To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: the South Asian Studies program

The chair of Brandeis University’s South Asian Studies program, Professor Brian Horton, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the program, its future and himself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.


Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded during the 2022 spring semester. Professor Ulka Anjaria is the current chair of the South Asian Studies Program, and Professor Brian Horton is on leave.


Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?


The easy answer is that it wasn’t really a choice. I was a grad student on the job market and there were not a lot of jobs. But in all seriousness, I think the reason I came was because the campus seemed like a really good mix of things that spoke to me. I really liked the intellectual rigor that classes seemed to have and departments seemed to have. I like that Brandeis is an R1 institution that really prioritizes research and really cares about scholarly productivity, but also is equally invested in students and teaching and retaining faculty who can do exciting cutting edge scholarship but also translate that into opportunities for student engagement and student learning.


What do you think the South Asian Studies program does right?


I think that the program offers really [wonderful] hands-on opportunities for students to think critically about the region of South Asia, but also to think more broadly about South Asia’s place in the world. So we offer really great courses like SAS 100A: India and Pakistan: Understanding South Asia, which really lets students grapple with the kind of long standing history of the region, particularly through thinking about the case of India and Pakistan. I think that the program also really prioritizes our minors. We’re, I like to say, a small but mighty program. We have a handful of minors and a handful of faculty, but in that there’s also the opportunity for minors to get more face time with faculty, [and] for minors to collectivize among themselves and develop an atmosphere that is both intellectual and social. We have dinners [and] small events for our minors. So the students really get attention in a way that I don’t think they would necessarily get if they were in a significantly larger program.


Is there anything that you think that the South Asian Studies program could do better?


Absolutely. I think that region is one of the things that we are still not doing great at. If you look at the faculty that are currently on staff, all of us are specialists in India. We don’t have a specialist who is in another country in South Asia, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Nepal. That’s not to say that the faculty that we have currently on staff can’t teach those regions, but it would also be nice to have a scholar whose primary specialty is a country outside of India. I think that that’s one area where, as chair, I’ve been trying to push either in terms of growing the program or in terms of more on-campus opportunities and programming for students. So a plug is that we are in the process of trying to bring a potential visiting scholar to campus next year who specializes in a region outside of India to teach classes and be a part of the intellectual life of Brandeis.


What is your favorite course to teach?


That’s kind of an unfair question because I’m here to talk to you about South Asian Studies, but I actually haven’t gotten to teach a South Asian Studies course yet just because of the particular arrangement of things in my own sort of trajectory at Brandeis. I would say, so far, my favorite course to teach is probably my introduction to anthropology seminar, which I’ve taught twice now. I really enjoy that seminar because it’s a way for me to introduce students to the language versus the languages of theory, of color, of critique, of anthropology and of Black feminism. We read a range of scholarship that’s all principally organized around gender and sexuality, in particular non-normative gender and sexuality. I think that the class is fun in part because the material’s really exciting to me, but also [because] the students who end up taking that class are students for one reason or another who have [a] personal investment more often than not in the subject matter. And I think that there’s something really powerful about teaching people content that will help them translate things in their lives if they don’t yet have a language for articulating. And so there’s, I really enjoy that class because I think people bring their whole selves into the seminar room, but also are really trying to think with, and mind through the readings to figure out what can be helpful and illuminating for them and their lives outside of the text and outside of the classroom.


The South Asian Studies program’s website says that “South Asia includes the modern nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and in certain contexts Afghanistan, Maldives, Myanmar, and Tibet.” Why are some countries only considered part of South Asia in certain contexts?


That’s a question that is less about Brandeis and more about a shifting geopolitical context. Depending on the university that you’re at, sometimes some of those countries are in Asian Studies, … sometimes those countries are in the Middle East in Middle Eastern Studies programs. … So, sometimes Afghanistan may feature in Near Eastern and Islamic studies, for instance. … The borders of some of those places are contested, right? Tibet is, as I understand, not necessarily recognized as an independent country, right? So how can Tibet, which culturally has quite a bit of similarity to regions in India … but it’s considered politically within the sort of orbit of China, which is an East Asian country, right? That language is put onto the website to acknowledge that there are interwoven histories mapped into the region and to also kind of point out the fact that the map, as a unit for representing culture, is a provisional tool. Maps can only take us so far. You look at that region, the Northeast region [of South Asia] where you have places like Nepal and Tibet buttressed against China. There are so many interwoven and complicated histories that span back millennia, in some cases, that names like East Asian Studies or South Asian Studies or Southeast Asian studies can only take us so far in touching even the surface of some of those histories.


How do Brandeis-India Fellows typically spend their time in India?


I should add that this is my first year in the chairship, so I’m currently in the process of doing this now. From what I understand, it is a range of different opportunities that Brandeis students pursue. So particularly for graduate students, specifically M.A. and PhD [students], the opportunities tend to be research-based. They use the funds [from the fellowship] to help pursue their own independent research courses. It may be people who are working on a dissertation or working on a master’s. Sometimes students decide to do an internship or volunteer or work for an organization or do an internship with a think tank or a business or the government. Sometimes it can be language acquisition. Because we are not big enough to host our own language programs specifically, which is a request that students often have of us, to go back to your previous question [that is another] sort of challenge the program faces. … So sometimes students will use the money to go study an Indian language, either in India or elsewhere. There are great programs that are run in the summer. … The challenge is that in the time I’ve been at Brandeis, which has been since Fall 2019, India has been relatively shut off to pretty much everything because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of things people decide to start doing this year.


Your bio on Brandeis’ website mentions that you are a “a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of queer studies, critical theory, popular culture, digital anthropology, and South Asian studies.” How do all of those topics intersect?


They intersect for me through the projects that I am working on. So the book I’m currently working on is based on my dissertation, it’s about spaces of sort of touch and intimacy that trans folks in Bombay are organizing outside of law and medicine. So I’m looking at things like nightlife, for instance, it’s a way to think about how the world that is built in India today beyond the courtroom or the doctor’s office or activist protest. So what does it mean to think of the kind of embodied pleasures of a club, a party, or a virtual space? Lots of folks are on mobile apps like Grindr to find connection and find intimacy. My second book project is sort of broadly building on the first, in some ways, but thinking about recent waves of migration from the continent of Africa to India. So thinking about what we would call these Global South to south migration, and thinking about the ways that the experiences that Black folks in India have, are really complicated. Thinking about how race and racism in particular also travels. So one of the things I’m really interested in is popular culture and the ways that popular culture becomes a frame of reference for people to cite, whether it’s people citing their own queerness and finding space for it in the broader sort of cultural media. … In my second book project, I’m thinking about what it means that Bollywood has a history of using anti-Black imagery, such as blackface to communicate particular ideas about Black people, in particular Black people who are living in India. Even though those seem really disparate, they’re asking very similar questions. A lot of my work is organized around how people make sense of living in a world where there’s a kind of constant push and pull between pleasure and violence. What does it mean to try to build a life, a life that’s not just about survival, but about thriving and about enjoyment, about pleasure in a world where there’s a constant risk of violence or violation? I think that those things are deeply connected for me, even though they’re quite different and quite distinct projects.

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