This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Interest in South Asian history grows

New faculty member Ramya Sreenivasan focuses on historical memory of region

Published: May 5, 2005

Reporter Contributor

One in four people on Earth comes from South Asia.


Ramya Sreenivasan is engaged in groundbreaking research with colleagues from a variety of universities on a collaborative history of slavery in South Asia.

Recognizing that fact, American institutions of higher learning have begun bulking up their faculties with scholars like Ramya Sreenivasan, a new assistant professor who views history as a dynamic and exciting learning tool for uncovering truth.

"It is always challenging and stimulating to communicate—not just all this information about a part of the world that most of my students have not visited," Sreenivasan says, "but also to communicate a way of engaging with the world critically and making sense of it."

Sreenivasan praises the Department of History's collegiality, energy and interest in expanding its curriculum at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. "This is a department that's been in a process of renewing itself," she says. "I'm glad I came here."

She earned her B.A. and M.A. in English in 1988 and 1990, respectively, and went on to obtain a master of philosophy in English in 1993—all from the University of Delhi, India, where she was tenured as a senior lecturer. Sreenivasan completed her doctoral work in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in 2002.

She moved to Buffalo last fall after serving as a visiting associate professor of history at Kenyon College in Ohio from June 2003 to August 2004, and as a visiting lecturer at the University of Washington, Seattle's South Asia Center in the Jackson School of International Studies from January to June 2003.

Sreenivasan did not allow local real estate agents to steer her into the purchase of a new house in Buffalo's suburbs. Instead, she elected to live in the midst of the city's bustling Elmwood strip.

"The unexpected thing for me," she says, "is that Buffalo has tons of heart and character. It is amazing to me that with so few resources, the city manages to sustain so much, and that's really happening through civic initiative. It is wonderful to live in a city that hasn't given in to chain stores and wiped out small business."

At UB, Sreenivasan teaches a graduate seminar on "Religion and State in South Asia, 1200 to 1800" and an undergraduate course on "Islam and Muslims in Modern South Asia."

She offers several reasons for the growing interest in such courses at universities across the United States.

First, a migration to the United States of professional, middle-class South Asians in the 1960s and 1970s contributed to the growth of South Asian course offerings on American campuses, Sreenivasan says, because now the children of those immigrants are attending college and want to learn about their heritage. She notes that in addition to courses offered through the history department, UB also offers instruction in Arabic, Hindi and Sanskrit.

Several other factors have contributed to the growth of interest in South Asian history in the U.S., Sreenivasan says. One is the United States' interest in developing or sustaining long-term relationships with countries like Pakistan and India. Another is that nationally, she says, there is some government support for expanding South Asian course offerings—in the same way Chinese history expanded dramatically in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sreenivasan says tensions between religious communities in South Asia have increased dramatically in the past 20 years. Why? "It's the million-dollar question for social science," she says. "There is an immediate political imperative to try and understand what's happening so we can combat it."

Sreenivasan is engaged in groundbreaking research with a group of scholars from the University of Arizona, Rutgers and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who are working on a collaborative history of slavery in South Asia—shedding new light on a long-shrouded topic.

Her own research for this project centers on a group of women and children who served as domestics in the elite Rajput society in India between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Sreenivasan says history always has enriched itself by documenting that which has been left out. "If we are striving to move toward equality of access, then I think it is important to recover earlier histories of oppression, to document how the inequality of access was established," she says.

Sreenivasan's area of special interest is historical memory-the ways in which particular communities in South Asia remember their pasts, dating from the 16th to 20th centuries. She looks at a community's understanding of history in both literary and historical accounts, and then traces how the memory of some of these communities ends up being incorporated as a nation's history, while the history of other communities becomes marginalized.

She currently is researching the Rajput, an elite, military, aristocratic society in northern India. This particular community of proto-nationalists resisted being integrated in empires. Tourists who visit India typically are herded through the Rajput's old fortresses and palaces, which are now archaeological sites.

"My undergraduates come in with the notion that colonialism is evil and oppressive," says Sreenivasan. "Of course, it is morally wrong, but there are more interesting questions to be asked: Why did it succeed? Clearly, it had to have some local allies. Who gained and who lost ground?"