In the mid-70s, Dr Soumyen Mukherjee could be seen gathering his students under the jacaranda tree in the Quad for their weekly tutorial on ‘India in English Literature’. Teaching under a tree was custom in the gurukuls of ancient India, the guru leading his students to shade, not far from the house they shared together. My dadu – my grandfather – with the historian’s penchant for continuity, planted the ritual in a sandstone corner of Sydney University.
At nights, he lectured in the evening school, established for students who had missed out on higher education. As though to confirm their underground status, an oblivious caretaker would switch off the lights at 8pm, plunging them into darkness mid-lecture. This happened several times, until someone fell down in the dark, and the sheepish caretaker received an earful of lambast from Soumyen. Despite the less-than-glamorous air, the lectures were lively.
Dozens of students spilled in at 7.15pm, carrying nuts and chips and bottles of cheap wine. The room was peppered with the usual night-school ilk: mature-aged students who flocked to study after Whitlam abolished tuition fees, full-time mothers who shook away their exhaustion with an intense focus, schoolteachers rushing in from their day jobs. These women engaged in intense debate, the conversation overflowing like the occasionally spilled glasses of red.
They studied comparative histories of Victorian England and Bengal. Compared ancient and medieval India with Europe, Australia and the Middle East.
They traversed the streets and probed the homes of colonial Calcutta and Bombay. Topics ranged from the feudal to the nationalist, the Mughals to Gandhi. The history of India pulsated off the walls, bearing down on them in all its social, cultural and economic dimensions.
South and Southeast Asian studies were flourishing in universities across the country. For students of the ‘hippie’ generation, India was a fashionable major. Internationally, Australia was looked to as a thriving hub for research, laying crucial groundwork in many disciplines. The tide was rising against Orientalism; imperialist scholarship being split open and dissected by postcolonial theory.
These stories from my dadu lived in the recesses of my memory when I came to the university. They grew louder as I sat in lectures on European, North American, and Australian history. Where was South Asia? The Indian Sub-continental Studies Department offered a Sanskrit major, but no modern languages. And, though Asian and Buddhist Studies covered aspects of Indian religion and culture, colonial, postcolonial and contemporary history was scant.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Indian Studies had seemed poised on the brink of promise. Now it had disappeared almost completely, like a water lily submerging right before bloom. I did what any History student would do and (on my dadu’s advice) consulted the archives.
The beginnings of Indian studies arrived in 1866 with the appointment of a Reader in Oriental Lan- guages and Literature, the first department of its kind in the country. Wazir Beg was a Maharashtrian who had converted to Presbyterianism as a young boy, learning the Semitic languages in the hopes of doing missionary work, and instead becoming a scholar.
Asian history would not emerge until 1917, born in the tumult of WWI. The Department of Defence, fearing Japan’s imperial ambitions in Asia, selected Sydney as the place to establish Japanese Studies. Army officers trained as experts in the language, translating intercepted communications and advis- ing the government on Japan’s objectives.
Soon after WWI ended, Japanese Studies merged into a new Oriental Studies department, with the addition of Chinese Studies. From 1945, Professor Marjorie Jacobs was at the forefront of attempts to expand Indian history. As part of British Commonwealth history, she taught colonial history courses which included Papua New Guinea, India and some African countries.
When Soumyen arrived from London in 1971, there were five people teaching Indian history, but only he knew any Indian languages. Sanskrit was taught elsewhere in the Ancient Greek, Classics and Indonesian departments. From 1974, he began a movement to establish a Department of Indian Sub-continental Studies.
“Although we had departments teaching almost all European languages – ancient and modern – and some Asian languages – Japanese, Chinese and Indo- nesian with various regional languages – classical and modern – there was no department to serve the languages of the subcontinent of India”, Dadu tells me in his Camperdown flat. It’s raining outside, his living room warm from the heater.
In 1962, a committee had recommended establishing a Chair of Indian Studies, along with one or two lectureships. In 1974, the new Indian Studies Committee submitted a Faculty Report to the Senate to raise the idea again.
There was unanimous agreement among the committee members that a department should be based on language, with Hindi-Urdu and Sanskrit at the core. Advanced students across disciplines could study other medieval and modern Indian languages. Soumyen imagined his students pairing modern languages such as Tamil, with regional histories like that of Tamil-Nadu.
The Senate endorsed the recommendation in principle; a motion that was seconded by then Vice Chancellor, Bruce Williams. However, it was never implemented. Perhaps the last lines of the meeting minutes reveal something in the way of what happened:
“Mr Brimaud said that… in light of the general problem of the declining interest in teaching of foreign lan-
guages… a strong case could perhaps be made for developing existing studies in Chinese, Japanese and Indone- sian and Malayan… The motion was put and carried on the understanding that the problem alluded to by Mr Brimaud would be noted”.
“They thought you didn’t need an Indian language to teach Indian history”, Soumyen says.
Much of the secondary literature on India was written in English by Indian scholars from the 1850s onwards. There was a sense among historians of his generation that they could get away without language.
A few years after the proposal was rejected, Soumyen was shortlisted for a Chair in History. At the ceremony, a staff member asked him rather pointedly, “Why would you study Calcutta when you’re in Sydney?” Taken aback, he muttered some- thing about it being one of the oldest cities in the world.
(Having had forty years to mull over the perfect comeback, what would he have said?
“Why do you write about Plato when you’re in Sydney?” He says it with a half-hearted relish, like throwing a stone into a shallow ditch).
Despite these barriers, the committee held fast to their vision for an Indian language department. In 1978, academics from Anthropology, Indian and Indonesian Studies established an interdepartmental committee to teach Sanskrit and Indian cultural history in second-year Arts.
In 1982, they expanded into second and third year courses on Bengali, Hindi, and Indian history, literature and culture. Six years later, a Centre for Indian Studies was recommended to the Senate by Vice Chancellor, John Ward. Now-Associate Professor Mukherjee was appointed Director of the Centre, establishing teaching in Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Sanskrit and Pali.
In 1991, the Centre became the Department of Indian Subcontinental Studies and merged with oth- er departments into the new School of Asian Studies. This School was later amalgamated with the School of European Studies into the School of Languages and Cultures.
Professor Chris Hilliard, Chair of History, tells me that, although it was before his time, he understands, “There was a decision when they created the SLC and put all the language departments together, that Asian history generally would belong to the SLC. And that was the case for a long time. So you ended up with a history department whose main strengths were European history, North American history and Australian history, and that was basically it”.
Hilliard suggests the rationale behind this was, “Let’s try to build outwards from what we’ve got. There was already a critical mass of people, and a tradition of good work being done, in those areas”.
This decision architected the bones for the current makeup of the History Department. The con- sequence for students is that, unless they have already signed on to an Asian language major, they are unlikely to come across Asian history (with the exception of China).
Hindi persisted in the Indian Subcontinental Studies department until 2010. “We taught ANU students Sanskrit by teleconference, and their lecturer taught students Hindi”, says Dr Mark Allon, Head of the Department, “They pulled out of that deal. Me and my predecessor raised five years of funding to have a Hindi tutor and that, for various reasons, fell through. So we just lost Hindi”.
As Soumyen and his colleagues gradually retired, they weren’t replaced by other South Asianists. This was not for lack of trying.
“I’ve put up a number of proposals for somebody to teach about India, but they’ve been knocked back by different Deans because it’s not a priority”, says Professor Adrian Vickers, Director of Asian Studies, “There’s a few people throughout the university, but it doesn’t add up to any critical mass”.
Hilliard relays a similar tale, “Five years ago, we made a bid to the Head of School and the Dean to get a job in South Asian history and, for various reasons, that didn’t happen”.
As the Indian Sub-continental Studies Department comprises a single staff member (Allon), most units of study correspond with his Buddhist, Sanskrit and Pali focus. “It would be like having a Department of Chinese Studies that teaches only classical Chinese”, says Allon.
“Although we do offer Indian units, it’s by no means comprehensive, or even attempts to be. Occasionally we have external funding that gives us fixed-term positions, but most or all of that funding comes from the Buddhist community”.
The need for Indian Studies has not been lost on successive governments, who ceremonially churn out thick papers on its political, geopolitical and economic potential. The Gillard government’s white paper, “Australia in the Asian Century”, recommended the study of Hindi on the back of India’s significance for trade, investment, culture, sport, education and migration.
More interesting to this correspondent is the historical work that covers the subcontinent. Professor Hilliard agrees, “Some path-breaking history has come out of there, like Subaltern studies; a lot of the really smart, critical work on colonialism and capitalism in colonial contexts; a lot of the work on migration and world history; the work on migra- tion in the Bay of Bengal; the place of oceans, trade routes…”.
The push to re-establish the presence of South Asia continues, albeit at a sedentary pace, in these various departments. Ideally, the creation of lectureships would form a locus to attract students and demonstrate to the university the viability of Indian Studies.
However, this remains the ideal. As Hilliard tells me, “These are tough times. Everyone talks about the crisis of the humanities. We’re quite a big department, so our enrolments would need to increase quite a lot before we’ll be able to add a new lecturer”
On my way to class, I pass by the jacaranda tree. It’s the end of winter so the tree is bereft of blossoms, a faint light coming through the branches from the stained glass windows reflecting sun above the parapet around the Quad.
The tree is cordoned off by rope. A fence has been erected along the lawn, in order to protect the grass. I look on from this distance, next to a pair of tourists who ask me to take a photo of them. The couple smile, the jacaranda tree behind them, yellowing leaves swaying forlornly in the wind, like something once beautiful that has been abandoned.