I have one leg in science and one leg in culture - bringing them together has been my calling.



Early Life

I always had this rather adventurous streak, coupled with an interest in science. The scientific influence came from my father, Dr M.R. Srinivasan, who is an eminent nuclear engineer. When we were young, he used to take us to reactor sites and explain the process of nuclear fusion and fission. But we also visited a lot of historical sites and monuments. In the early 70s, we lived right next to Mahabalipuram as my father was working on the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant. I remember running around all those Pallava monuments. My mother, Geetha, was the head of the World Wildlife Fund in India. She is a very adventurous lady. In 1987, just after IIT, I went with her on a trek cum pilgrimage to see the ice stalactite worshipped as a Shiva lingam in snow-bound Amarnath in Kashmir. I was also a student of Bharatnatyam from the age of 9 and trained under several renowned gurus. So, I was exposed to the intangible cultural and natural heritage of India. However, it was physics and astronomy that I was most drawn to. I loved stargazing, it was so exciting in those days to visit the Nehru Planetarium. I also remember my father taking me to the Radio Astronomy centre of TIFR in Ooty which had so many telescopes. Being a topper in school with an interest in science, I wrote the IIT JEE exam. But I was not nerdily obsessed with studying for, or getting into IIT. So it was a pleasant surprise that my JEE rank was in the 400s. By a lucky coincidence, when I joined, a new option for B.Tech. was being offered i.e. Engineering Physics. It seemed an ideal one for me.

Life at IIT Bombay

IIT provided a lot of scope for diverse, eclectic experiences. For example, I used to enjoy doing welding. Making a good metallograph is not just science, it’s an art as well. There is a beautiful verse by 12th century Kannada poetess Akka Mahadevi who says, ‘Weld so that the weld may not be seen’. Which adds a metaphysical aspect to it. In humanities we had an elective called ‘postcolonial literature’ where we read Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. At the annual performing arts festival I did a choreography set to Philip Glass’s music of Koyaanisqatsi, which is the Hopi Indian word for ‘life out of balance’. It was an apt metaphor that stayed with me. There is a need to regain balance, whether between humans and the environment, or between science and culture. Along with four batchmates, I worked on, acted in and choreographed for the English feature film, ‘Nuclear Winter’. The film expressed the concerns of students at the prospect of a nuclear holocaust in the Cold War years. Shot on the IIT campus, it was directed by Zul Vellani and screened on Doordarshan, with the cast including Vijay Crishna. Being a part of the H10 sisterhood was a special experience. As women, we were encouraged to challenge ourselves and do adventurous things like mountaineering, and even rappelling down the H10 wall! While pursuing my B.Tech. I realized that my interest lay in application, not pure science. My father, who had worked with Homi Bhabha, always talked about nuclear power as a tool for development. I was also influenced by my uncle C.V. Seshadri, an IIT Kanpur professor who used technology for rural upliftment. While at IIT, I used to spend time in a tribal block of Karjat, doing appropriate technology documentation. At the back of my mind was the idea of making a connect with the grassroots and our traditional knowledge systems.

Professional Journey

Engineering Physics put a lot of emphasis on materials science, for example semiconductors, and exposed me to techniques of spectroscopic analysis. Eventually that’s where my career went. I read a paper on the use of spectrochemical analysis in archaeology and became very interested in where that could take us. I decided to explore the applications of scientific techniques in studying art history and archaeology. So I pursued an M.A. in Arts and Archaeology at the University of London, followed by a PhD in Archaeometallurgy at Institute of Archaeology, University College London. My thesis was titled: ‘The enigma of the dancing ‘pancha-loha’ (five-metalled) icons’. I used lead isotope analysis, compositional and trace element analysis and ore-artefact analysis for finger- printing medieval South Indian statuary bronzes sampled from Victoria and Albert Museum London, Government Museum, Chennai and the British Museum. As a Bharatanatyam dancer, I was always fascinated with Nataraja. We even perform a dance where we describe the Panchbhuta - the five elements which constitute the Dancing Shiva. So I was intrigued about the actual elemental analysis and what it could tell us about the history of technology of alloys and metals used in antiquity. Looking at the materials characterization also helps in terms of the archaeological understanding. For instance, it is difficult to authenticate Chola bronzes because there were so many of them, produced by similar techniques over hundreds of years. Chemical profiling helps to create a kind of fingerprint by which you can tell apart bronzes of later periods from earlier periods.

Pushing Boundaries

The technique that I use in particular is known as lead Isotope ratio analysis because of the fact that the lead sources have distinct isotopic proportions which can be traced back to the source. Often, I get described as an rchaeometallurgist, as what we do is look at evidence of ancient mining and metallurgy. Since NIAS is adjacent to the Indian Institute of Science, we have access to labs. We use a variety of techniques from X-ray analysis to electron microscopy to understand the metal microstructure. It’s exciting to unravel how a blacksmith worked centuries ago, leaving a distinct fingerprint. For me, the moment of discovery is an Indiana Jones kind of moment. Because I’m working in an area which is not fashionable or mainstream, it is always a challenge to get funding. So being recognised by one’s peers has definitely been very fulfilling. I have one leg in science and one leg in culture - bringing together these two diverse fields has been my calling. That keeps me on my feet, keeps the motivation going.

Challenges as a Woman

Being in a male-dominated environment like IIT, you learn to kind of stand up for yourself. That really stands you in good stead, no matter what you do in life. STEM is male-dominated. Additionally, archaeology involves travel to remote places. I remember once I had to visit a mining site in Guntur for fieldwork. I wrote to the officer, he said, please come. When I landed up there, he bit taken aback - he wasn’t expecting Dr Sharada Srinivasan to be a woman. He then made arrangements for a separate room for me and so on. On that visit, I also recall a cheetah which literally leaped out of an old, working mine! Sadly, it happened so fast I could not press my finger on the camera button.

Work-Life Balance

I am high-strung, whereas my husband Digvijay is calm and collected. He owns and manages his family-owned tea estates in Coonoor and Ooty and is a keen photographer. He has always been very broad-minded and supportive of my professional demands, especially when I’ve had to undertake international travel and archaeological fieldwork. He was happy to look after our daughter Lasya when I was away, so in that sense he’s been a new age husband. Like any working mother, I have felt guilty about not spending enough time with my daughter. When she was just two, I had a major field trip to the fascinating Harappan site of Dholavira in the Rann of Kutch. During her vacations, we would undertake holiday-cum-fieldwork visits as a family. For instance, we spent time in Aranmula documenting the metal mirror-making workshops and taking the kettuvalam boats across the backwaters in Kerala. In 2019, we were in the hospital as my daughter was very ill when I got a call. “Madam... hello... I’d like to tell you that you’ve been awarded the Padma Shri. Would you like to accept?” Luckily, my daughter recovered fully and the full import of the award struck me when my phone began to ring non-stop.

Advice to Young Women

You don’t have to have the perfect answers or know everything you want to do. When I was 18, if somebody had told me I would have had an inclination towards archeology, I would have laughed. Life does teach you and you learn as you go along. So it’s okay to be open ended about things, even indecisive.