Sharada Srinivasan is a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) in Bengaluru and a new member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Sharada Srinivasan
news Interview Monday, May 17, 2021 - 19:27
Written by  Ranjani Govind

The renowned archaeologist Sharada Srinivasan, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) Bengaluru, is well-known for her scientific, metallurgical and artistic studies on Chola and Vijayanagara bronzes and the Nataraja which she has interwoven with her experience as a Bharatanatyam dancer. Recently, she was honoured as the only Indian among around 240 globally to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the category of Social and Behavioral Sciences: Anthropology and Archaeology.

She is also one among only 20-odd international honorary members to be elected. Some of the past Indian members have included scientists such as Bharat Ratna Prof CNR Rao, and Dr Shobhana Narasimhan of JNCASR Bengaluru.

Sharada graduated with a BTech in Engineering Physics from IIT Bombay in 1987, and went on to receive Padma Shri in Archaeology in 2019 and the Kalpana Chawla Woman Scientist Award in 2011. She has also authored a one-of-its-kind book on India’s legendary Wootz Steel.

Sharada Srinivasan in an exclusive interview to The News Minute shares her thoughts on her upcoming prestigious role at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and her metallurgical and artistic studies.

It’s a rare honour for you to be part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as an Honorary Member 2021-elect.

It is truly momentous to be elected to the prestigious 240-year-old American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founded by scientist and founding father of America, Benjamin Franklin, which has aimed to recognise global excellence in the sciences, arts and leadership apart from within America. It is particularly gratifying to have such global recognition since the areas that I have worked in archaeometallurgy, archaeological sciences and archaeometric studies are niche areas which are less well supported. I have sought to explore how scientific techniques of materials and metals characterisation can better help understand the history of metallurgy and technology in the Indian subcontinent; and thereby to demonstrate that Indian antiquity has in its own way made many significant civilizational contributions to global innovation which need to be better integrated into pedagogy in a post-colonial world.

The election is a culmination of an arduous research journey of some three decades, involving archaeological fieldwork and scientific investigations, and burning the midnight oil to be able to generate a significant body of peer-reviewed papers in international journals and volumes which can stand scientific and intellectual scrutiny. Particularly in the light of challenges for women in developing countries such as India, in terms of careers in archaeology involving remote travel or research in STEM and scientific disciplines, the recognition is heartening. I believe it is also the first time that a person with a background in classical Indian dance has been added to the roster, which encourages more integrated approaches to the arts and sciences.

What does this responsibility entail as an Indian representative?

Being part of the AMACAD American and Global network is a tremendous opportunity in terms of greater visibility for women such as me from the Global South, and for more women’s voices from Asia, Africa to be heard from amongst the international community. Being elected in the cohort of Social and Behavioral Sciences, it is also a broader recognition for critical scholarship in such areas which have often been regarded as peripheral. Especially in these sobering times when disasters such as climate change or the pandemic have demonstrated how interconnected the world is from the influential or wealthy Global North to the more marginalised or impoverished Global South. While I have been an advocate of the need for more engagement with culture and humanities from the scientific community, particularly in India I think there is a need for more engagement with scientific temper, particularly when it comes to the realms of the way we approach cultural heritage.

Your in-depth study in the characterisation of bronzes and metallurgy in southern India, especially bronze casting at Swamimalai has been widely credited. Can you discuss that work?

 A lot of my work has been on the artistic and scientific studies of splendours and masterpieces of Chola bronzes from Tamil Nadu and south Indian bronze icons and the living legacies among icon makers in Thanjavur district such as Swamimalai. South Indian metal icons were cast over several centuries using similar conventions, posing problems in their authentication. I had attempted to use frontline techniques of metallurgical finger-printing to build up a profile or calibration in terms of compositional and trace element analysis and lead isotope ratio analysis, using which characteristic profiles could be identified for different groups of metal icons, such as Pallava, Chola or Vijayanagara of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist affiliations. Using these techniques, later bronzes could be discriminated from earlier bronzes which is often not possible by visual or stylistic inspection alone. Although south Indian icons are often described as ‘pancha-loha’ or five-metalled icons, the analyses indicated that they are largely leaded bronzes or leaded brasses and not specifically alloys of five metals. I have also been following the surviving practices amongst the skilled families of sthapathis in Swamimalai making icons by the lost wax process.

You also have a strong background in working on artefacts in prestigious museums in India and many parts of the world.

I was constantly exploring ways to bridge the science-arts divide with research to apply scientific techniques in the study of cultural heritage. My doctoral research at the Institute of Archaeology, London supported by a British Council Chevening Scholarship in the 1990s (in the area of Archaeometallurgy on south Indian bronzes) helped me channelize further. I received more exposure through my nuclear scientist father Dr MR Srinivasan (former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission) to geo-chemistry for determination of archaeological metal artifacts as attempted on south Indian metal icons, and the bronze casting traditions that are shared across Asia, Southeast Asia and China and so on. It also has significance for authenticating artifacts in the light of illicit trafficking and so on.

How does it feel to be the author of the only book of its kind, India’s Legendary Wootz Steel?

Our book, ‘India’s Legendary Wootz Steel’, was a one-of-a kind-effort at popular archaeoscience writing. The book threw light on the fascinating and pioneering metallurgy of ‘wootz’ steel, a term used by 18th-19th Century European travelers and scientists to describe the steel that they encountered being made by unusual crucible processes in parts of south India, locally known as ukku. This high grade steel was highly sought after in distant lands of the Arab and Persian world to make the fabled patterned Damascus blades, with the pattern wrought through the forging and etching of the wootz ingot. The repute of Damascus blades is also captured in a fictionalised episode from the Crusades in Sir Walter Scott’s book the Talisman where during the truce between King Richard of England and Sultan Saladin (Salauddin) of Egypt in the 12th Century he impressively slices a handkerchief with the Damascus blade with its patterns of meandering lines. The book also captures this in a charming illustration by well known artist Paul Fernandes who made a series of lighthearted artworks for the book corresponding to the historical themes. The book touched on my archaeometallurgical research identifying production sites in Tamil Nadu which pointed to how wrought iron was carburised to high-carbon steel.

Could you discuss your role as the co-editor of Digital Hampi?

The Digital Hampi was an exciting major cross-disciplinary collaborative endeavour also steered by ourselves at NIAS between diverse scientific and cultural institutions. Resulting in a comprehensive book and exhibitions, the project explored eclectic ways in which digital technologies could be employed in the documentation, visualisation and representation of the World Heritage site of Hampi, ranging from the architecture, sculpture, murals and inscriptions to bazaar experiences.  We also had a 3-D printed model with a mixed reality exploration of the so-called ‘musical’ pillars.

How much has your background of being a classical Bharatanatyam dancer helped in your interests of the Chola Nataraja bronze studies?

I have always felt a need to balance the dispassionate scientist inside me with the inner artist who needed to engage with the world creatively. When I graduated from IIT, I wanted to connect to the artistic dimension as a trained Bharatnatyam dancer, which inherently has a certain scientific dimension in the geometry, symmetry and rhythmic aspects. So it seemed a logical inter-disciplinary pursuit to explore the art and science of Chola bronzes and the celebrated Nataraja metal icon of the dancing Siva, from the aesthetics and iconography to the science of its metal composition. One of the fascinating findings from my archaeometallurgical investigations was that when taken together with iconographic and literary evidence it seems that the Nataraja bronze, depicting Shiva’s anandatandava or ‘dance of bliss’ was a Pallava innovation from the 7th to mid-ninth century, rather than the 10th Century Chola as widely believed.