In Memoriam - Srinivas Aravamudan, 1962-2016

April 13th, 2016 - Obituary from Duke Today

Srinivas Aravamudan, professor of English and former dean of the humanities at Duke, died on Wednesday. He was 54.

Aravamudan, a scholar of 18th-century British and French literature and postcolonial literature, was also a champion of the humanities, committed to nurturing and promoting their role in contemporary society. At Duke, his leadership included serving as director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, as dean of the humanities and as director of the Humanities Writ Large initiative.

Aravamudan’s advocacy on behalf of the humanities also extended beyond Duke. He served as president of the international Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, an association of 207 humanities organizations in the U.S., Europe, Asia, India, Africa and the Pacific Rim. He also served as president of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

Before arriving at Duke, Aravamudan received his Ph.D. at Cornell University and taught at the University of Utah and the University of Washington. He joined the Duke faculty in the fall of 2000, teaching in the English and Romance studies departments and the literature program.

Aravamudan also published several prize-winning volumes on 18th-century and postcolonial literature. His book “Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency 1688-1804” won the Modern Language Association’s outstanding first book prize in 2000. In 2005, he published a new edition of William Earle’s antislavery romance “Obi: or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack.” His award-winning book “Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel” was published in 2012. He was at work on several additional volumes, including a book on the history of the university.

At Duke, Aravamudan spearheaded Humanities Writ Large, a major Mellon Foundation-funded initiative focused on the humanities. The five-year initiative aims to redefine the role of humanities in undergraduate education. It emphasizes undergraduate humanities research and interdisciplinary Humanities Labs.

"We are very sad to have lost a greatly esteemed colleague, a delightful, playful and witty friend, and a leader of vision and compassion,” said Sarah Beckwith, a professor of English and religion who chairs the English department. "Srinivas served the department, the college, and the wider national and international constituencies of humanities centers with passion, dedication and a great sense of joy and fun. Our hearts go out to our dear colleague, Ranji Khanna, and to all of Srinivas’ family.”

Aravamudan’s wife, Ranjana Khanna, is a professor of English, women’s studies and literature at Duke.

"Srinivas made extraordinary and influential scholarly contributions amounting to whole-scale re-orientations of the field of 18th studies, post-colonial studies and the history and theory of the novel, one of literature's most inventive, capacious and enduring forms,” Beckwith added. "He brought his great intellectual gifts and his leadership skills together to unusual and marked effect."

A Remembrance by FHI Director Deborah Jenson

At the Franklin Humanities Institute, we mourn the passing of our former Director Srinivas Aravamudan. During his visionary directorship the FHI was named a University Institute (then known as “Signature Institute”) and became the home of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI). Several of our staff worked with Srinivas closely, for many years, not just while he was FHI Director, but also during his terms as Dean of Humanities, CHCI President, and Principal Investigator of the Humanities Writ Large Mellon grant. We are transfixed by sadness and memories.

Srinivas Aravamudan was the first outside speaker I ever invited in my early tenure at the University of New Mexico. It must have been the spring semester of the year 2000, and his monograph Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804, had come out the previous year. It was a book that beckoned us to a whole new vista of philosophical and material interconnections played out on the battlefields of sugar in the New World. Chapters like “Equiano and the Politics of Literacy,” or “Tropicalizing the Enlightenment,” to this day draw my deepest attention. The book’s elegance never lapsed. There was an epistolary quality, a presence, in even the acknowledgements: the thanks to fellow travelers “on the road toward a postcolonial eighteenth century,” or to the staff of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale for Srinivas’s experience of both places as “homes away from home in cities where I was officeless, although not footloose and fancy-free.” The thanks to Ranji Khanna painted an image of beauty in my mind: “[…] to Ranji Khanna, who, as intellectual companion, spouse, and soulmate, gave me much academic, physical, and moral support. This book may have been possible without her, but it would have been vastly inferior.” Yet the book’s challenges were martial: “Can an investigation of colonialism transform eighteenth century studies?” The answer, of course, was yes. The academic world that had not been touched by Tropicopolitans became parochial. Srinivas did preside over a ground shift in eighteenth century studies, not least in this last year as President of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS), which celebrated his work in its annual conference a week ago.

But to return to my first memory of Srinivas. Srinivas accepted my invitation to lecture, and flew in from the University of Washington to lecture in Albuquerque about… yaws and obeah medicine in Jamaican maroon kingdoms. It was so fascinating to me that I still have my hastily scribbled notes from the lecture. If Tropicopolitans was a landmark book in Haitian revolutionary studies, it is important to note that Srinivas was already doing a kind of critical global health reading of colonial infectious diseases and slaves’ remedies of “effective traditional knowledge” in his introduction to William Earle’s Obi; or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack. There are true treasures of scholarly innovation, far ahead of the times, not just in Srinivas’s monographs and articles, but tucked away in prefaces and introductions of his editions and special issues.

I honestly think that talk on the novel Obi first catalyzed my interest in health humanities, and I’m sure many of you have memories of a new area of interest being sparked by exposure to his work and thinking. In addition to sharing that dynamic work in Albuquerque, Srinivas also proved to be the most delightful of guests. I was on a small budget and he graciously agreed to stay with me and my husband and our three year-old twins in the mountains outside of the city. Our little boys were enchanted. I also took him to see the old adobe house in the city to which we were planning to move for better schools, and he told me about the large bungalow he and his wife had bought in a neighborhood called Trinity Park in Durham, North Carolina, as they were moving to Duke University. Duke took on in my mind a quality of scholarly daring and elegance. It was the home of Srinivas Aravamudan.

The fact that Srinivas and Ranji made Duke their longtime home increased the allure of this university in so many minds. A powerful scholar creates a field of almost psychoanalytic transference around ideas, movements, and institutions for other faculty and students: we share in that transference a hidden “family romance” of developmental affect and projections, and it binds more than it divides, and unquestionably generates inspiration.

I was recruited to Duke in 2008, early in my term as Director of the Center for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During my campus visit, then Chair Michèle Longino took me to a faculty Bookwatch that Srinivas, Director of the Franklin Humanities Institute, was holding in the lovely rare book room of the libraries. The book was Reading the Black Legend, edited by Walter Mignolo, Meg Greer, and Maureen Quilligan. I felt the pull of Duke again around the intensity of the intellectual adventure. And now, mourning Srinivas early in my own term as Director of the Franklin Humanities Institute, I admit that it can feel daunting to walk in such footsteps.

Sometimes in a humanities community, it feels as though we are all living different pieces and shadows and versions of each others’ lives and books. Srinivas is gone ~ and we are only beginning the rereading of his book life and our memory stores.

The FHI is planning a “slow reading” event on Srinivas’s work (bring your own books, articles, and marked passages) in coordination with other commemorations at Duke, with more details to come. We will take comfort in the strength of his ideas, and our collective engagement.

The Franklin Humanities Institute sends its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Srinivas Aravamudan (1962-2016).