discussant on my paper I presented as a panelist at the Madison-Wisconsin South Asian Conference in 1999. Among the notable attendees were her husband Lloyd, Paul Br, Art Rubinoff and my professor Paul Wallace. Good bye Susanne..
    Reply
  6. D
    Dr. R
    Dec 26, 2015 at 3:48 am
    A very well written tribute to a great teacher. Rajendra Jadeja
    Reply
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