South Asia at Chicago:
Fifty Years of Scholarship


Institutional history

World War II and Its Aftermath

Although modern academic studies of South Asia began in the U.S. only after WWII, some features of Indian culture were studied in American universities well before that. During the nineteenth century, Indian religions and languages fascinated American Orientalists, who considered Sanskrit a key to discovering "the original source-language of the civilized world," a central aim of the contemporary comparative philology. The study of Sanskrit in the U.S. was conducted in rarefied halls. In 1900, seven American universities comprised the "Sanskrit club": Yale, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Columbia, California, and Chicago. When the University of Chicago opened in 1892, among its faculty were two members of the American Oriental Society, William Rainey Harper, the University’s first president who taught Arabic and Hebrew, and Carl Darling Buck, a Sanskritist who headed the Department of Indo-European Comparative Philology. Together, these scholars introduced Indological studies to Chicago. In these early years there was no interest in the living Indian languages and cultures that would eventually become a hallmark of South Asian scholarship at Chicago. The early focus was on ancient South Asian languages. Only students in the field of Missionary Studies had any concern with contemporary India.

World War II changed all this. There was a new, pressing need for people who understood both the living languages and contemporary cultures of Asia. With WWII, the U.S. was suddenly conducting military operations in regions of the world where it had little experience or expertise. As a result, Richard Davis notes in South Asia at Chicago, "there came about a redefinition and radical expansion of what the United States considered its ’foreign interests,’ [that continued even after the war.] With the disintegration of the European colonial empires (including the demise of British rule in India), United States policy-makers felt obliged to fill the "power vacuum" before Communist or anti-American forces could gain a foothold."

As part of the national effort to train people in newly-needed skills, the University of Chicago housed the two crash-course language learning programs begun by the government in 1943. The Army Specialized Training School and the Civil Affairs Training School both offered three-month language training courses that were so surprisingly effective that observers suggested universities might adapt some of these military methods in their language courses after the war.

These wartime experiences had important lasting effects on universities. First, they pushed universities toward curricular relevance in international studies. Second, they suggested new educational methods, intensive language training in particular. Third, they brought the government and the academy into a new relationship of cooperation. The government began to see universities as a "national resource" and universities began to see the government as a source of financial assistance for programs "in the national interest." Perhaps no fields were as strongly affected by this newly developing relationship as social sciences concerned with the non-Western world.

At Chicago, studies of the non-Western world developed largely through the Comparative Civilizations Project begun by anthropologist Robert Redfield. He saw the military area programs as designed to give people "particular competencies to do particular kinds of things," whereas he believed the purpose of a university education was "to make intelligent citizens, or to train the mind for intelligent action." Consequently, he doubted whether the continuation of military-style area programs after the war had a useful role in general education. This was not to say that the "integrated scholarly study of the great civilizations" should not be a part of the university’s research interests. As an alternative to the military area programs, Redfield proposed the long-range development of "area institutes."

After a failed proposal to the Carnegie Corporation for an "Institute of Cultural Studies," the Comparative Civilizations Project was finally funded in 1951 by the Ford Foundation. With Robert Redfield and Milton Singer as its co-directors, its aim was to stimulate scholars and social scientists already working in the University to compare the cultures they knew. Redfield’s hope was that this process of comparison would foster understanding of "the persisting and influential characteristics of the principal cultures of the world." In a project seminar entitled "comparison of cultures," concepts that received particular attention and intensive discussion were "worldview," "total cultural pattern," "ethos" "value system," "group personality," and "the self."

Gradually the focus of the Project began to from other world areas -- China, Europe, and Islamic civilization -- to India. By 1953, as Singer notes in his article "Robert Redfield," the organizers had "decided to concentrate the Project’s resources on the study of Indian civilization because of the interest and availability of anthropologists who had recently done Indian village studies." Participants were quick to conclude "that while village studies can be used as points of entry for a study of Indian civilization, they were not the only available points." At the same time, Redfield and Singer "sketched somewhat speculatively a conceptual framework for studying the formation and transformation of cities" within particular civilizations, including that of India. Their jointly authored paper, "The Cultural Role of Cities," offered a "conception of a civilization as a historic structure of interacting little and great traditions," and provided the blueprint for a social anthropology of civilizations that would study larger civilizational systems "from the bottom up." Subsequently they created a set of core courses in non-Western civilizations at Chicago and established South Asia as an area of particular interest to Chicago scholars pursuing questions of social change in a rapidly modernizing world.

The towards India within the Redfield Project, as it came to be known, was given its most explicit expression in a memo from Singer to Redfield, written shortly after Singer’s return from his first trip to India in 1955. In it, Singer argues for committing the next five years of the Comparative Civilizations Project solely to India:

India remains, in my opinion, the best place to study the interaction of little and great traditions, the social organization of tradition, "cultural structure," and related problems. The coexistence of different levels of culture for a very long period of time has produced types of mutual interaction and continuity which in other civilizations can only be guessed at but which in India can be observed first-hand.

During the ensuing decade, the earnest scholarship begun with Redfield’s Comparative Civilizations Project fostered new projects focused on South Asia. The Project had established a model of cultural study which, largely through the continuing efforts of Singer, was transmitted to the developing South Asian program at Chicago. It had emphasized study of other cultures for broadly humanistic reasons, not tied to any governmental definition of the ‘national interest’ as was fashionable in the 1950s. It aimed not at producing useful expertise, but at increasing international understanding. Finally, it had stressed the study of India as a civilization, not (as most area studies did) as a geographical or political entity. The emphasis on classical traditions and cultural history still informs the Chicago program today.


A Committee for South Asian Studies

South Asian studies at Chicago is currently organized under six units, each contributing to the breadth of Chicago’s scholarly programs. The next cases trace the development of these units: 1) the Committee on Southern Asian Studies (COSAS); 2) the South Asian Civilization teaching program in the undergraduate college; 3) the South Asian Languages and Area Center (SALAC); 4) the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations; 5) the South Asia library collection; and 6) the University of Chicago Press.

South Asian studies at the University of Chicago was made possible by the arrival in the early 1950s of several professors who shared a deep interest in the area. India was a newly independent democracy with a long historical tradition. Many established scholars chose to pursue their particular disciplines in India when the recently-created Fulbright and Rockefeller grants began supporting research abroad. By 1954, professors at Chicago who had benefited from such grants -- including Robert Redfield, Milton Singer, Edward Shils, Richard McKeon, Bert Hoselitz, Donald Lach, Philip Hauser, Gilbert White, Francis Chase and Robert Crane -- began to meet as an informal planning committee. In 1955 that informal planning developed into the Committee on South Asian Studies (COSAS). (The name was later changed to the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, reflecting the contribution of Southeast Asian specialists to the program.)

The formation of a Committee composed of faculty from different academic departments was assisted by a tradition of interdisciplinary cooperation at the University of Chicago. COSAS became an official Committee with four major aims: coordinating research activities, recommending and preparing undergraduate-level teaching materials, developing advanced programs for graduate students specializing in South Asia, and providing facilities and guidance for South Asian students. In 1956, COSAS members began working actively to initiate a new academic program by coordinating courses and recruiting new faculty. By 1961, they had largely achieved their initial goals and established a solid foundation for South Asian studies at the University of Chicago.


"India Is Best Studied As a Civilization":

The South Asian Civilizations Course and Its Argument

In 1954, two members of COSAS -- Milton Singer and Francis Chase from the Department of Education -- were appointed to a University committee charged with creating links between the College B.A. program and the Social Sciences division. They proposed that the College create a number of year-long courses on "non-Western civilizations" and argued that these "would, we believe, not only familiarize the student with a civilized tradition other than his own, and thus permit him to glimpse the world and his own civilization as others see them, but might also enable him to understand his own cultural heritage by comparing it with another." The idea was approved for introductory courses on Far Eastern, Indian, and Islamic civilizations. A series of generous grants from the Carnegie Corporation provided both necessary staff (teaching fellows from the Carnegie internship program) and equipment.

The "Introduction to the Civilization of India" course was an ongoing pedagogical experiment. It was first offered in 1956-57 as a three-course sequence. The initial approach was Redfield’s: India is best studied as a civilization, complex and multi-faceted, and therefore to be studied from multiple disciplinary angles. Redfield’s essay "Thinking About a Civilization" was often used as the initial reading of the course.

The pedagogical problem that quickly arose in the presentation of India as a civilization was finding a proper balance between complexity and coherence. The original design had different professors and scholars lecturing each week; this however proved "disaggregating" for students. Eventually Susanne Rudolph of the Department of Political Science, who taught the course in the early ‘60s, suggested that the course be taught with an eye to "broad strokes" that would help students get some sense of the overall shape of the phenomena they confront. The coherent picture of India produced by this approach might then be complicated or exploded by later courses that would demonstrate the real diversity of India.

McKim Marriott of the Department of Anthropology responded by redesigning the course in 1966-68 to focus on contrasting holistic constructions of India. Students would be presented with the varying views of Louis Dumont, Redfield, and D. D. Kosambi, for example, each of whom provided a different totalizing picture of India. The student would no longer be asked to formulate his or her own construction of Indian civilization, but rather to evaluate the various conflicting constructions of other scholars. Not only was India itself a phenomenon of great diversity, but by this time scholars, in trying to depict India as a unified phenomenon, had developed diverse and conflicting interpretations and constructions.

The pedagogical issues at the heart of the new core course proved productive of scholarly self-reflection. Singer wrote "Most of us who started to teach the Introduction to Indian Civilizations course in 1956 soon discovered that our students brought with them popular images and stereotypes of India and Asia through which they approached the readings, discussions and performances in the course. More surprising was our discovery that we the staff shared some of these ’scratches on our minds’ too. As a result of this discovery, I wrote ’Passage to More than India’ (the opening essay of When A Great Tradition Modernizes) in order to sketch the history of changing European and American images of Asia."

The Indian Civilization course was an important first step towards creating a South Asia program of study at Chicago. Singer points to the course’s central and sustaining role in an almost visionary plan for a Chicago school of South Asian studies in a letter he wrote to A. K. Ramanujan in 1967:

What has been so unique about this program is the vision which launched it ... and which still animates it. At the very beginning we asked the University administration to support an Indian studies program not because it was good cold war politics, or because India was an exotic foreign culture or because it was an underdeveloped nation. We argued the most difficult and the boldest case for support: that Indian civilization represented a great tradition of learning and culture and deserved to be introduced into an American university on a par with the classics of any European civilization. Neither the administration nor the faculty ruling bodies were quickly persuaded to accept our position. Except for Sanskrit, there simply were not enough Indianists or courses on India around to demonstrate the validity of our contentions. So for a few years from about 1954 to 1959 we lived with our grand vision in the limbo of hopes, with only the undergraduate course on Indian Civilization and a few social science courses to keep them alive.


South Asia Language and Area Center

Over the decades, the South Asia Language and Area Center (SALAC) has organized a variety of programs given priority and funding by the federal government. Primarily an administrative body, SALAC has sought and received support from a number of governmental agencies, dispersal those funds to the benefit of both University and wider communities. SALAC’s raison d’être has always been the promotion of academic specialization in South Asian languages.

As the new field of South Asian studies began to take shape in the U.S. in the 1950s, it was faced with a complex problem. What languages should be taught as entrée to India’s diverse cultural traditions? The classical languages -- Sanskrit, Pali, and the Prakrits -- had served Indological study well for the past century, but those who were developing centers for the study of modern India knew that courses in modern languages would be necessary. But which one or ones from among India’s fifteen major literary languages, each spoken by millions of people? (Patterson 1996:17)

Americans interested in modern India began their language study with Hindi. As early as 1948 Cornell University, with Carnegie Corporation and later Ford Foundation funds, ran a program of concentrated anthropological research, studying culture change in the politically important North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. This work, which required intensive use of Hindi, lasted for the entire decade from 1948-58. The photographs taken in U. P. villages in the 1950s by Bernard S. Cohn which are included in this exhibit document Cohn’s participation in the Cornell program. Maureen Patterson notes in a forthcoming publication, "The Cornell experience made it clear that American fieldwork in India required intensive language training, but not only in Hindi."

The experiences of such programs made other U.S. universities eager to develop both materials and personnel for teaching South Asian languages. The Rockefeller Foundation began to show interest in furthering linguistic study, and in 1954 it funded a broad program of linguistics training at an Indian institution, the Deccan College, in Poona. Veterans of the Deccan College linguistics program soon began to teach Indian languages at many of the newly-funded South Asian centers in America. No longer was Hindi the only language offered, but Bengali, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Sinhala, Oriya, and Urdu also became available to American students.

In 1958, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which allocated federal funding for university language centers. Richard Davis said, "The NDEA was a direct response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik in October 1957 and the widespread fear of an ‘education gap’ that Sputnik ignited in the U.S." In addition to the U.S. desire to consolidate its own position in a newly ordered postwar world, U.S. competition with Russia impelled a concern with the political fate of the 400 million people of India, and the question of whether they would be "communist" or "free." The Russians were training students in Hindi, as well as in local languages such as Telugu; the U.S. had to be able to compete on equal terms. All of these factors meant that in the U.S., funding for language education appealed to conservatives and liberals alike: conservatives could see such expansion as a necessary weapon in the war with the communists, while liberals could recognize in language learning a way both to promote "active benevolence" and to further "international understanding." Both groups saw foreign language learning as an activity useful to the national interest.

The federal funds for language centers were earmarked for "critical" or strategic areas and subjects, which included "neglected" languages "where adequate instruction in such languages is not readily available in the U.S." These included not just Hindi-Urdu, but also Bengali and Tamil. Administrators at the U.S. Office of Education invited research universities to apply in national competition for funding under Title VI of the NDEA to establish "Language and Area Centers" focused on the nine major world regions identified under the act. At the highest point in this funding history, over 100 such centers for various world regions existed. Six of the original Title VI centers for South Asian language and area studies begun as early as 1959-60 still exist today, at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, the University of Texas-Austin, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are now called National Resource Centers, under the successor act to the NDEA, the Higher Education Act of 1965.

From 1958 to 1963, the NDEA "ploughed over one billion dollars into education, of which $74 million went into foreign language programs. The effects of this Act on the entire education industry in the U.S. were profound, but perhaps nowhere more so than on the field of area studies" (Davis 1985:55). The NDEA grant received by Chicago funded very specific language study and research: it could provide fellowships for graduate students (known as Title VI grants), and it could support projects improving language instruction. A great deal of Chicago faculty research was funded on this basis; for instance, Edward C. Dimock’s Introduction to Bengali; An Urdu Reader by John Gumperz and C.M. Naim; Kali Charan Bahl’s Studies in the Semantic Structure of Hindi; and James Lindholm and K. Paramasivam’s A Basic Tamil Reader and Grammar.

The South Asia Language and Area Center also houses the South Asia Outreach program, which is oriented towards disseminating knowledge of India to the general public. Outreach has also sponsored presentations of South Asian performing arts over the years.


Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations

At the same time COSAS drew up its application for NDEA funding, the committee learned that the Ford Foundation was becoming interested in international studies. In 1960 the Ford Foundation expressed a desire to help "selected American universities make non-Western and international teaching part of their permanent academic programs." COSAS sent their government application for a language center to the Ford Foundation as well. They proposed "to guarantee the continuance of what is being achieved and to provide for advance" of the Chicago program. Both grants came through, and together enabled the originally small program in South Asian studies to expand at an unanticipated speed.

The COSAS application for this support was entitled "Operational Plan for an Area Training Research Program, 1961-1970." The proposed lines of development included expanding faculty, library acquisitions, and support for research. The South Asian program received funds of over a million and a half dollars for the ensuing ten year period. With this solid financial grounding, the program began to hire new faculty. The number of graduate students rose proportionally and a productive and prosperous era of expansion was well underway.

In Singer’s five-year progress report to the Ford Foundation in 1965, he noted that all the original goals had been met. When the program began, South Asian studies was seen as exotic and irrelevant, whereas by 1966 it had already become "a familiar and essential feature of the University," says Davis. In 1965, the University established a Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations in the Humanities Division, granting degrees in area-specific -- rather than discipline focused -- studies. A full and formal program for the advanced study of South Asian languages and literatures was now an institutional reality at Chicago.


The Southern Asia Library Collection

The University has collected books related to South Asia from the earliest days in its history. Most notably the Berlin Collection which was purchased in 1892 as the core of the new University’s Library, contained numerous publications in Sanskrit and on Indic philology. During the first half of this century, works in the classical languages of India were collected along with some government documents and accounts by missionaries, travelers, and officials.

In the 1950’s, when "area studies" developed in American higher education, there was both an increase in the number of titles on South Asia acquired by the Library and also a change in the range of subject matter. All areas of the humanities and social sciences were encompassed. At the same time, the University began systematic acquisition of books in the regional languages of South Asia, such as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Tamil. Previously, few American libraries collected volumes in these modern languages.

The majority of books and serials in the Southern Asia collection were received under the Library of Congress Foreign Acquisitions Program. Beginning with the 1958 passage of Public Law 480, the Food for Peace program supplied American agricultural products to third world countries on very favorable terms. Repayment could be made in local currencies rather than in dollars, pounds or other "hard’ currencies. As the U.S. government built up sizable holdings of foreign soft currencies, the 1958 act provided a way of spending those funds. It permitted purchase of local publications for deposit in American libraries. In the case of South Asia, books were acquired at the Library of Congress offices in New Delhi and Karachi. There were also programs in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and later Bangladesh. For a nominal participation fee, the University was able to acquire thousands of monograph and serial volumes, and later audio and video recordings. Most of these programs have been converted to dollar-based programs in which each library pays for its own materials plus a fee to cover acquisitions and cataloging. This Cooperative Acquisitions Program continues to be the Library’s main source of material, but retrospective purchase and gifts also add to the collection.

In 1958, Maureen L. P. Patterson, who had come to the University of Chicago as a Carnegie teaching intern for the Indian Civilization course, became Bibliographic Specialist for South Asia and later Bibliographer for Southern Asia, as Southeast Asia was added to her responsibilities. In the twenty-five years before her retirement in 1984, Patterson built what is arguably the finest collection of South Asia materials in the country. She also was a leader of South Asia Library activities on the national level. In recognition of her lifetime contribution, she received a Distinguished Service Award from the Association for Asian Studies in 1986.

More recently the collection has developed in new directions. The Southern Asia Department has undertaken a number of focused projects to acquire large bodies of South Asian materials and make them accessible to the North American scholarly community. In many cases these projects are in cooperation with other libraries in the United States, India, or Great Britain. Almost all of these activities have required successful competition for grant funds from government or private sources. These projects include:

Preparation of a database for South Asian Books in Series: Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Pali;

Preservation by microfilming of thousands of brittle books;

Purchase of an extensive library of Tamil books from a private collector, creation of the Roja Muthiah Research Library, and on-going cataloging and microfilming of its holdings;

Establishing a consortium of American libraries to acquire the Urdu Research Center in Hyderabad, India;

Arranging for deposit at Chicago by the British Library of over 23,000 duplicate volumes of the Official Publications of India.

Southern Asia Department staff have played a major role in planning and implementation of two projects undertaken by other libraries. The Library of Congress, National Library of India, and the Center for Research Libraries are microfilming about 55,000 volumes published in the subcontinent during the first half of this century. In another long-term project, the Center for Research Libraries aims to microfilm thousands of volumes in Indic languages from the nineteenth century. Together these projects will correct American libraries’ deficient holdings of earlier titles in South Asian languages.

The greatest challenge the Library faces as we move forward is to continue building a collection worthy of the South Asia scholars at the University. As Maureen Patterson said in a 1977 essay on "The Southern Asia Library Collections,"

The availability of library materials often opens up new vistas, and it is the responsibility of a research library to be in a position of imaginative leadership in relation to research. Restriction of collections to known and tried fields does not augur well for a dynamic research future. In such new areas of work as South and South East Asia we are simply unable to define the outer limits or forms of potential research materials.


"An Index of the University's Character"

The University of Chicago Press

Writing a fiftieth anniversary statement on the University of Chicago Press in 1941, Gordon J. Laing, the General Editor of the Press and professor of classics, said, "Perhaps there is no better index of the real character of any university than the catalogue of its press." This assertion is as germane for the South Asian subset of books published by a press as it is for the entire corpus.

The more than 170 titles produced since 1892 on India and its subcontinental neighbors by the University of Chicago Press have had a remarkable impact on understanding of the region. Spanning virtually all disciplines, the books remain frequently cited scholarly sources. The small sample displayed here illustrates that range -- from erudite scholarly inquiry to exquisite modern fiction; from path-breaking reference publications to highly acclaimed translations of classical texts. Beyond books, journals from the Press such as History of Religions regularly feature articles or entire issues on South Asian topics.

This publishing achievement is the result of the leadership provided by the Director of the Press, currently and notably Morris Philipson, as well as the University faculty, whose pronounced influence on selection of books is clearly discernible. This leadership continues to bring accolades such as the 1982 Publisher Citation from PEN American Center which referred to the University of Chicago Press as "the best university press in the country."