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May 2, 2007

Spring quarter classes on South Asia focus on themes ancient and modern

By Kathleen J. Sullivan

Instead of speaking, Zakir Hussain let the tabla do the talking at the opening session of Introduction to the Music of India.

Sitting cross-legged on a small raised platform, Hussain played a brief solo on the pair of drums, each tuned to a different pitch, the fingers, palms and heels of his hands creating sounds, rhythms and notes, including a surprising snippet of melody from the William Tell Overture.

Hussain, who wore a chartreuse tunic over white pants, told his four-dozen students—and other would-be students who had showed up hoping to get into the new class taught by the renowned tabla virtuoso—that he would take them on a "little journey" through the last couple millennia, tracing the evolution of Indian music from ancient to modern times.

"We will visit all the nooks and corners of India," he said.

It is a journey sponsored by the new Center for South Asia, which was established in 2006, and the Music Department, which offered Hussain a special teaching appointment.

The center is devoted to developing and coordinating Stanford's resources for the study of the region—including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan—across all the disciplines in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

It also works with departments to increase faculty strength, support research, expand course offerings, build the library collection and sponsor programs and events.

The center offered its first course, South Asia: Politics, Economics, Culture and Society, last fall, and its second, Development Issues in South Asia, during the winter quarter. Its classes are co-sponsored by the Division of International Comparative and Area Studies.

During his recent trip to India, President John Hennessy announced that an anonymous donor had given $5 million to the center—a sum Stanford will match. The money will be used to establish a provostial chair on South Asia, award scholarships to students from India and provide financial support for the fledgling center.

"Understanding South Asia has become a critical component of a comprehensive approach to the study of politics, history, culture and many other subjects in a modern university education," Hennessy said. "At Stanford, the Center for South Asia is an integral part of the university's multidisciplinary approach to teaching and research in the rapidly expanding area of international affairs."

Linda Hess, co-director of the Center for South Asia, said India's recent emergence as an economic and political powerhouse has focused new attention on the region, though its cultures, histories, languages, religions and arts have long been worthy of study.

"Sometimes it takes an impetus from the economic and political side to raise consciousness of a country and a region that has always been extremely important for an educated person to know about," she said.

Last quarter, Stanford offered four courses on South Asia that attracted six-dozen students. In addition to the center's class, the university offered Hindus and Muslims in South Asia (Religious Studies), South Asian American Experiences in Cultural and Historical Perspective (Cultural and Social Anthropology) and South Asian History and Cultures Through Film: Bollywood and Beyond, (Cultural and Social Anthropology).

This quarter, Stanford is offering seven courses with South Asian themes, including four student-initiated classes.

Hess, a lecturer in religious studies, is teaching Goddesses and Gender in Hinduism, which will focus on the stories, icons, histories, poetry and songs of Kali, Lakshmi, Sita and other goddesses. Students also will consider this question: What, if anything, does the presence of these popular and powerful goddesses have to do with the lives of women in India today?

In The Political Economy of Energy in India, students are exploring how India is balancing competing goals—alleviating poverty, protecting the environment and assuring the financial viability of its energy companies—as it modernizes its energy system. David Victor, a professor of law and director of Stanford's Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, is teaching the class, which is offered by the Earth Systems Program. The course, which is limited to 12 students, is examining four or five key issues in Indian energy policy. Victor drew on his experience and connections in India—he travels there several times a year to meet with research collaborators, industry leaders, government officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations—to create the course and choose readings.

After becoming "experts" in key issue areas by reviewing case studies, the students will travel to India for a two-week field trip. They will visit several sites, including a coal mine, power plants, an oil platform and the construction site of the world's largest refinery. They will meet with government officials, reform groups, industry experts and entrepreneurs.

Victor said the goal of the field trip is to give students a full experience of India and a firsthand look at the Indian policymaking process—things they can't get from a textbook.

"I want students to get a sense of how Indian policymakers manage real-world tradeoffs—developing energy resources and protecting the environment," he said, adding that they will be interacting with people making multibillion-dollar decisions about those issues.

The field trip also will introduce students to a wide range of cultures and income levels in India, which will help them understand the difficulties the country faces developing energy policies to meet so many different needs, said teaching assistant Mike Jackson, a research associate at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, in an e-mail message.

"In speaking with rural Indians, students will gain an appreciation for why India provides electricity to farmers free of cost, in an attempt to stimulate development and improve the lives of the country's poorest citizens," he said. "Later conversations with industrial consumers starved of reliable electricity will show students the downside of this policy, which limits incentives for investment in new power plants."

One of the challenges for the group—for some it will be the first visit to a developing country—will be coping with the weather, since they will be visiting India during late June and early July, a time of stifling heat and monsoons, Jackson said.

Student-initiated classes on South Asia

It takes nearly a day to fly from San Francisco to Mumbai, the capital of India's Hindi-language film industry, known affectionately around the world as Bollywood.

But Stanford students can be immersed in its stars and spectacle on campus this spring in Running Around Trees: Exploring the Bollywood Song, which is examining South Asian identity through the medium of movie music, including religious, political and wedding songs, as well as songs about courtesans and prostitutes, globalization and the Indian diaspora.

"The course title is inspired by a general criticism of Bollywood movies—that they are just beautiful actors 'running around trees' and singing in the mountains," Stuti Goswamy, a senior economics major and one of two undergraduates leading the course, said in an e-mail.

"While this is generally true of the '80s and early '90s films, songs have become more impressive in quality and content—although I won't lie, the running around trees still exists."

The Bollywood song course is one of four classes initiated by students, who also created Introduction to Sikhism (Religious Studies), Community Development in India (Human Biology) and Brainstorming India: Entrepreneurship Models for Social Ventures (Management Science and Engineering).

Manvir Singh, a senior economics major and one of two students leading the Sikhism course, said the majority of the students in the class are non-Sikhs who know very little about the religion and its people.

"The fact that the Religious Studies Department does not offer a class on the Sikhism acted as the primary impetus for me to lead the course this year," said Singh, who is the president of the Stanford Sikh Students Association, in an e-mail.

Casey Nevitt, a senior majoring in human biology and one of two students leading Community Development in India, said the course was inspired by their experiences doing volunteer work for a charitable organization in Bhopal two summers ago.

Looking back, Nevitt said she would have gotten more out of the experience if she had known more about the country beforehand, including its education, healthcare and welfare systems, as well as its cultural and religious traditions.

"For instance, every clinic had a small temple, and religion played a part in people's health beliefs and daily life," said Nevitt, who did volunteer work in an eye hospital, an orphanage and a naturopathy clinic, in an e-mail message.

Nevitt, who is returning to Bhopal this year on a health research project, said the course is designed to help students prepare for service and research trips to India by giving them a background in health, education and social change in the country.

In Brainstorming India, students will get the chance to help three social entrepreneurs involved in projects to improve literacy, end hunger and build networks among skilled laborers find solutions to some of the problems they have identified in achieving their goals.

Deepti Chatti, who recently earned a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering and is one of six student leaders of the class, said the goal is to get students excited about solving social problems in developing countries.

Guest speakers will introduce students to some of the basic skills they will need, such as brainstorming techniques, marketing strategies and micro-financing concepts, to help the three "project champions."

"We might have to expand our class to 27 students because of the overwhelming response," Chatti said in an e-mail. "We hate to turn anyone away, as each individual brings something uniquely different to the class and to the solutions of the problems we're trying to fix."



Kathleen J. Sullivan, News Service: (650) 724-5708,


Linda Hess, co-director, Center for South Asia: (650) 725-9732,


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