In 2007–08, the inaugural Faculty Study Group discussed Martha Nussbaum’s The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, which examines the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India and makes more general allusions to the tension between fundamentalisms and democracy in India and in other nations, including the United States. The group traveled in India 15 – 28 May 2008, and this site carries a partial record of their journey.

For a more detailed description of this project please see the press release.

Education in India

May 26th, 2008

One of the central themes of Nussbaum’s book is the failure of state education in India. She takes it to task for rote learning and a total absence of critical thinking.

What is interesting is that private education in India is booming. In fact, it’s a thriving industry. The signs are everywhere. On the streets, next to the mobile phone ads, are billboards advertising private schools (known, thanks to the British, as “public schools”), private institutes, private academies. Indian newspapers and magazines have been featuring rankings and reviews of schools. This week’s India Today centers on the best schools in India.

Nonetheless, Nussbaum’s larger point seems to hold. The billboards on the street promise technical training, American English, business and science education. It is hard to see how Tagore’s emphasis on the cultivation of the imagination fits in to this boom in education.

No doubt there are exceptions. Here’s a billboard from the street in Haridwar that caught my eye a few days ago. Whizzkid International School

Arts in Chennai, Part II

May 26th, 2008

On the outskirts of Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu we met up with Sashi Ananth, a local architect with a degree from Madras University, who treated us to a day of touring ancient architecture, beginning in Mahabalipuram.

Our lesson began with a description of the ways in which temples originated as a representation of the divine and a location for individual experiences in prayer. As we were reminded in an earlier lecture, Hinduism is not a communal religion, and the temples merely provide a sanctum in which the macrocosm or paramathma, meaning Brahman, is in dialogue with the microcosm or jeevathma, meaning individual. In the 5th and 6th centuries, temples, such as The Shore Temple we witnessed began to represent a complex or precinct reminiscent of a Buddhist shrine. Most face toward the east, and this particular temple housed Shiva on one end and Vishnu on the other.


Vishnu, we discovered, is lying in tranquility, while Shiva is represented by a column of light. Sashi explained that this column extended from the top of the head to the base of the body and signified the act of creation–husband, wife and child–as the masculine and feminine integrate and reflect the aspiration to become Brahman, who is formless and genderless and divine. Unfortunately, westerners have interpreted the column as phallic and, therefore, too explicit in nature.



From here we traveled to the 5 Rathas, or chariots: a series of sculptures carved into the existing rocks, demonstrating various types of architecture.


Our final destination was to meet V. Vedanthan, a local sculptor. We toured his facility where we witnessed the various artists at work on their marble creations. Of course, we spent the conclusion of our time shopping in his store, sorting through the many marble and iron statues, bowls, and various pieces of craftsmanship, most far too large to bring back to the states (and believe me if we could we would!).


Animals: Real and Cake

May 25th, 2008


Arts in Chennai

May 25th, 2008

After a brief flight, we arrived in Chennai and noticed a marked difference in landscape and an increase in the heat! As we disembarked from the bus we were greeted with shell necklaces and lime water to wash away the stress of the day. After depositing our luggage, we were quickly swept away to Dakshina Chitra, “a non-profit, community service project of the Madras Craft Foundation for the promotion and preservation of the cultures of the diverse people of India with emphasis on Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka.” (see http://www.

We were met by V.R. Devika, Managing Trustee of the Aseema Trust, who specilaizes in arts education. Because it was extremely hot we began inside with an overview of the facilities and then we hit the gift shop where we supported the many artisans by purchasing examples of their arts and crafts–some for ourselves and some for family and friends. I received great joy in shopping since the proceeds went to the artists themselves, many of whom are women brought to Dakshina Chitra to learn a craft and become empowered by their ability to provide a financial income for themselves and their families.

After shopping we began our tour. Most of the houses and huts were made from remnants of a variety of homes throughout the region destined for demolition. Classes were designated by the inhabitant’s craft and signified through the materials used to build the home (Bermese teak for the upper class and local wood painted brilliant colors for the weaver’s dwelling). We even managed to meet some of the artists, including a henna painter who decorated all of us women with beautiful drawings.

Henna - Shirley

Most significant here, however, is the preservation of cultural art–everything from wood carvings to woven fabrics demonstrates a joyful celebration of the people and their traditions.

Following our tour, we retreated to a small room where Devika provided a short lecture on Gandhi as performer, as well as a performance of her own. Part cultural historian, part actor, she managed to weave together stories from mythology with the theoretical work she is conducting around Gandhi’s life performance, including the many ways in which he managed to put his life’s work on the world stage, dressing in ritual mourning clothes, and through demonstration (perhaps the Greek mimesis?). Much of her research is grounded in performance theory drawn from the Natyasastra and the 5th Veda, which explores the primary elements of performance (the body/gesture, language, spectacle, and emotions).

Despite the sweltering heat we watched and listened attentively to the description and performance of her closing dance that embraced all of the earth’s creatures through a strong connection to the earth.


As we drove away I was left hoping that we might be able to make further connections with Dakshina Chitra and its offering of Indian cultural artifacts displayed through its strong effort to preserve the many arts and crafts.

Living stone

May 25th, 2008

Five Rathas

This morning we visited a series of stone temples along the coast at Mahabalipuram with a world-class expert on temple architecture and Hindu history. While others will write about the cultural and artistic things we learned, I can’t, of course, resist talking about the wonderful rock itself.

These ancient structures are made of the local granite, which is exposed in bare rounded mounds along the coast. This rock type is made of coarse crystals of clear quartz, yellowish feldspars, and black mafic minerals. The feldspars are especially vulnerable to dissolution in the humid climate, so this granite erodes relatively rapidly. The carvings thus appear to survive best on the local granite varieties which have the lowest percentage of feldspar in them. Paradoxically, the more feldspar in the rock the easier it is to carve.

Granite close-up

The Five Rathas produced in the 7th Century were the most interesting structures to me. They are unconsecrated temples carved directly into the bedrock and never separated from it. Artists and geologists say, then, that these are sculpted from “living stone”. This was especially appropriate for these temples as they are covered by delightfully detailed images of men, women and deities, and one of the structures is a free-standing, life-size elephant. Next to the complex the artisans left a set of the original granite mounds in their natural condition as a testament to their skill in carving living stone.


Flight over India

May 25th, 2008


As the Kingfisher jet pushed its way up through the humid, gray air of Delhi, we watched the colorful streets of the city fade and the vast north Indian plain open below us. The flight south to Chennai was a chance to see India from yet another perspective.

The mark of humanity on the land was always visible, but the bones of the Earth show through the thin veneer. The dominant geological features in the north are rivers and streams meandering across the flat brown surface. They appear as thin threads of blue with sandy point bars too large for their current flow in this dry season. The floodplains, which are generally marked by the width of the meanders, are very large, in some cases intersecting so that vast regions must be under water during the monsoons. Agricultural plots cling to the sides of the water courses and extend outwards, following the fertile soil deposited in high water times.

As we crossed over more hilly country, the number and size of the farmed areas diminished and numerous lakes began to appear, almost all with a visible dam which trapped the waters in long, narrow valleys. Small villages could be seen below the dams in the original river channels.

During our descent into Chennai we passed over low mountains covered with deep green vegetation and punctuated by sharp white cliffs. When we crossed the coast of the Indian Ocean a large sandy beach stretched below us with a few tiny dots representing people walking the shore in the noonday sun. The longshore current was visible as a brown streak of water clinging to the shore and moving north Long stone groins stretched perpendicular to the shore to retard the flow of sediment into Chennai’s main harbor.

Chennai Shoreline

India—Place of Contrasts

May 25th, 2008

The cities are richly textured. I love the eclectic mix of sights, smells, and sounds – spices and pots for sale in a traditional market next to high end retail, auto rickshaws in front of a pathology lab, cows wandering the streets, the sounds of horns in Delhi at night.


Mughal Stonework

May 24th, 2008

Akbar Palace

The highlight of visiting the abandoned Mughal capitol Fatehpur Sikri near Delhi was the chance to look closely at the extraordinary stonework produced by 16th century artisans. The city is built entirely of a red sandstone (well, technically a coarse siltstone, a name my students would insist upon) of two varieties. The first is a flagstone which splits into horizontal planes perfect for walkways, walls and roofs (see above).

The second is a stone with no preferential zones of weakness, so it can be carved in spectacular detail as shown by the roof support pictured above.


To provide cooling breezes through the buildings, the craftsmen also cut elaborate latticework through the stone with precise symmetry repeated over and over in a single slab. It is difficult to imagine producing such detail in stone today.

On Food

May 24th, 2008

Fun Food

I have been meaning to write about each meal during this trip, but have not been able to do that. Instead, I am writing a cumulative entry for the past eight days or so. We have had some fabulous meals and in some very unexpected places. Meals at some modest restaurants have been great! I have been surprised at how well our group has been doing with eating practically three Indian meals a day. At times, it has been too much Indian food for me (I have been craving some Mexican food lately), but the Wooster professors have mastered tearing up pieces of Naan to scoop up the dhal and sabjis. In fact, they have gotten to the point of comfortably ordering out of a menu, with no help from me. We did slip once and ate at McDonalds, purely for the ‘fastness’ of it! The Indian McDonalds is very vegetarian friendly, with three major veggie items in the menu.


India has been great for the four vegetarians in the group, with us feeling like we are no longer the minorities. We have never had to ask if there is chicken or beef broth in any of the foods, nor have we been asked if we eat chicken or seafood. In fact, in Haridwar and Rishikesh, you can not buy any meat or alcohol. These two are Hindu holy places and are filled with tens of thousands of pilgrims, who come to take a dip in the river Ganga (aka Ganges) year around.Most places we have stayed have included breakfast buffets. These have common items such as cereals, eggs and croissants; but more importantly, freshly made dosa, idli, sambar, vada, uppuma along with parathas and other north Indian breakfast items. In fact, these spreads have been large enough to be mistaken for an Indian lunch buffet.

Fun Food Chefs

Lunches and dinners have been mostly Indian buffet meals; and the best one we had was at Hotel Shangri La with a ‘chaat’ station, which served a variety of ‘fun’ Indian foods, such as the little puris filled pieces of potato and pani (spiced tamarind water) to be popped into the mouth in one go. We also had a wonderful gourmet meal in Haridwar at Hotel Havei Hariganga, on the banks of Ganges. At Rishikesh, we stopped at Tulsi Ayurvedic Café, which looked and felt like a remnant of the Beatles era. The place had tables and benches where you had to sit down with crossed legs. The place had a stage and a guitar for anyone who wanted to contribute to the entertainment, while eating the mediocre food.Today, we are heading down to Chennai, where I hope our palates will be pleased. So far, the food has not been hot enough for Lee and me. Restaurants take a look at our group and assume that we can only handle mild dishes. Most buffets are flavorful, but fairly mild, even though one can add achars and sauces to spice things up.

Visit with JNU History Faculty

May 24th, 2008

JNU and Wooster Historians

Talking with new colleagues

[Clicking on the title above will bring up a clip of our mingled group.]

Meeting with the History Faculty at JNU

We’ve been so busy – and stimulated by a barrage of new experiences – over the past week that it has been hard to find time to reflect on what we’ve learned during our field experience. We all want to make sure that our posts reflect the new connections we’re making and the sparks of insights into both India and our own fields of expertise, but the pace makes this quite a challenge. Nonetheless, Peter and I decided to take a few moments on the plane to Chennai to comment on one of the most significant intellectual experiences of the trip to date: our seminar with the History faculty at Jawaharlala Nehru University, India’s premier university.

Despite the fact that courses were not in session, eight historians took the time to spend half a day with us giving brief presentations on Indian history and responding to our numerous questions. Our conversations continued over lunch and we gathered in small groups to find out more about the roles of historians in contemporary India. I hesitate to speculate how many of our colleagues would have been available for a similar meeting during summer break. This generosity– and the desire to engage in impassioned scholarly and political debates – has characterized all the academics we’ve been lucky enough to meet in Delhi.

For me, one of the most interesting debates the JNU faculty addressed was the question of colonial legacies: in what ways did British colonialism shape the history of modern India? What is the relationship between colonialism and the challenges India faces as a developing nation? How do the forms of knowledge codified under the colonial system (from the significance and definition of caste, to notions of justice and democracy) shape the struggles of governing a heterogeneous democracy? These are all questions of central importance to modern Latin American history as well, so it was fascinating to hear how another group of intellectuals address them. Although they disagreed about the extent of these legacies, there was a general consensus that it would take a considerable amount of time for India to further improve its commitment to human development.

Peter: One of the surprises for me was just how the Indian scholars fit within a global discourse in history. Their models, premises and references would not have been noticeably different from those one would hear articulated at any American academic conference. In fact, in this sense, India strikes me as much more European than Russia, where intellectual debates, although informed by Western models, are guided by a national framework. (It is in part a result of the fact that Indian academics are themselves so well integrated into universities in Europe and the United States.)

All of the talks were truly outstanding. Well prepared, intellectually provocative and beautifully delivered but a few points stuck out. First, one of the scholars, clearly the rebel in the group, took a very different stance than the rest of his colleagues about the nature of post-independence India. Rather than viewing India as the world’s largest democracy and the years since 1947 as a steady process of nation building, he spoke of the story of independent India as the reestablishment of the Mogul and British Empires along new lines. The evidence for this was the presence in contemporary India of a highly centralized state, bourgeois social order, discriminatory language policies (in which provinces in the North have attempted to assert their hegemony by making Hindi the official language) and a police force that has not been reformed since the British left. When his colleagues later responded, they couldn’t dispute any of his charges with specifics but pointed instead to the fact that the centralizing/repressive processes that he described as Imperial were not uncommon in nation states.

Some of his ideas seemed confirmed in my mind when for example when we saw in the midst of an unruly traffic jam in the predominantly Hindu Himalayas a Sikh police officer using a WWII vintage rifle to maintain order. (The British considered the Sikhs a “martial” people and used Sikh soldiers and policemen to control the other peoples of India). Also, on local news we’ve seen attention was given to the repression of armed resistance movements in India’s peripheral provinces, something one doesn’t hear about much in the Western media. The scholar also related his theories about India as empire to the violence at Gujarat, which he saw as part of a larger history of state violence that Nussbaum had unfortunately ignored. He called particular attention to the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 (facilitated not by Hindu right wing parties but the supposedly progressive Congress Party.) The Congress party – to his mind – would not be willing to investigate communal violence, even the violence at Gujarat, for fear of calling attention to its own bloody history.

Another scholar spent a lot of time distinguishing between Chinese and Indian patterns of development. This was also one of the themes brought out in our seminar at the Indian Institute of Technology. Indian scholars do not want to be grouped with China. A political scientist at IIT pointed out that while current attempts to negotiate global environmental treaties placed China and India in the same camp, this was inappropriate. While India was, like China, developing rapidly, its industrial sector was much smaller. Consequently, the country was leaving a small carbon footprint given the size of its population. Moreover, most of the Indian economy, based on small-scale rural farming, was ecologically sustainable. A historian at JNU pointed to the fact that India’s economic globalization had been carried out by Democratic means over the course of decades rather than through authoritarian measures dictated by people at the top (as in China). Moreover, politicians of all parties had made sure that the growth of the last decade had not come at the expense of India’s poorest (also in contrast to China). How was this progressive development achieved? India possessed a stable democratic political culture that had its origins in the Independence movement and resistance to the British in the mid 19th century. It was shared by members of the elite and the common people. This democratic tradition stands in sharp contrast to what I’ve studied in Russia where neither the elite nor the common people share a commitment to democracy.

Most of us left the meeting feeling that we would see our colleagues at JNU again and that this meeting was the first step in a (hopefully) long-term collaboration. Several of us have already talked about joint projects.

—posted by Katie Holt & Peter Pozefsky

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