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  • South Asian Area Studies in Transatlantic Dialogue
  • Nalini Natarajan (bio)

The following essay reflects my engagement with South Asian area studies as an outsider to the field, for I am primarily a literary critic.1 I begin by emphasizing that area studies has made valuable grounded contributions to the knowledge about South Asia, even though the paradigm does have its limitations, which I discuss in the course of this essay. I argue that these limitations are somewhat mitigated by considering the transatlantic influences that have affected area studies.

In area studies' attempts to tackle a distant peninsula as an object of knowledge there is a persistent ambivalence. On the one hand, the region is mystified as unique, special, and "different," owing to its complex millennial status, the consequent heterogeneity of its cultural forms, and the proliferation (of informal) or paucity (of formal) sources, allowing multiple readings of history. On the other hand, it is placed within paradigms that one may call "universal" or "transcultural": paradigms of the onward march of capital or empire, ancient and modern trade circuits, the eternal struggle between cultures of accumulation and subsistence, or the history of landownership and tenant exploitation. Within this major duality from the Western perspective, South Asia as "different" and South Asia as "same," are nestled others in how South Asia may be studied. Methodologies include sociocultural ethnography (based on fieldwork) versus history (based on texts); classicist (based on Sanskrit sources) versus modern and contemporary (based on popular cultural forms); elite/colonial discourses versus oppositional national reaffirmations; resident versus diasporic perspectives; politico-military versus economic histories, and so on.

Each item of these dualities has an institutional and disciplinary history. They may be traced to the location of South Asian studies programs (at universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, or India); in the academicians who practice them; in the disciplines involved (anthropology and language studies, law, politics, and history); in the sources that are available to scholars; and of course in funding.

One important locus is the U.S. academy, which Nicholas Dirks has recently analyzed.2 In his account, it appears that U.S. area studies was largely determined by the postwar moment, by Cold War attempts to know the rest of the world in the interests of the military and economic agenda of the United States. But one notes, in interpreting his account, that the trajectory of this attempt follows a particular course as a result of factors that are sometimes [End Page 591] demographic (as with the initial domination of the field by metropolitan scholars joined by the infusion of ethnic South Asians who entered the field after the 1960s), sometimes accidental (such as the interests of specific scholars who shaped the field), and sometimes systemic (as in the procedures of U.S. academia's dissemination of research surrounding fields and trends).

Demographically speaking, with the founding of, first, an Oriental studies department at the University of Pennsylvania in 1931, then the University of Chicago in the 1940s, followed by the University of California, Berkeley, in 1951; the University of Michigan in 1956; and Columbia University, the University of North Carolina, and Stanford University in later years, area studies in its first phase was dominated by metropolitan scholars of non–South Asian origin, scholars such as Norman Brown and Richard Park. In the sixties and seventies, this trend continued with scholars such as Milton Singer, McKim Marriott, Ronald Inden, Bernard Cohn, and Nicholas Dirks. The Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, and MacArthur foundations and the Title VI education grants provided funds.3 However, with the increasing influence of scholars from India and Sri Lanka, scholars such as M. N. Srinivas, Stanley Tambiah, Gananath Obeyesekere, Val Daniels, and, more recently in diaspora studies, Arjun Appadurai, that initial profile began to change. Further, post-Saidian "postcolonial" literary theory and criticism brought in a flood of scholars working on the literary and cultural aspects of South Asia, although ironically many of them were/are English literature or cultural studies scholars. This increase also coincided with South Asian immigration since the mid-sixties, forming increasingly prosperous diasporas in the United States and Canada, as well as the prominence of creative writers, from Bharati...


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