Member Spotlight: Rashmi Sadana

Rashmi Sadana

Rashmi Sadana is Associate Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University. She is an anthropologist and works primarily in India.

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

It’s great to be connected to a place-based community of scholars, especially as many of us are based far from our research sites in Asia. That’s also why I love the idea of the AAS-in-Asia conferences, which re-center the idea of knowledge production on Asia coming out of Asia.

I would recommend AAS to colleagues for the conferences and the connection to this network of scholars. It’s also a great place to learn about funding and other opportunities.

How did you first become involved in the field of Asian Studies?

I suppose it was when I was doing my Ph.D. in Anthropology at Berkeley and started taking Hindi literature courses with Vasudha Dalmia. She was my teacher and then became one of my dissertation committee members, a mentor, and a dear friend. Years later, we edited a book together—The Cambridge Companion to Modern Indian Culture (2012). She taught me how to connect my own research to the questions being asked in a larger area discipline like South Asian Studies. At Berkeley I also learned about having a critical Asia perspective from my main advisor, Lawrence Cohen, and from Aihwa Ong.

What do you enjoy most or what were your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

Doing fieldwork in India for sure. That’s what drew me to anthropology. I was interested in literature but also the multilingual experience of India, so I began talking to people to understand how linguistic diversity played out in their lives. I also researched institutions like the Sahitya Akademi and the publishing houses of Delhi. This led me to write an ethnography of the literary field, which became my first monograph, English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India (2012).

Cover of The Moving City: Scenes from the Delhi Metro and the Social Life of Infrastructure

Tell us about your current or past research.

While I was finishing my first book, I was in Delhi and started riding its new metro, which was the first multiline subway system in South Asia. I realized early on that this was going to be my next project. It connected my interest in street life and the hierarchies of transportation to issues of urban development, gendered mobility, and everyday class dynamics. The Delhi Metro is a symbol of the new aspirational culture of liberalized India and a meeting ground for all kinds of people, across the working and middle classes. It is a form of transport, a mega-infrastructure, but also a new set of public spaces across 400 kilometers of urban space. The Metro also posed a challenge—how was I going to study such a vast system ethnographically? I found this all very exciting, especially the way the Metro was set down on a dense, vibrant, already existing city. What would the interface of the Metro and the city produce in people? This is what my new book—The Moving City: Scenes from the Delhi Metro and the Social Life of Infrastructure (2022)—is about. It’s an ethnography of the Delhi Metro, focusing on architects, urban planners, and officials but most of all on the people who ride or interact with the system.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

Spend as much time as you can in Asia. Learn the language(s). Talk to scholars in your areas of interest who are based in the place(s) you’re studying.

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself (your interests, hobbies, skills, etc).

Although I’m an urban anthropologist and find cities endlessly interesting, I’m also into nature. I wrote most of The Moving City in New Mexico while I was a Weatherhead Fellow at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. I spent most of my weekends that year on one hike or another in some part of that amazing state.