History of South Asia at UW
The history of the University of Washington’s interest in South Asia, its languages, history and peoples dates back to 1909 with the appointment of Reverend Herbert H. Gowen as the chair of Oriental Subjects. Reverend Gowen was trained in classical Arabic, Sanskrit, and Hebrew and also knew Japanese and Chinese. From 1909 to 1945, Gowen published numerous works on the Indian subcontinent, and in the Department of Oriental Subjects taught a number of courses every year on India as well as the Sanskrit language. In the late 1930s Elmer Cutts joined the university as an MA student and taught a number of courses on Indian History until he left at the beginning of World War II. In the late 1940s, Morris David Morris, an economic historian who’d done his doctoral research on labor in the mills of Bombay, joined the faculty. He began to recruit others who were interested in the study of South Asia and was joined by Edward Harper, an anthropologist who came to the university at the end of the 1950s. During this time, the Inter-Asia project funded the teaching of the Tibetan language by Turrell V. Wylie and also brought a number of Tibetan lamas and Buddhist scholars to the UW. including Edward Conze.
In the 1960s, Sanskritist Edwin Gerow, Political Scientist Paul R. Brass, historian John Spellman and architect Bill Curtis, joined the ranks of faculty. This group initiated the South Asia Colloquium of the Pacific Northwest (SACPAN) with colleagues from the University of British Columbia in 1966. By the mid-1960s a range of South Asian languages and subjects were being taught at the University of Washington. In 1968, Frank F. Conlon was hired in the history department. While there was no formal South Asia Center or program in those days, faculty members who affiliated themselves to the study of South Asia would meet every Wednesday for a brown bag lunch. The catalyst to change was the appointment of Karl Potter in 1971. Karl Potter spearheaded the application for grants to the US Department of Education to create a South Asia Center at the University of Washington. In 1972 the first federally funded Center for the study of South Asia at the University of Washington was established. Just after that, in 1973-74, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the University of Washington – which is a state funded school – could indeed teach about religion. Prof. Eugene Webb recruited some other faculty from various departments, including Prof. Conlon, to start a Comparative
Religion program under which a number of South Asia related courses were taught. This along with the newly established South Asia Center attracted more students and faculty to the university for the study of South Asia. In the next few years the Center and faculty grew in number and in the late 1970s the first degree in South Asian studies was offered as an MA in International Studies with a concentration in South Asia.
In the early 1960s South Asia professors and students from the University of British Columbia and University of Washington decided to meet to critique and discuss their research. In the beginning the meetings took place in people’s homes and were very informal. However with the interest and number of faculty and students involved in South Asia studies growing, the meetings became more formal and eventually developed into the South Asia Conference of the Pacific Northwest (SACPAN). In 2015, the University of Oregon joined the SACPAN community and 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of SACPAN. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, with the guidance of Lorraine Sakata and Dan Newman, the Center came to widely be recognized as a center of ethnomusicology focused on South Asia.
Under the Visiting Artist program in ethnomusicology and other programs, a number of prominent South Asian artists came to Seattle and taught courses as well as mentored students during their time of residence. Two artists of note who came to the UW were Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Waheeda Rehman.
In 2002, Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan (“Shivi”) became director and under his leadership the Center grew leaps and bounds. Many new South Asia focused faculty were hired in the next few years, including Sudhir Mahadevan in Cinema and Film Studies, Vikram Prakash in Architecture, Sonal Khullar in Art History, Craig Jeffery in Geography, Sunila Kale and Christian Novetzke in International Studies, to name a few. A number of conferences and symposia were organized. For example, in 2005, the Center took part in organizing a three day Islam Asia Modernity conference in Seattle. The conference lectures and presentations were video recorded and are still widely used as teaching resources. In 2009, a South Asia focused two-day conference titled Metropolis and Micropolitics was held with partial funding from the Simpson Center for the Humanities. In 2007, Prof. Priti Ramamurthy organized the Feminisms and Fundamentalisms conference. In succeeding years, the Center has produced or significantly supported conferences on topics such as New Geographies of Feminist Art, The Writings of Sadaat Hasan Manto, Islamic Law Around the World, Persian and the Vernaculars of South Asia, and US-India Economic Relations and the Contemporary Indian Economy.
The Center has also has had an active outreach program engaging with the larger community in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to many professional development workshops for K-12 educators, the Center has long standing partnerships with organizations such as the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the local independent South Asia film presentation organization Tasveer, the Pakistan Association of Greater Seattle, and the India Association of Western Washington.
The breadth and depth of research interests of the faculty as well as the various other events and outreach programs organized by the Center, have raised the profile of the Center nationally and it is today recognized as a leading center for South Asia studies.
By Susmita Rishi and Keith Snodgrass. Thanks to Frank F. Conlon, Michael Shapiro and Anand Yang for sharing their knowledge of the study of South Asia at the University of Washington.