Of Note at India House
As evidenced by the success of the films “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Eat, Pray, Love” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and the television comedy “Outsourced,” interest in India and its culture has been growing in recent years. At Indiana University Bloomington, this has been clearly seen by the faculty at its Dhar India Studies Program.
“There’s been a lot more interest in India and Indian culture, and the notion of Indian civilization, than in the past,” observed Michael Dodson, director of the Dhar India Studies Program since 2011. “In particular, you think about things like yoga. We had a talk last semester on the historical evolution of chai, which was deeply interesting given how ubiquitous the drink has become in the West.
“India has this mystique and hold on people’s imaginations,” he added. “That translates into more student interest.”
Also on people’s radar are the business opportunities in India, which is the world’s largest democracy with an estimated population of more than 1.21 billion people.
A historian of British imperialism in South Asia, Dodson has focused on the intellectual and cultural history of the 18th and 19th centuries in his personal research. Much of his work has been in Banaras (also known as Varanasi), a city regarded as holy by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and home to a large population of Muslims as well. It has a population of about 1.2 million in a geographical area similar to that of Bloomington.
“I’ve just published a book on Banaras’ architecture and its city space,” he said. “What drove me to my interest in this was trying to understand how Indian cities look the way that they do now. The British released control of municipal boards to Indians at the end of the 19th century. I was always interested in the relationship between the enormous poverty of infrastructure and the way in which these smaller cities are very challenged in the contemporary period.”
While political power went to Indians at that time, they were massively underfunded and became indebted through internal lending within the state. Banaras has always been heavily polluted and in recent weeks religious leaders there have been fasting up to death because of the poor condition of the Ganges River.
Dodson said these lessons are important for those who see India as an emerging market, including an increasing number of Kelley School students who participate in the program’s activities.
The Chetganj police station in Banaras, built by the British in the 1840s, continues to be used today for that purpose.
“Without question, India still struggles with the legacy of colonialism, which was to drain the country of its wealth,” he said. “If people want to do business in India, what they have to understand is that those memories still exist and that there is an Indian way of doing things.
“You can’t just go into India and pretend that it’s like any other place,” Dodson added. “Even though many Indians are Westernized, in the sense that many Indian business leaders have been educated in the United States and Britain … It make a difference to understand the cultural resonance and pride and history that Indians have.”
For years, the program has had an active and diverse lecture series and last spring brought to campus Vikram Chandra, author of the acclaimed novel “Sacred Games,” which is being developed as a television series by AMC. The public is always welcome to attend its events.