November 17: The Garden and the City: Urban Designs, Theosophy, and South Asia

The Garden and the City: Urban Designs, Theosophy, and South Asia

Smriti Srinivas
Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Davis 

The City Talks: The Garden and the City: Urban Designs, Theosophy, and South Asia


This presentation will explore the many ways in which gardens or urban greens have been imagined and produced in cities. It will focus, in particular, on the Theosophical Society in its international headquarters in Madras (Chennai) in south India, and the ways in which it nurtured a specific context for South Asian garden design. Theosophy—a unique example of religious transculturalism that bridged South Asia, Europe, and North America—has received detailed attention: on the one hand, its articulation of religion with ideas of race, nation, or gender bore a complex relationship to imperial legacies; on the other hand, its foregrounding of spiritualist cosmologies inspired critiques of them. In my talk, I turn to an occluded aspect of Theosophy’s history: its role in spatial production in South Asia and what may be thought of as the utopian dimensions of green spaces.

Smriti Srinivas is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Middle East/South Asia Studies Program at the University of California, Davis. She is also Co-Director of the Mellon Research Initiative in “Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds.” Her research over the last two decades has focused on the relationship between cities, religion, cultural memory, and the body. A Place for Utopia: Urban Designs from South Asia (2015) explores novel designs for utopian place-making from the early-twentieth century to the present that link South Asia with Europe and North America. Her other “urban” books include, In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement (2008) and Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India’s High Tech City (2001). Her research has been supported over the years by a Mellon Fellowship, a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, a Delhi University National Fellowship, UC Humanities Network Multi-Campus Working Group and Multi-Campus Research Group Awards, the American Academy of Religion, the Davis Humanities Institute, the Indian Foundation for the Arts, and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, among others. She currently serves on the advisory board of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Studies and the editorial board of Contemporary South Asia.