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Center for India Studies 20th Anniversary
A Crown Jewel and Student Sanctuary
Created by Kamal and SN Sridhar 
 

 

 

 

 

 


by Aaradhana Natarajan

The Mattoo Center for India Studies lies tucked away on the fifth floor of Melville Library. Behind its unassuming double doors, however, is a treasure trove of linguistic, historic and literary texts. A visitor could find everything from the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi to guides for yoga practice, from Tamil grammar to histories of Vaishnavism.

Statues of Hindu deities dot the shelves and a massive bust of Nobel prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore gazes benevolently upon generations of scholars. They are fitting symbols that represent the Center's commitment to furthering the study of India by Stony Brook University students.
 

 

Tagore was himself a great proponent of education who firmly believed that true education meant fostering student's natural curiosity and desire to investigate the world around them. His experimental school, Shantiniketan, was a paragon of its time. Pupils were encouraged to determine their own courses of study and had an active role in shaping the curriculum. Given the history of India Studies at Stony Brook, it is a fitting icon.

"Faith is the bird that feels the light and
sings when the dawn is still dark." - Tagore

 
 


In 1995, a small band of Stony Brook students presented the university president with a petition. The members of Club India (now SASA), had collected nearly 700 signatures in support of developing a university curriculum that reflected the thriving South Asian population on campus. The students wanted DEC compliant courses on Indian culture and contributions to the global conversation. They felt that art, music, philosophy, everything offered at the University was western-oriented.

Kamal and S.N. Sridhar took up the students cause, teaching Introduction to Indian Civilization and Introduction to Hindi on top of their full course load in the Linguistics Department. That first year, there were 70 students enrolled in Intro to Indian Civilization. Today, there are nearly 250. Students from all backgrounds and ethnicities can find space for cross-cultural conversations and have the opportunity to learn about one of the most diverse nations on the planet.

In fact, nearly 50% of students who enroll in the introductory classes are not South Asian. Along with providing heritage for diasporic students, the India Studies courses act as a stepping stone for students of other ethnic and geographic backgrounds who wish to learn more about one of the world's most dynamic nations. At the risk of sounding cliched, one can even claim that they bridge the gap between East and West, providing an invaluable perspective for students pursuing careers in international business, politics, journalism, and social work.

 

As India Studies expanded past its initial two courses, it hit upon that bane of university programs - the dreaded budget. Not yet even a minor, India Studies had limited funds with which to improve its offerings. Sridhar and his students then hit upon the idea to fundraise from the community. They initially raised $100,000 and managed to hire part-time staff to teach Sanskrit and the epics.

After broadening their offerings to seven courses, they lobbied to have an India Studies minor. In 1997, after the minor was established, the Center got its permanent home.

 

By this time, others were beginning to take notice. The Chinese minor in Social Sciences, and Japanese and Korean minors in Religious Studies, joined with India Studies to push for Asian Studies. At the same time, others were pushing for Asian American Studies. The University's solution was to create a combined department.

 


As the creation of a new department is no small feat, it took long hours of lobbying to consolidate these disparate course groupings under a single heading. When the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies was finally created, Sridhar served as the founding chair for the first 6 years.

One of the defining characteristics of the Center for India Studies is its connection to the community. Events such as the annual gala and visiting speakers, as well as donations from individuals across Long Island, allow the Center to have a steady stream of funds for its programs and scholarships.

In 2013 they raised enough money for a $5,000,000 endowment, the largest in America for India Studies. $1,250,000 was a gift from Dr. Nirmal and Augustina Mattoo for an endowed chair, $1,250,000 came from the community, and $2,500,000 was matched by the James and Marilyn Simons Foundation. The Center was renamed the Mattoo Center for India Studies.

Last year the magnificent trove of reading material was named the Arya India Studies Library after a generous gift from Drs. Yashpal and Urmilesh Arya, again matched by the Simons Foundation. .

Beginning in 2018, the first professor to hold the Mattoo Chair in Classical Indic Studies will be Dr. Arindam Chakrabarti, an Indian philosophy scholar from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and his wife, feminist philosopher Prof. Vrinda Dalmiya.

The community's generosity is reciprocated by the Center's support for student performances and programs. South Asian cultural organizations get advising and assistance in administrative matters from the staff, as well as interfaith programming.

As testament to the value the Center is for students, Sridhar has missives sent from past students. They had written years after graduating, thanking him for his efforts and all that they had learned. The knowledge they had developed from the courses had given them a stronger understanding of their culture, and bridged generation gaps between grandparents and grandchildren.

As Sridhar himself put it: "The parents like it. The students, they take the courses here, then they go and talk to their parents and they can talk about the Ramayana and the Vedas, the Upanishads, sometimes they know more than what the parents know."

The related coursework is not the only form of knowledge to come from the Center. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of India's independence, the Association of Indians in America approached Sridhar to create a lasting representation of Indian culture and history. They decided to publish a definitive textbook on Indian civilization. While many other organizations invited film stars and celebrity performers to speak on the half century, Sridhar and the Association invited scholars from various fields to contribute chapters to their project.

 

The efforts of forty scholars and the Center for India Studies resulted in the publication of "Ananya: A Portrait of India", in 1998. A compilation of essays on India, the text serves both as a primer for college students and a starting point for diasporic desis to understand the country their ancestors hailed from. It is the first among many other publications produced by the Center over the years.

 


Sridhar also spoke about providing a safe place for people of all ethnicities to come and converse. One of his greatest hopes is that students learn about the library's existence earlier in their college careers. Far too many learn about it only in their third or final year, when it might be too late to take full advantage of what there is on offer.

 

Ask many of its students, though, and they will tell you that the Center and its staff are the very embodiment of hospitality. Sridhar's offer of tea to students is his standard practice. Indeed, there is a little tea cart that occupies pride of place amongst the books!

 

2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the Center of India Studies. In the decades since its inception, it has grown to become one of the campus' crown jewels and a sanctuary for students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

   
   

 

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