The deep questions that anthropologist Bhrigupati Singh asks are specific but they are also boundless, drawing on and responding to a wide range of scholarship across the humanities and social sciences. For him, a scholar must be both disciplined (field and methods) and “indisciplined,” making excursions and incursions into neighboring territories and disciplines. He refers to his academic trajectory as an “adventure of thought.”
During that adventure Singh has moved back and forth from India’s cities to its remote countryside, considering profound questions of human experience at scales ranging from the lives of individuals he met in his field work to the level of global culture, media, philosophy and religion.
“It’s partly the specialization and breaking apart of knowledge that has led us to a more impoverished conception of life,” Sing said.
In a book coming out next year titled Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India, Singh presents the research he conducted while living for 18 months in the rural-tribal area of Shahabad in the state of Rajasthan.
“In asking, for instance, what the quality of life looks like for the rural poor, I realized that as an anthropologist I needed to ask a variety of questions, to be attentive to the interrelations between what I call different thresholds of life,” he said.
His ethnographically based studies move across very different levels: from a seemingly minor dietary shift that begins to cause a gradually intensifying water shortage, to forms of intercaste and class antagonism, to the dynamism of spiritual traditions that continue to evolve rather than become impoverished in contemporary modernity, to the paradox of the state as both a source of violence and provider of welfare. (He’ll teach a graduate seminar titled “Anthropology of State Power and Powerlessness” at Brown this fall.)
Throughout his work, Singh has also pursued a parallel track of examining the intellectual and philosophical frameworks in which his research occurs. An ardent student of Nietzsche, Deleuze, Cavell, and many other thinkers both Western and Eastern, it is no surprise that he has co-authored another forthcoming book, The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy. In another recently begun project, What comes after Postcolonial Theory?, Singh asks how postcolonial thinking might go beyond reactive negations of Eurocentric concepts to enable a different kind of comparative vocabulary. The opening chapter of this book, published as an article, is on conceptions of frugality and excess in Gandhi, Thoreau, and Nietzsche.
What drew Singh into rural India for his doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University was a dissatisfaction that he felt with an earlier phase of work at SOAS and Sarai-CSDS in Delhi. He had been examining India’s urban life and public culture through the lens of cinema, but began to feel some of the limitations of that work. One was the stereotyped perception he encountered about rural life.
“A scholar whose work I’m very fond of, Ashis Nandy, argued that for a younger generation of scholars, myself included, rural India is becoming just disasters and statistics,” he said. “So I thought I should try to offer a counterexample to this trend.”
Following the publication of Poverty and the Quest for Life, Singh is returning to working in cities, this time examining many themes that parallel his work in the forests and fields of Shahabad. He remains interested in poverty and conceptions of the quality of life, but is emphasizing the roles that secular, religious and cultural resources play in the lives of urban Indians as they manage their mental health in an emerging culture of democratic aspiration that creates new kinds of anxieties.
This examination, among others things, has also brought him back to studying the cinema, which for many in India has provided an emotional grammar for sadness, love and joy.
“For decades the signature mood of Hindu-Urdu cinematic lyricism was melancholia, sometimes in exquisite, therapeutic forms,” Sing said. “In recent Bombay cinema melancholia has completely disappeared. How did this happen? Does this have something to do with new conceptions of happiness and sadness? Do we now live in an era of antidepressants and a cult of happiness? If so, we should also find these conceptions at work in psychiatric clinics and in new notions of spiritual wellbeing.”
As part of this new project Singh is putting together a characteristically broad collaboration between researchers in India and here at Brown, who will together investigate the artistic, spiritual, clinical, and everyday dimensions of mental health treatment. His collaborators will include neuroscientist Cathy Kerr, assistant professor of contemplative studies and family medicine, and two psychiatrists in India based at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. Iram Ghufran, an award-winning documentary filmmaker specializing in mental health, will explore the research questions of this consortium through the medium of film.
Singh’s new appointment as assistant professor of anthropology at Brown is not his first title here. In 2011-13 he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute. He will continue to be involved there as a fellow and as a steering committee member of the Brown India Initiative, co-leading a strand of the initiative’s activities on pluralism and diversity with the literary theorist Leela Gandhi, also a new faculty member at Brown.
There is much that Singh loves about being at Brown. One aspect is the quality of the students, many of whom, he says, bring the same degree of intellectual passion and adventurousness that he does. Another is the freedom Brown affords him to be an unconstrained scholar, with resources and opportunities to collaborate across departments, even with scholars in other countries.
“Brown has been a very hospitable home,” Singh said. “There are always lively and inspiring interlocutors nearby, receptive to ‘madness,’ since thinking, too, involves a kind of frenzy.”