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The Australian National University

South Asian Studies at ANU: Our Story

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South Asian Studies at the ANU claims an exciting legacy that has united scholars from Australia, South Asia, and across the world since its postwar inception. Our field has long fostered a cosmopolitan, historically-nuanced, and multidisciplinary approach to India and its neighbours. South Asian Studies at ANU has pioneered and transformed understandings of the region, influencing religious studies, history and anthropology on a global scale. Such claims are evidenced by the calibre of scholars and public intellectuals who have occupied distinguished positions at ANU since its founding years.

Since the critical development of area studies in the mid-1940s at the ANU, South Asian Studies has historically helped to confront key challenges facing South Asia and Australia. Early South Asianists came to Australia through the circuits of the British Empire. Oskar Spate, an Englishman with a doctorate from Cambridge and later a lecturer at the University of Rangoon in Burma, came to the ANU with a long history of working in the imperial army in Asia. Spate played a role in the partition of the Indian subcontinent, serving as an advisor to the Muslim League in the Punjab. His India and Pakistan (1954) engaged closely with issues of Partition through the lens of geography. At the ANU, Spate’s own focus of research changed from South Asia to Papua New Guinea. Connections between Asia and the Pacific remain important to today’s South Asian Studies.

ANU scholars developed influential historiographies of India and its neighbours as the subcontinent reevaluated its identity in the wake of independence. A.L. Basham, professor of history and Oriental Studies at the ANU in the 1960s and 70s, exemplified a generation of British historians who developed powerful articulations of India in the postwar period. The Wonder That Was India (1954) remains influential in India today, noted on the Hindustan Times’ 2017 list of iconic books as “still the best book of its kind.” Basham’s particular concerns with religious studies have found new purchase through subsequent generations of ANU scholars, particularly in Sanskrit, Buddhism, Hinduism, history, and art.

The 1960s and 1970s also saw legendary strength in South Asian religious and language studies. Professor Jan Willem de Jong came to Australia from the Netherlands as a beneficiary of the education and research policies of the Menzies government. De Jong was invited to the ANU in 1965 as Head of the new Department of South Asian and Buddhist Studies, where he taught until 1986. De Jong was an internationally recognised leader of Indian studies who knew the Buddhist canon in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese and Mongolian. It is said that he was familiar with every significant book published on Buddhist studies in any European or Asian language in the 20th century.

In this period, ANU scholarship was also nourished – if in often hierarchical ways – by the work of women and scholars from Asia. Many of the research assistants formally attached to the emerging departments, such as T.B.C Frodsham, were women. The role of “assistant” often belied their expertise as scholars in their own right. One of the first women appointed to the faculty in this area was Luise Hercus, a linguist who combined expertise in Prakrit (north Indian vernaculars) with work on the preservation of endangered Aboriginal languages. One of the early staff from the region, T. Rajapatirana from Sri Lanka, brought expertise in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese, as did his colleague A. Yuyama, who came from Japan. These contributions helped to ground the study of South Asia at the ANU within dynamic connections to Australian studies, South Asia, and Asia more broadly.

The 1960s and 1970s were pivotal for laying deep foundations for a global conception of South Asian Studies. Anthony Low, internationally renowned scholar of imperialism and decolonisation, approached South Asian studies as a comparativist with expertise across Africa and South Asia. Best remembered at the ANU as its Vice-Chancellor from 1975-1982, Low taught at the ANU from 1959-1964 and directed the Research School of Pacific Studies in the mid-1970s. Through his “Director’s Section” of the Research School, Low trained a generation of scholars he affectionately called his “sepoys.” These scholars included eventual ANU staff members Robin Jeffrey and Brij Lal, who pioneered new directions in the study of India and its diaspora.

Low’s career helped to define key moments in the international creation of commonwealth studies, which laid important groundwork for contemporary postcolonial frameworks. In art history and curatorship, both John Clark and Robyn Maxwell taught aspects of the history of art in South Asia, thus imbricating a study of South Asia within a transnational perspective. Twenty-first-century generations of scholars, such as Debjani Ganguly, have used their expertise as South Asianists to develop dynamic understandings of globalisation and culture. South Asian Studies at the ANU has thus been at the forefront of new approaches that link area studies to transnational inquiry.

One of the most influential global initiatives emanating from South Asian Studies at the ANU was the rise of the Subaltern Studies School, which radically reframed the practice of history, literature, and development. This project paved the way for postcolonial studies around the globe. From 1981 to 2005, the Subaltern Studies Collective published groundbreaking work under the editorship of Ranajit Guha. These essays redefined disciplinary fields through their insistence on the centrality of voices from “below,” voices that were not audible within elite and imperial forms of knowing the world. Through our longstanding annual association with Dipesh Chakrabarty, SARI maintains active links with Subaltern Studies to decolonise knowledge as it affects key issues of our day, such as climate change, global migration, educational reform, and public health.

The ANU’s legacy of engagement with key political challenges continues today at the National Security College, in the Coral Bell School of Asian and Pacific Affairs, and at the Crawford School of Public Policy, where expertise on India and its neighbours informs questions of security, domestic politics, international relations, and economics. Founded in 1994, the Australia South Asia Research Centre (ASARC) is Australia’s premier centre on the economics of the South Asia region, particularly India. It claims a very active research program (since 2001 over 200 working papers, most published in top international journals, 15 major books, and several successful PhD students).

ASARC organizes the annual K.R. Narayanan oration (which marked its 20th anniversary in 2018) at which leading economists, scientists and policymakers have spoken about key issues facing India and South Asia. Digital initiatives, such as South Asia Masala, have used new platforms to bring academic insights to bear on political and policy challenges.

We continue our comparative, cosmopolitan and engaged legacy through scholarly approaches that understand India and its neighbours as part of transnational formations, including histories of imperialism, environmental challenges, new technologies, migration flows, and global capitalism. Twenty-first-century South Asian Studies at the ANU has been at the forefront of new interdisciplinary ways of understanding “the world,” exemplified by scholars whose research has placed the region at the centre of paradigms of world literature and of global innovation.

SARI was established in 2012 to consolidate and nurture the next generation of South Asian Studies. As we build on these important legacies, we also take pride in a cohort of scholars that has introduced new critical paradigms. Women scholars now comprise a much larger percentage of our faculty, and critical gender studies is now important to both humanistic and social science approaches. We further take pride in the ANU’s multilingual approach to the region, exemplified by scholars whose work engages South Asian traditions of Sanskrit, Hindi, Gujarati, Malay, Tamil, Pahari, and English.

Since 2012, SARI has developed into a coherent university community; established annual public lectures and a regular seminar series; partnered with community organisations; provided HDR students with professional development opportunities; supported research grant applications in South Asian Studies; and nourished a revitalised India Studies major.

Updated:  8 November 2018/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific /Page Contact: