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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Retired Professor H. Daniel Smith dies

SU religion professor was an author, documentary filmmaker, and collector of Indian art

Oct. 18, 2013, by Cyndi Moritz

H. Daniel Smith
H. Daniel Smith

H. Daniel Smith (1928-2013), a professor of Hinduism and Asian religions in The College of Arts and Sciences from 1958-1993, died of complications from esophageal cancer on Oct. 1 in Syracuse. Along with the impact he had on SU’s religion department, Smith was a documentary filmmaker and author, and collected a large amount of significant Indian art that he gifted to Syracuse University upon his retirement.

Born Sept. 15, 1928, in Toledo, Ohio, he was the younger son of James H. Smith and Mary Shocker Smith. He was ordained in 1957 as a teacher by the Church of the Redeemer (United Church of Christ) in New Haven, Conn. Smith subsequently maintained formal ties for more than three decades with the New York State Oneida Association of U.C.C. churches while holding his University post.

His many and enduring contributions to the religion department included developing its ongoing emphasis on religion, culture and the arts, as well as defining the broader nature of the field of study. Patricia Cox Miller, Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion Emerita, says Smith’s graduate seminar, “Visual Theology,” in which students were taught to “read” art as an important aspect of religious meaning, was particularly innovative.

Another emeritus professor and former department chair, Smith’s colleague and friend Richard B. Pilgrim, recollects perpetual debates with Smith, “he insisting we can’t study religion but only religions, and I taking another tack; he always working with religion(s) on the ground and me in the air.”

During his 35 years of dedicated teaching in religion at Syracuse, Smith made a powerful impact on students and colleagues. SU religion alumna Corinne G. Dempsey (professor of religious studies at Nazareth College) says, “I can't begin to account for all the goods Dan left behind for me. As for material items, I think of him every day when I see his antique map of India hanging on my office wall.”

Ann Grodzins Gold, currently Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion at Syracuse, who was appointed in 1993 to teach Hindu traditions after Smith’s retirement, treasures countless gifts from him, including a palm-leaf manuscript from South India, wrapped in red silk, which awes students in her introductory courses every year.

Smith earned an A.B. degree from Harvard in 1950, followed by B.D., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees (1954, 1955, 1960) from Yale University. Although initially trained in classical Hinduism and Sanskrit, Smith pioneered the study of Hindu popular culture and its visual manifestations. His 11 documentary films on south Indian urban religious rites and celebrations, produced in the late 1960s, are classics and still used in classrooms in 2013.

Smith’s other love was the epic poem “Ramayana.” He produced “The Storybook Ramayana,” a Sanskrit/English version with illustrations by a Chennai-based artist that remains a major resource. In 2008, Smith assisted a team of Indians and Americans to produce a multi-lingual color edition of the “Pictorial Ramayana” for free distribution at temples, pilgrimage centers and libraries.

Smith also authored “Changing Myths and Images: Twentieth-Century Popular Art in India,” with G. J. Larson and P. Pal (Indiana University Art Museum, 1997); “Handbook of Hindu Gods, Goddesses, and Saints Popular in Contemporary South India,” with M. Narasimhachary and K.S. Ramu (Delhi, 1991 & 1997); and bibliographical studies of Pancaratra Agama texts in Sanskrit (Baroda, 1975 & 1980) and of works in English based on Valmiki's Ramayana (Syracuse, 1983 & Bombay, 1989).

Smith's research led him to visit India frequently from the 1950s to the 1980s, during which time he amassed a significant collection of Indian art, especially from the Mithila region of northern Bihar, some of which will be on display in an upcoming exhibition (January 2014) and the focus of a major conference in February 2014.

His collections also included three-dimensional and printed works, the latter contains Sanskrit books and religious posters. At his retirement, Smith donated his collections to the Syracuse University Art Galleries and to the Special Collections Research Center. Professor Smith’s material provides an invaluable resource for the study of Indian art, whether classical, folk or popular. Other collections include agamas at the University of Iowa.

After his retirement, Smith was actively engaged in launching SAGE (Service and Advocacy for Gay Elders) Upstate, an organization providing health and wellness programming, support groups and social activities for the older LGBTQ community in the Syracuse area.

Smith is survived by his husband, Coy L. Ludwig; a niece, Victoria Shuttleworth (Rick) in Huntington Beach, Calif.; a nephew, Matthew Smith (Clare) in Pittsburgh; and their families; and by other relatives in the Toledo, Ohio, area. He was predeceased by his parents and by his elder brother, James H., Jr.

Contributions in Smith’s memory will be received by SAGE, 305 Seventh Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10001-6008; by Theta Chi Beta (Religion Honorary), c/o The Department of Religion, 501 Hall of Languages, Syracuse University, Syracuse NY 13244-1170; or by an LGBT support or service organization of your choice.