Students of South Asia
From Florida to California, young Americans are eager to study about India, its neighbors and beyond.
American students often attend world-renowned universities like Brandeis and Harvard to study economics, political science, history or sociology. But, according to Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria, many also seek something broader—an education that offers illuminating perspectives on humanity, history and the future, beyond the borders of the United States. They dive into the world of South Asian Studies, an academic area that educates through the lens of countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Anjaria teaches anthropology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and leads the university’s South Asian Studies Program. His program colleagues include faculty from the History, English, Sociology and Economics departments. Both undergraduate and graduate students choose from diverse classes, ranging from the history of the opium trade to an examination of narratives from the South Asian diaspora. The most popular South Asia-themed course at Brandeis, says Anjaria, is an examination of Hindi film and society.
“I was able to learn so much about South Asian culture and about the power films have to influence entire nations,” says Mariel Guzman, an undergraduate student at Brandeis, in an interview to BrandeisNOW, the university’s news digest. “Every movie we watched had a larger commentary about Indian society and culture.”
Meena Sonea Hewett, executive director of Harvard University’s Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, relishes South Asian Studies’ potential to create just the sort of multidisciplinary perspective that Guzman describes. “Within South Asian Studies, you can study politics, religion, anthropology,” she says. “It’s very broad, and that can be a great thing when it comes to expanding students’ learning and building their creativity across multiple areas of study.”
The institute leverages the inherent multidisciplinary nature of South Asian Studies, as well as Harvard’s many renowned professional schools, by connecting faculty and students for South Asia-based research. For example, if an undergraduate at Harvard begins conducting research on sanitation issues in India, Hewett says, she might link him or her with members of the university’s schools of public health and business, as well as Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, to increase learning and cooperation among them.
“Taking courses or working with students or professors outside of your focus area, but still themed around South Asia, can be hugely rewarding,” says Hewett. “Doing so allows you to deepen your thinking by broadening your approach to learning. That kind of widening of your mind will, in the long run, make it even more clear what you’re trying to do, and make you more resilient and creative when dealing with all sorts of issues.”
Beyond presenting intriguing coursework and sparking symbiotic collaborations, South Asian Studies departments enrich their students’ education in a variety of other ways. For example, fellowships and study abroad opportunities are commonly offered as are guest visits by regional experts and leaders in the field.
“One of the defining features of Brandeis’ program is that we actively engage with current political, social and literary conversations in India,” says Anjaria. “We have a vibrant speaker series called the Soli Sorabjee Lectures in South Asian Studies, which allows us to regularly invite to campus scholars, writers and journalists who are shaping India’s public sphere.” Recent speakers have included journalist Naresh Fernandes, editor of Scroll.in, and professor Amita Baviskar from the Institute for Economic Growth, New Delhi.
Why South Asia?
Students in the United States gravitate toward South Asian Studies for several reasons, and being of South Asian heritage is in no way a prerequisite. Anjaria says a lot of his students feel that India and its neighbors are not discussed enough, neither in high schools nor in the media, and are grateful to have varied course offerings related to the region.
At Harvard, Hewett sees students drawn to South Asia because of its fascinating intricacy. “The region is a rich laboratory of problems and issues,” she says. “It’s very complex. And, if you look at any global problem, there is some lesson to be learned from South Asia, purely from the numbers if you will, as there are two billion people living there.”
“In terms of the geographics as well,” Hewett continues, “and the complexities of culture, religion and geopolitics, there is always something to be learned.”
Adam J. Grotsky, executive director of the U.S.-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) and a former student of South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says he would recommend the course to anyone who has spent time in South Asia, or is simply fascinated by the region.
“A South Asian Studies degree could benefit those considering a career in the American foreign service,” he continues, “and, coupled with a business degree, South Asian Studies could also benefit those looking to work in India—one of the largest and fastest-growing economies in the world.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.