Dr. Smitha Radhakrishnan is a sociologist, and dancer, and a mom. Her professional work in and out of the classroom focuses on questions of gender, globalization, nationalism and development. Her newly published book, Appropriately Indian: Gender and Culture in a New Transnational Class (Duke University Press, 2011) examines the culture of Indian IT professionals in urban India, Silicon Valley, and South Africa. She is currently in India conducting research for a new project on educational programs aimed at microfinance borrowers. In her previous research, Smitha has studied meanings of race, ethnicity, and femininity among South African Indians in Durban (South Africa). Her work has appeared in journals such as Qualitative Sociology, Theory and Society, and Gender and Society, among others. A more detailed bio can be found at http://www.wellesley.edu/Sociology/sradhakrishnan.
Smitha has studied Bharatnatyam for most of her life, and has performed in the United States, Canada, India, and South Africa. Since 2008, she has been dancing with Navarasa Dance Theater, based in Boston and directed by Dr. Aparna Sindhoor. Under Dr. Sindhoor’s direction, she has expanded her movement vocabulary to include yoga, kallari, modern dance, and theater. Previously, in California, Smitha co-founded NATyA with Vallari Shah, which choreographed and produced original classical dance productions from 2003-2007. Over the years, she has studied dance with Asha Gopal in Arizona, Padmini Ravi in Bangalore, Girija Chandran in Thiruvananthapuram, Prakriti Bhaskar in Mumbai, and Katherine Kunhiraman in California. Currently in Bangalore, she is reconnecting to Bharatnatyam under the tutelage of Chitra Dasarathy. In 2009, Smitha became a mom to Medha, who now takes up more of her time than all her other interests put together. Before Medha, she had time to produce Desi Dilemmas, a popular podcast that ran from 2005-2006, and also blogged occasionally for UCLA’s online magazine for Asian-Pacific Arts.
Nischala: Smitha – Thank You so much for your time to do this Rendezvous. I really appreciate it.
Smitha: Thank You. It is indeed a pleasure to talk to you
Nischala: Smitha, you have an incredible Bio. One of the most impressive I’ve read in a while. For many reasons – One I don’t know of too many PhD’s in my peer group – An abysmally small number of people even tread down that path. Two, A PhD along with a passion and active involvement in performing arts is really commendable – Not to mention, a rare and unique combination. Also, the additional credits you have in terms of your book, research work and your articles that I’ve read about are impressive. So looking back at your life, how did it all come together for you?
Smitha: I was raised in a fairly traditional Indian family in the US. I enrolled into dance at the age of 5. So dance and performing arts is a part of my identity. To be honest, I can’t imagine life without dance. For a long time, I had to internally deal with the what seemed to be the unique difficulties associated with “multiple identities” – Being raised in an Indian home, but also participating in everyday life in the U.S. My experience seemed unique at the time. But as I grew and got more educated, I realized that there’s nothing so special about my personal situation. History is filled with examples of people migrating and dealing with multiple cultural affiliations. Cultural change is the norm, not the exception. Embracing this perspective was liberating, and allowed me to do my research and travel with a sense of wonder and humility.
Nischala: That’s an interesting way to put it. And from all your travel, research and writing, I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to meet and interact with so many people across the globe – which is really exciting and can be a great learning experience in itself. So what has been the real lesson that you’ve taken away here?
Smitha: What I’ve realized based on my research, reading, interactions and introspection is that engaging with the personal experiences of others is the key to learning and growth. Shifting the focus away from my own personal issues to a broader world makes you see things differently. I was privileged to be in a position where some of these lessons emerged from my research. What I really learnt is this: Every one of us has a story to share – based on our own personal experiences. So, life is really not so much about me – or my struggles, issues or successes. But it is really about every individual’s journey in life. And when you wear that lens, you world view changes. I find it very humbling to engage and connect at a personal level to people from diverse walks of life – and to have the opportunity to listen one-on-one to their life stories. And each person’s story is rich – When I say rich, I mean it is rich with their life events, memories, joys, sorrows, achievements, trials, etc. What’s important is to step back and listen, to ask the right questions, and to give importance to the insight and wisdom that each person you meet possesses. So it is worthwhile to extend one’s point of engagement beyond yourself, to observe and reflect upon the experiences of others as well, so you can frame and re-model your own views and perceptions. At times, I am astonished about the things I don’t notice! But these realizations keep me humble and keep me looking to find out more about those things in my environment that are not completely obvious.
Nischala: That’s a powerful thought and a very unique way to look at people and life. So, coming back to your PhD. What was the motivation to pursue your doctoral studies?
Smitha: Since high school I had an interest in research, which I pursued through my undergraduate studies. At Berkeley, the exposure to an amazing intellectual and social environment was truly rewarding and satisfying! I learnt so much by being a part of such a great institution, working with some amazing faculty and having wonderful classmates. Coming to the PhD, I think it was just a logical step for me – I was passionate about research and writing, and sociology gave me the opportunity to pursue research and writing on social topics of my choice! So, it’s everything that I love – and if someone was going to pay me for this, then how could I turn down the opportunity? The main attraction for sociology was the possibility of doing fieldwork, which would allow me to interact with people I would never otherwise have the chance to engage with.
Nischala: So, what was the topic of your doctoral research?
Smitha: My research was centered around the cultural impact and role of the IT industry on Indian women, and the role of the IT industry in transforming “Indian culture” as a whole. I conducted extensive research over several years across 3 places – US, India and South Africa. The issues which most working women deal with are probably somewhat similar all across the globe. But what I found to be very unique to the women in India who are part of the IT workforce is that there is an “expectation” that women need to preserve the “Indian” character of the home and yet display a “global Indianness” as a part of their professional IT jobs. So this puts them is a difficult position and brings forth several dilemmas for women to deal with. Women find their own ways to deal with their specific situations. Some quit working, some make compromises in their professional life, some let-go of many things in their personal life. So there all combinations, but each of these compromises has to deal with the dilemma of being a professional woman while at the same time feeling a normative pressure to maintain an essentially “Indian” home. And the reality is that although there’s a lot of data on the increasing numbers of women in the Indian IT industry which are positive and encouraging – If you look a little closer, the numbers are still abysmally small, especially at the top tiers. Although women enter into the IT industry in equal numbers as men, most women still do opt out of their corporate careers once they become mothers. These decisions are always framed as “choice,” but are often not as freely made as we would like to believe.
Nischala: So any specific trends that you have seen in women living in India and part of the Indian IT industry?
Smitha: Throughout the industry, there is a moment of crisis for women when they have a child. This is a point at which many women make difficult decisions in their professional careers in IT. IT companies are still figuring out the ways in which good policy arrangements can allow women to continue their careers and there is a lot of effort in this area. It is still too early to say whether these new policies will prompt women to make different decisions. Men do not face the same dilemma when they have children because even though women have become equal earning members in many cases, men have not had to shoulder an equal burden in the area of childcare.
Nischala: In your personal case, how have you dealt with balancing all your responsibilities and passions?
Smitha: I have a 2.5 year old daughter and I have been able to somehow manage raising her with my work and dance. This is possible because my spouse shares an equal duty with regard to caring for our daughter. Equal responsibility at home has been a fundamental understanding of our relationship. Still, it’s difficult for us to manage both our careers, personal interests, and our daughter. Especially after living in India for the past few months, I’ve realized that we really need to take things one day at a time, it’s impossible to plan everything and budget every moment of every day. You have to be open to deal with changes and challenges. But in all this, I’ve found it most important to be true to myself. In this sense, dance is not a “break” for me, but a part of who I am. I won’t be a good mom, a good scholar, or a good partner to my spouse if I don’t dance! So, for each person, in whatever way it fits, I think it’s important to know who you are, what you need, and be true to yourself.
Nischala: That’s such a profound and valuable advice. Thanks for sharing your personal journey and insights on topics close to your heart. This was an absolute pleasure. Thanks again for your time
Smitha: Thank you for this opportunity. Have a great day!
Photo Credit : Ganesh Ramachandran @ Purple Ganesh Photography