The Dr. Frank Conlon Page
Dr.Frank F. Conlon (aka Conlonmam) is Professor Emeritus of History,
South Asian Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of
Washington, Seattle where he taught 1968 to 2001. Dr. Conlon’s research
included studies on caste, religious leadership, urban history and the
restaurants of Bombay. He served as Chairman of the American Institute of
Indian Studies and served three terms as Director of the South Asia Center
of the University of Washington. He is founder and co-editor of the
international discussion network for Asian studies, H-ASIA, and is
Managing Director of the on-line Bibliography of Asian Studies published by
the Association of Asian Studies.
Dr Conlon is well known as author of a seminal book on the Chitrapur
Saraswat Community: A Caste in a Changing World: The Chitrapur
Saraswat Brahmans 1700-1935 (University of California Press,
Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1977)
Samvaad: Exploring the Bhanap identity.
Jaishankar Bondal in Conversation with Dr Frank F Conlon
Some time back, ChitrapurEbooks.com talked with Dr. Frank Conlon (aka 'Conlon maam') on how his path breaking book on the Chitrapur Saraswats came into existence, the challenges he faced working on it, his observations on the community's development since then, and his prognostications for the future. It was in February 1966 that Dr Conlon commenced work on this pioneering study and we feel privileged to present the digital reproduction of his book.
Dr. Frank F Conlon with HH Swami Sadyojat Shankarashram, 11th Mathadhipati of Shri Chitrapur Math, Shirali
(Picture courtesy Dr Frank F Conlon)
A Caste in A Changing World: The Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmans, 1700-1935
An interview with Dr. Frank F Conlon
Jaishankar Bondal & Shantish Nayel, August 2016, Delhi
CeB: To begin with, please tell us something about yourself, your academic and personal orientation to Indian history and things Indian, and how you selected this topic.
Dr. Frank F Conlon: You are not the first to ask me about how I came to study India and Indian history. Reflecting on your question, I must confess that the trajectory of my career is extremely improbable. At so many points in my life, had I taken a different turn, the path would not have led me to India, much less to my study of the Chitrapur Saraswat community. I am going to test the patience of your readers here by going into rather a lot of detail concerning my development as a professional historian of India—and a researcher on the life of the Bhanaps. It would be fair to say that nothing in my family background or early years pointed in that direction.
I was born to James Edward Conlon and Helen Fowler Conlon in Omaha, Nebraska, on 6 November 1938. I was named for my mother’s recently deceased father, Frank Fowler, a railway worker, who had died earlier that year. My father was a salesman for a paper company in Chicago and covered many of the states of the Great Plains, centering in Omaha—where he had met my mother. His parents had migrated to America from Ireland via England, toward the end of the nineteenth century. My mother’s family, on the other hand, could trace some of their lineages back to the earliest years of English settlement in North America. Most of them were farmers.
While I was still an infant my parents shifted in 1941 from Omaha to Park Ridge, Illinois—a suburb of Chicago. My father had been promoted to the post of general sales manager for his company. Park Ridge was a “leafy suburb” of predominantly middle-class families mostly living in single family houses along tree-shaded streets. Although less “exclusive” than other Chicago suburbs along the shores of Lake Michigan, its residents were fairly homogenous in background and outlook. Its schools were regarded as superior to those in Chicago, and I enjoyed the benefits of a solid educational grounding in a placid and secure environment.
Although neither of my parents had had the opportunity of a university education, they were both fond of books and reading and much dinner table conversation took place regarding politics, current events and history. Perhaps because I was an only child, I spent many hours reading. My interests included history and geography and, perhaps because of frequent trips to visit my grandmother and aunt back in Omaha, railways. At times when I should have been devoting myself to sports, I preferred reading. Not only did I build up a small library of favorite books, I also fell into the habit of collecting and studying railway and bus timetables and maps.
All of my ‘growing up’ years were spent in our home attending the local elementary schools and Maine Township High School which served the towns of Park Ridge and Des Plaines, graduating in 1956. Throughout those years my parents took me on many trips to various regions of the United States, and it could be said that I caught the ‘travel bug’ thereby. Because of my aforementioned fascination with railways and intercity buses, I developed a rather unusual command of geography and transportation. This knowledge was put to good use when, in 1955 after my third year of high school, I got a seasonal summer job as an information clerk/ticket agent at the large Greyhound Bus Terminal in downtown Chicago. I continued to work for Greyhound each summer up to 1962, and later held a similar summer job for the company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For a student, this was a great opportunity. Because it was a union job the pay was far superior to the ordinary summer employment. Also, the experience of working “behind a counter” –that is, of dealing with the public—gave me an appreciation of human diversity and a breadth of experience that was, in some ways, as valuable as my undergraduate education. In those days I imagined myself pursuing a career in transportation management—probably either with a railroad or an intercity bus company.
When I began my undergraduate education in the autumn of 1956 I entered nearby Northwestern University in its School of Commerce. I began to study for what in India would be called a B.Comm degree, with a specialization in transportation management. This plan was derailed in my second year when I took my first actual business courses. I found them to be unbearably dull and somewhat remote from my own experience of how corporations were managed. When my advisor commented that I might be happier as a student in the College of Liberal Arts, I jumped at the chance. I decided that I would declare a major in political science. With great anticipation I presented myself to the professor who served as the department advisor. I cannot recall exactly what he said to me, but it appeared to me that he was completely disinterested in recruiting me to their program. He may have had something more important to do that afternoon and he more or less brushed me off with the comment that I could “maybe stop by” the following academic year.
As I left the building, I met a friend of mine who was reading history as his major field. I related my frustration to him, he said “why don’t you be a history major—that’s a neat major.” He suggested that I walk upstairs to see the History department advisor. That gentleman evidently had no other pressing engagements and was pleased to sign me up as an undergraduate history major. (Here I must remind my Indian readers that in American higher education, the undergraduate studies tend to be less specialized that the models followed in India or, for that matter, Britain.)
So it was that from 1958 to 1960, I studied history—primarily American history through the completion of my B.A. degree, graduating from Northwestern University in 1960. During those years I was stimulated and inspired by several outstanding teachers and began to think about the possibility of following an academic career myself, probably to begin as a college lecturer in the history of the United States. To pursue that goal, I would have to enter post-graduate study and I applied to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for admission. I was drawn there by the prospect of working with a very talented specialist in American Constitutional history. This plan, however, began to be called into question during my final year at Northwestern because of any chance encounter.
By coincidence, the same friend who had suggested I try history also urged that I enroll in a seminar he had enjoyed on “global history.” It was taught by Professor Leften Stavrianos, who was experimenting with a new approach to world history courses. There, for the first time, I encountered the rich and varied history of India. I was fascinated by its breadth and I was daunted by how little I knew. Indeed it may have been about this time that I came to realize an important precept: people don’t know what they don’t know. My introduction to India’s past in that single seminar had the effect of completely “de-centering” my comfortable, conventional thinking about a history that was broader than just America.
Although my admission to the University of Minnesota has been premised upon the study of American history, the program of graduate studies required offering additional fields for examination outside one’s specialty. I discovered that courses on India were being taught by Professor Burton Stein—a scholar who had specialized in the study of medieval South India. During my first year I evidently made an impression on him, as he nominated me for award of a multi-year fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education for study of South Asia. It was in the summer of 1961 that I was awarded that grant and made the fateful decision to redefine my educational goals and turn to India.
Studying Indian history with Professor Stein was a challenging experience. He was, I think, one of the most brilliant and original thinkers I encountered in my education. He tended to meld conventional historical study with social scientific enquiry. Those of us who studied under his guidance were stimulated to look at historical evidence from many angles—and encouraged to pursue lines of enquiry outside of the conventional historical approaches.
My “arrival” to the study of the Bhanaps was not part of my original plan. After conclusion of an “Area Studies” MA degree, I completed my preliminary examinations for admission to candidacy for the PhD degree at Minnesota. My original topic for my dissertation was to have been a study of the eminent jurist and social reformer M. G. Ranade. To that end, I moved from a preliminary study of Hindi to the study of Marathi. However, I soon had to alter my plans; I discovered that another PhD dissertation was just being completed on Ranade by a student at Harvard University. This meant looking for a new topic.
My MA paper had focused upon the impact of British colonial law and adjudication on the Ismaili (Khoja) community during the 19th century. Perceiving how the complexities of court cases and legislation had an impact on the internal structures and life among the Khojas, I proposed a doctoral dissertation examining those legal and social issues more generally with respect to western India. (My geographical focus was really determined by my beginning study of Marathi.) I was awarded a government fellowship in 1965 and began my research work with a four month stay in London where I worked at the India Office Library and the British Museum. In November 1965 I came to Bombay and continued my work—primarily at the Maharashtra Archives which are housed in the Elphinstone College buildings by Kala Ghoda. I continued my research into colonial administration and legislation that I had commenced in London. Then came a significant change of direction.
Whilst standing in a queue at the Bombay GPO one afternoon, my attention was distracted momentarily by two men who seemed to be on the verge of assaulting each other. While I was staring at this excitement a colleague of the two men quietly picked up my briefcase and walked away. I imagine they thought a foreigner’s case would be full of valuable goods or money. All they got was a collection of notes that I had made laboriously over the past five months in London and Bombay. I had no carbon copies. So, I entered 1966 with a half year of fellowship support and no materials for my dissertation. I confess that I was not entirely sure what I was going to do.
My quandary was resolved somewhat by two separate visits of two American academic friends: Ms Maureen Patterson—the South Asia Librarian of the University of Chicago—and Professor Morris D. Morris of the University of Washington, Seattle. Both basically asked me: “so what are you going to do?” My response was “I don’t know.” It seemed clear that I would be unable to go back and duplicate the work I had done before; perhaps I should start out with some subject that could be done with the materials available in India only. Maureen Patterson, who had done a great deal of research on the history of the Konkanastha (Chitpavan) Brahman community, recalled that back in 1963 or 1964, during a visit to the University of Chicago, she had introduced me to one Dr. Narendra Wagle, then a postdoctoral scholar there. Wagle was doing some research on the Gaud Saraswat Brahmans and had talked about the possibilities of further studies. Patterson suggested that I might look around for some topic to explore concerning “the Saraswats.” She also introduced me to the late Sadanand Bhatkal at the old Popular Book Depot on Lamington Road. Subsequently Professor Morris offered virtually the same suggestion and, again, referred me to Sadanand Bhatkal.
Sadanandmam introduced me to officers of the Kanara Saraswat Association at Talmakiwadi in February 1966. I remain to this day somewhat amazed at how cordially they welcomed me and offered to provide me with access to old copies of the Kanara Saraswat and other publications. Since at that point I was not looking exclusively at the Bhanaps, I also spent time contacting other individuals and organizations of the several GSB communities in Bombay. As time passed I came to see that a focus upon the Chitrapur Saraswat community would be sufficiently challenging as to take up the rest of my available time. My dissertation guide, Professor Stein, welcomed the idea of a historical study of a caste—particularly since it would involve a wider geographical spread (the Kanara Districts) and issues of urban migration, social and economic change and matters of social and religious reform.
I believe that my narrative to this point has also covered your points #3 and 4 below, but I would add that I do not think I could have contemplated a study of the sort I was able to conduct in India before coming to India. Although the University of Minnesota had an excellent library collection on South Asia, to the best of my knowledge, no American institution had collected publications or documents relating to any specific communities in India, except possibly the Parsis. I think it would have been impossible for me, back in Minnesota in 1965 to propose, or even imagine, the research that I ultimately carried out. As to #4, I think I have already covered my “initial problems”—which, although I did not recognize it at the time, were to be the enabling events that led to my introduction to the Chitrapur Saraswat Brahman community.
Perhaps I have told you far more about my path to Talmakiwadi than you or other readers care to know. Yet I have dwelt on the details because I think it is very important for people to recognize—and acknowledge—that many contingencies may punctuate, and redirect, an individual’s life. Leading up to 1966, there were so many choices and chances which, had I followed another direction, would have precluded the life and career that I have enjoyed. I should also note that when I was making those choices, I had no real sense of where my path might lead.
CeB: Given the lack of material and knowledge about the community in the US, how did you proceed with the research?
Dr. Frank F Conlon: I only commenced the work after coming to India. My pre-India training had given me some techniques of conceptualizing subjects for research and some habits of remaining curious about everything that I encountered. My earlier research training had instilled a habit of keeping my eyes (and my mind) open, always being prepared to discover connections and patterns in what might, at first, appear to be unrelated matters.
What initial problems did you face (if any) and how did you overcome them?
I think my initial problem after January 1966 was to realize that there were far too many locations and groups under the broad title of “Saraswat” and to collect and master all of that material would have taken months, if not years. My decision to scale back my focus solely to the Bhanaps set the stage for what were for me some of the happiest and most engaging times of my life. (I should note also that my university extended my fellowship which enabled me to stay on in Bombay until May, 1967)
CeB: What primary material, and which personalities in the community/outside the community, were of assistance to you?
Dr. Frank F Conlon: I think I should refer you to the preface of A Caste in a Changing World: The Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmans, c1700-1935 where I acknowledge many of the people who gave up their valuable time to help me in my research. Also, at p. xii-xiv there is a list of persons interviewed during my initial visit to India and on a three month return visit in 1971.
I have to specially mention the opportunities I had of audiences with His Holiness Shrimat Anandashram Swamiji and His Holiness Shrimat Parijnanashram Swamiji. I am confident that their blessings contributed to the success of the project. At the Shri Chitrapur Math the late Sujir Sunderrao helped me in translation of records at the Math that was instrumental in explaining the antique script in which records had been written.
Having set out the terms of research, how did your parent department at your University facilitate you? Did you approach any academic institutions in India for records/material? What help did they extend you? Tell us about institutions/individuals in the Chitrapur community who facilitated your research?
My home university facilitated my work more or less by obtaining an extension of my fellowship and, otherwise, leaving me alone. My advisor Professor Stein was, in fact, leaving Minnesota to take up an appointment elsewhere. However he was in India in the winter of 1967 working in Madras—and I was able to present some of my preliminary research results to him at that time and receive his suggestions for completion of the work. My university also provided a one year fellowship for 1967-68 to enable me to begin writing my doctoral dissertation. In fact I only completed the dissertation during my first year of appointment at the University of Washington in Seattle.
When the Government of India issued me a student visa, there was a loose affiliation with the University of Bombay. During my early months in India, I was helped by Dr. (later Professor) S. P. Sathe of the Bombay University School of Law and Professor George Moraes of Elphinstone College. Later in my research I was able to study and do further research at the Deccan College in Pune—where I benefited from advice of the late Professors A. R. Kulkarni and Y. B. Damle. I was also assisted greatly by obtaining membership in the Asiatic Society of Bombay and its library at Town Hall.
As I observed above, many kind people offered me assistance, guidance, hospitality and friendship. One individual—and his family—probably helped me more that I could ever fully acknowledge. The late Gopal Hattiangdi not only provided me with access to a valuable collection of papers and publications relating to the history of the community and the Math, but also asked penetrating questions which helped me to focus my research. Gopalmam also gave me introductions to other folks elsewhere in the community who, at the cost of much inconvenience and time, welcomed me to their homes and their towns. Shri and Shrimati Prabhakar and Saguna Sirur notably allowed me to spend long afternoons in their Talmakiwadi flat consulting records and publications of the KSA.
CeB: What of the story after 1930s? What direction do you think the community has taken? Given the exponential changes within India on many fronts, particularly over the last quarter century, what is your prognosis for the community in the 21st century?
Dr. Frank F Conlon: There are a good many threads and themes that would contribute to a post-1930s history of the community. Certainly the centrality and significance of the Math under Swami Anandashram expanded in the next decades, even as the secular life of the community came under increasing social and economic challenges. It is a source of sadness and regret that the relations of the community and Math were so severely roiled during later decades of the past century just as it is a source of satisfaction and admiration to observe what might be called a “renaissance” with the accession to the pitha of Shrimat Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Bhanap life over the past eighty years has been the considerable variety of problems and responses to the challenges of change. The continued patterns of migration—not just from the rural Kanaras to the urban, but also from older urban centers to new ones, and to new opportunities beyond the borders of India.
After returning to America, I began to discover the further diaspora of the Bhanaps. My first encounter occurred just after I arrived in Seattle in 1968 when I met the distinguished mathematics Professor Ramesh Gangolli. On being introduced to him I responded that I knew where his family came from. He smiled tolerantly and said “you probably think I am a Bengali,” (as in Ganguly). “No, no,” I responded, Gangolli is across the river from Kundapur. I was there last year.” I think Rameshmam was rather taken aback. It was the start of a long friendship. Another experience of the Bhanap diaspora came in September, 2007 when Shri Sadanand Mankikar invited me to address a function in Toronto celebrating the Math tercentenary. The experience was heart-warming. Although we were in a coldly modern Canadian auditorium, I could shut my eyes and imagine being in Anandashram Hall at Talmakiwadi or at the Canara Union in Malleswaram.
I think most people tend to consider their own life experience as being the “average” or “normative” example while the lives of others are “different.” A close reading of the lives of the Bhanaps over time revealed to me a great variety of both style and substance. (An example might be seen in one issue of the Kanara Saraswat where I found reports of one person being imprisoned after a satyagraha campaign while another was being promoted to a higher rank in the police.)
A few years ago during a visit to Bangalore I had an opportunity to chat with Nandan Nilekani. I recall Nandanman commenting that perhaps what gave the community a special advantage was its accumulation and investment of “social capital.” Social capital is a sociological concept that identifies how mutual trust, reciprocity and cooperation within a group may contribute to the success the group’s members. Certainly the growth of a variety of what I might call “Amchi” institutions played a major role in helping Bhanaps navigate the many challenges of India’s modernization. Beyond this institutional growth, the other important developments have included the growing recognition of the achievements and significance of the women of the community in a wide variety of fields.
Another aspect of what I might call the “Saraswat advantage” has been the readiness to adopt and adapt new methods of communication. Shrimat Pandurangashram Swamiji introduced the practice of using newly constructed railways to visit distant holy sites. In 1911 some Bombay Bhanaps created a voluntary organization—the KSA. Later print technology was exploited in publication of a caste magazine. I think the Kanara Saraswat and Chitrapur Sunbeam remain important links among an increasingly dispersed population. And now, as may be demonstrated in our “e-interview, ”the community has creatively employed the new electronic media of the internet and world wide web.
Viewed from afar, India has passed through many changes since my first arrival in Bombay in 1965. The economic liberalization of the 1990s has stimulated an expansion of new occupational opportunities. On the other hand we may also observe a challenging growth of inequalities of condition and opportunity which have created new strains and challenges. In times such as these, perhaps one natural response would be to turn inward, responding to change with nostalgia. I would only observe from my perspective as a historian that in modern history at least, there was no “golden age”. When I first visited Bombay, members of the older generation talked about pre-war, pre-partition Bombay with some wistfulness. Yet as I read the pages of the Kanara Saraswat from the 1920s and 1930s, I was struck with how difficult and challenging life in that era of paycuts and redundancies had been for most Bhanap families. Perhaps distance does indeed lend enchantment to the view.
CeB: How much interest is there in South Asian studies in US academic institutions currently? What trends do you notice in the years to come?
Dr. Frank F Conlon: When I was completing my PhD in 1969, I was already holding an appointment in history of South Asia at the University of Washington in Seattle. At that time there may have been about twenty-five institutions with formal instruction on the history of India and South Asia generally. Today I suspect that number is closer to two hundred, although not all institutions have appointed a historian specializing on India or South Asia. There are hundreds of other academic positions in other disciplines relating to South Asia. At the present time, neo-liberal economic ideas have pervaded public funding of higher education and there is a pattern of de-emphasizing the humanities and social sciences and arts in order to promote career training, especially in science and technology. As a historian maybe I am better equipped to talk about what happened in the past rather than predict what will occur in the future.
Perhaps my own story, my “career trajectory”, would have been possible only for a brief while. The growth of an Indo-American community in North America means that there is an increased interest in the study of India’s history and civilization. However, I suspect few parents would encourage their daughters and sons to aspire to being an academic specialist working on South Asia. After all, careers in business, science and technology offer the “glittering prizes” these days.
CeB: You would have been visiting our community institutions in India over many years and seeing changes in the Chitrapur Math, and many spots hallowed to the community. And meeting members of the community in many metropolises. What impressions do you have about the younger segment of the community, not only those growing up in India but those who have settled in different parts of US?
Dr. Frank F Conlon: As I mentioned before, the physical changes in the Shri Chitrapur Math and its allied institutions have made a considerable impression upon me. The modernization of the Math and its activities offer a dramatic contrast to the pre-modern conditions and circumstances that I recorded in my book or even the conditions I encountered during my visits in the 1966-67 and 1971 visits. It appears to me that the community has been generous in support in response to the leadership of Shrimat Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji and have received in return countless blessings.
My visits to India have been rather few and far between over the past twenty years. But each visit has given me an opportunity to meet members of the community. I suspect that Bhanaps of an older generation relate more readily to my efforts in researching the history of the community, but I encountered some younger folk who seemed to have an interest in the past—if only to draw some comparisons to the present as they know it or the future as they wish it.
CeB: Finally, what message would you have for our community, and this website?
Dr. Frank F Conlon: People don’t know what they don’t know, and that certainly includes me. Having had the opportunity to study and teach about India has led me repeatedly to discover new facts and perspectives. There is no final “settled” story. Another scholar might explore the career of the Bhanaps and draw conclusions quite different from those that appear in my book. Some years ago I was asked if I thought that writing about a single caste was too parochial. My response was that if my readers thought that a story of the Bhanaps was the only significant story, that then it would be too limiting. My view, however, is that the three centuries of Saraswat experience that I studied offered significant insights into many broader issues of social and cultural change in India. India, when viewed from afar, might be likened to a many-faceted diamond. Some who view it may perceive only the lustrous whole; others may note that each facet contains its own lustre.
If younger readers explore A Caste in a Changing World I hope they will gain a more nuanced connection with their heritage. Also, I hope they will perceive that in each year, each decade, each century, their preceding generations experienced uncertainties and insecurities while making their way through life. Things were never easy and, so far as I can tell, never will be. Once, in 1966, I had a rare opportunity to visit the eminent scholar of dharmashastra Mahamahopadhyaya P. V. Kane. He observed that while the four cosmic yugas spread over vast eons of time, “history” only appeared in the Kaliyuga. I am not sure whether he offered that comment to a young historian as a bit of wisdom or as a joke—perhaps a little of both.
Frank F. Conlon is Professor Emeritus of History, South Asian Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, Seattle. Copyright 2016 by Frank F. Conlon
Ⓒ Interview copyright Frank F Conlon