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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Susanne Rudolph: A beautiful life of the mind

It’s rare indeed to find a union of lives, thoughts and minds that Susanne and Lloyd embodied. That they were popularly known and addressed in India as the Rudolphs signifies their inseparable intellectual partnership.

Written by Asha Sarangi | Updated: January 2, 2016 12:15:22 am
Susanne Hoeber Rudolph Susanne Hoeber Rudolph


Susanne Rudolph, the William Benton Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of Political Science at the University of Chicago, passed away in California on December 23, 2015. It’s difficult to think that she is no more. She lived a life full of academic rigour, knowing and loving her colleagues, friends, students, children, and her endearing world of social and intellectual life in the US and India. With Lloyd Rudolph, she lived a majestic life of ideas, love, friendship and inspiration. Such a remarkable and beautiful life of the mind was lived with an enormous degree of care, discipline and understanding.

In her six decades of intense academic engagement with India, Susanne, along with Lloyd, produced a wide range of writings on the political economy of the Indian state, caste system, cultural politics, foreign policies of India and the US, politics of education, Gandhi, Indian democracy, Amar Singh’s diary, essays on Rajasthan and numerous other subjects of intellectual inquiry. Among them, the globally acclaimed iconic works, like Modernity of Tradition, Postmodern Gandhi and In Pursuit of Lakshmi shaped and signalled the paradigmatic shift in the sub-fields of Indian politics, comparative politics and area studies within the discipline of political science.

These writings have been able to provide nuanced interpretative modes of inquiry, radically challenging the modernisation thesis of behaviourism that dominated social sciences in the post World War II decades of the 1950s and 1960s, and subsequently the dominance of rational choice and the quantitative framework of analysis in political science in the mid-1990s. Susanne’s effective interrogation heralded the “perestroika” revolution in the discipline, with serious differences and arguments over the limited explanatory power of the rational choice theory. Her seminal works on India, imbued with her remarkable intellectual self-confidence and strength, derived from the non-conformist position she often took on various issues of global concern.

the many prestigious positions that she held, her tenures as vice president and president of the American Political Science Association as well as that of the Association of Asian Studies were significant for radically shaping South Asian studies in US academia. Apart from numerous intellectual distinctions and awards conferred on her in the US, the Indian government recognised her contribution by awarding her the Padma Bhushan in 2014.

Susanne was always the most sought-after supervisor for a large number of graduate students intending to pursue their PhDs on India, the Middle East or South Asia at the University of Chicago. The methodological pluralism and ease with which she dialogued with her students across diverse disciplines was much aspired for by her fellow colleagues. While teaching her courses on Max Weber, South Asian civilisation, the political economy of the Indian state, etc, she inculcated the argumentative tradition in her students, asking them to be interrogatively interpretative and descriptively authentic by engaging with critical facts and events. Together with Lloyd, she emphasised multi-/inter-/trans-disciplinary methodological perspectives, setting in motion new trends of thought, discourse and debate among not just political scientists but also sociologists, historians, area specialists, educationists, literary critics, media specialists and others writing on India.

It’s rare indeed to find a union of lives, thoughts and minds that Susanne and Lloyd embodied. That they were popularly known and addressed in India as the Rudolphs signifies their inseparable intellectual partnership. Susanne’s Michigan Lake-view home in Chicago was an adda of late evening discussions and debates, stirring the imaginative minds of young graduate students (like myself) working on India, South Asia, the Middle East and other parts of the world. The intellectual world of South Asian and Indian Studies has lost one of its most original thinkers whose legacy will continue to live for years to come. In this time of absolute grief and pain, I, along with others, would like to celebrate and salute a life so perfectly lived.

The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi

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