Gananath Obeyesekeere Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Understanding Culture: Conversation with Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Princeton University; March 19, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Professor Obeyesekere, welcome to Berkeley.

Glad to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Sri Lanka and also raised there. And that's where I had my early education and my university education, at least for my B.A.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shape your thinking about the world?

My father was, for that time, a cosmopolitan figure. He was born in a small village in the south of Sri Lanka, as I was. As a young man he went to India and he studied both Ayurvedic and Western medicine, but got his degree in classical Ayurvedic, that is, Indian medicine. Then he came back to Sri Lanka and he taught there. He was fluent in three or four languages, including English, and we had a sense of a broad education as a consequence of that.

So you were exposed to many cultures very early?

In a sense we were exposed to many cultures, because I was born in the colonial period and I lived through the period of independence and freedom. So in that sense, I was exposed to the colonial epoch. Since my father knew English and Sanskrit, and Hindi and Sinhala, and so forth, I was exposed to a wide range of languages. My father was interested in Ayurvedic medicine, and for that matter, I've written some articles on it, too; so that there is all that continuity, one might say.

How old were you at the time of the struggle for independence?

Sri Lanka was in a fortunate situation -- maybe it's rather an unfortunate one. We didn't have to actually struggle for independence. The Indians did all the struggling, and we sort of had it on a plate. So in this war I might have been, I don't know, fifteen or so when that happened.

Was there an effect on you, or did the world change just one day?

Not at all. It did have an effect on me. During the war years, for example, my education was disrupted, in one sense, or enhanced in another sense, because we had to move from school to school. Looking back on it, I found that a good experience. It broadened my mind, going from one place to another.

This was all in your home country?

Yes, it's in my home country.

You had what we call the undergraduate education in Sri Lanka. Is that when you got interested in anthropology, or was it later?

Well, actually, if I could switch back a little bit...

Yes, please.

I will tell you about high school. I always tell my children, "Look here, all you learn in high school, you're going to pick it up in six months later on." Fortunately, I managed to get through -- one might say scraped through -- my university entrance exam. But when I went into the university, that was a wonderful experience, and I moved into English literature. That was my major, you see.

This was a period in European intellectual thought where there was a certain amount of ferment with the new criticism coming in -- in England, in Cambridge, in Oxford. In Cambridge, in particular, you had a great literary critic, F.R. Leavis, and our teachers were students of F.R. Leavis. So we were educated at that time by the most powerful literary critical movement of the time. My literary education was tremendously broad; though we called it English literature, we read a heck of a lot of European literature -- Ibsen, French literature, and so forth. It was broadly comparative, one might say. But this is a time, after all, [when] people like Eliot were writing The Waste Land and people were talking of mythmaking. Even in my lecture yesterday, I was talking of Yeats, who was in some sense a great mythmaker.

So I got very interested in anthropology through this bizarre source, through literature, through Frazier. Because Eliot used Frazier and Weston, and so forth -- people we hardly read nowadays. But that's the way I got interested in anthropology.

And also through collections. This is a period in which people were collecting Scottish ballads and so forth. I was infected with this kind of early romanticism. During weekends, I used to take a train ride into a distant place, get off the train, and wander into villages, going into a Buddhist temple, staying the night there, chatting with people. I used to collect folk songs, and I still can rattle off hundreds and hundreds of Sri Lanka Sinhalese folk songs. That gradually drew me into village life.

So very early, as an undergraduate, soon enough I started a journal which was called Sandkriti in Sinhala. Sandkriti means a culture. So you can see culture in the [name] sense or T.S. Eliot sense. That sense of culture, in some sense, drew me into anthropology, particularly the village experience, collecting folk material. [It was] also a romantic looking back at my own past, because I was born in a village. At age four, we went to the city of Colombo, the only big city then as well as now, and went into what you might call private schools. So in some sense, I was trying to look back into my past. I would say that in a sense, virtually everything I wrote is, in some sense, a reflection of Sri Lanka -- my own past, my own history as it relates to the nation. Even when I'm writing something, let us say, on Captain Cook.

What would you describe as your intellectual and emotional stance toward what you were doing? Was the motivation to preserve, to understand the complexity of these things and more?

I'm ashamed to confess it was always antiquarian. It's a horrible term to use, but in a sense, I was trying to collect these things because, first, we were first confronted with the impact of modernity in the country, after all. We felt that something was going to get lost. I presume that's the same motivation that led Alfred Lord and other collectors to deal with European ballads and epics and so forth. That was the spur that led me in my early years

Where was your graduate education?

When I graduated from the University of Sri Lanka, one of my professors who was a student of F.R. Leavis [suggested that I] join the English Department at that time, which was probably the most prestigious department, given the colonial period. I refused, and he said, "That's nice. You're one of the first people who's refused this kind of thing." I got several scholarships; I could have gone to London or to Oxford, because I headed the list of graduating students, so I had automatic scholarships to go to London or Oxford. But I had this sneaking anti-colonialism, which I still have in a sneaking kind of way. I refused to go the way of others. Almost everyone else, all the, you might say, left-wing leaders of Sri Lanka went to London or Oxford, or Cambridge. But I thought, that's not my way, and I applied for a Fulbright. Everyone was horrified. My father was horrified. My relations said, "You're going to America? This is a terrible thing. You could go to Oxford or Cambridge!" I got the Fulbright, and I applied to Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Yale, and I got the University of Washington in Seattle. So that's how I first went there.

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