The South Asia Center’s graduate assistant interviewed Aditya Ramesh, who joined the Department of History at the University of Washington as an Assistant Professor in Winter Quarter 2024. Read on to learn more as Professor Ramesh shares some insights with us about his research in South Asia and upcoming book projects.
GA: To begin with, we are eager to know what inspired you to choose the fields of environmental history, agrarian history, and the history of science, technology, and medicine.
AR: Great question! I think, like so many historians of South Asia, for whatever reason, but primarily because of the structure of the syllabus at Delhi University, where many train, I started off as a historian of land and land rights. Land-ownership has always been concentrated in South Asia, even more so in south India, and I was interested in thinking about its ways and forms. But what eventually emerged through some preliminary field research was a history of water and water rights, which I found to be a far more pressing concern in the present. I decided to take some of these concerns to the archive, and chanced upon the dam as a central technology that sought to remake the ways in which we understand water.
GA: Could you give us a brief overview of your current book project, Undercurrents: Dam, Delta, and the Making of a Regional Economy in South India?
AR: This brings me nicely to the book project. Essentially, I examine the politics and socio-economic organization behind colonial India’s first multipurpose river valley project. These large dams were so crucial, especially to the Indian economy in the postcolonial era. Some of these dams, especially the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River, evoked some of the world’s most iconic anti-dam protests. Studying a colonial era multipurpose project allowed me to tell a different history of large dams – one not driving the ‘nation’ forward or submerging forest land. Instead, I bring out a complicated story of caste and agrarian mobility, experts having to engage with on-ground lively materialities of the river, and a changing global economy upon which the fate of the technology and social reorganization rested.
GA: What sparked your interest in studying the environmental and economic history of the Cauvery River?
AR: I suppose I began thinking about land rights in the Cauvery (Kaveri) delta. Now the delta had arguably one of the most unequal landholding patterns anywhere in the world, let alone South Asia. And it has been heavily studied, as it was the hot bed of communist land reform movements from the 1950s-80s. When I began thinking of the river, rather than the delta alone, I realized that rivers in South Asia were a deeply regional question – both politically and geographically. In other words, if you think of some other recent work on rivers, for example wonderful scholars like Debjani Bhattacharya or Arupjyoti Saikia, the rivers they studied were deeply unstable. Land would appear only for a few months of the year and be washed away. The Kaveri in contrast has been engineered for centuries, and the British were only one among a whole series of states who wanted to introduce new technologies to harness the river. This created certain dynamics, both for the environment and people who were used to these engineering projects.
GA: Also, could you tell us more about your next project on the urban history of the city of Madras?
AR: This is in a nascent stage, and a lot of my work so far has been with my colleague at the University of Toronto, Dr. Bhavani Raman. I began thinking about Madras city (now Chennai) and its relationship with water when I was stuck in a pretty bad flood in 2015. Madras is an old colonial settlement and was one of the first British outposts in South Asia. There have now been three such floods, which have disrupted life in the city enormously, and as you can imagine, rather unequally. So many organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Dutch Water as Leverage Program have all started to use Chennai, and other coastal cities like Jakarta, as test cases for a rapidly changing climate and oceanic rise. But as we conducted research in the city, we decided to connect to a wider set of ecological transformations that deeply affected the city – this includes fish, salt industries, petrochemical industries, milk, thermal power plants, etc. I think the work will end up being organized around a set of foundational maps, which I hope will be a window into a range of environmental and social histories.
GA: What learning outcomes do you aim for students to achieve by the end of your classes?
AR: I think it depends on the course really. I am for instance teaching a course on the environmental history of South Asia in Spring. In this course, the aim is for students to take away a different story of environmental history from North America and Europe. In the case of medical history or the history of technology, the idea is to think about what constituted a medical or technological problem historically. I also try and disturb the idea that history, especially through the history of medicine, might provide ‘lessons’. Another key learning outcome is to understand the origins of taken for granted sciences like epidemiology and bacteriology, locating them in a wider history of colonialism. Ultimately, when you teach the history of science, technology, and medicine, the key is to disturb the epistemic framework of science as falsifiable, and instead locate it in the public sphere, press, economic life, the law, governance, popular culture, etc.
GA: We like to ask our faculty members about their transitions; how has moving to Seattle been for you? Is there any particular aspect of the city that impressed you, or are you looking forward to exploring?
AR: I have always been a big city person, growing up in Chennai and then living in Delhi and London. So, in many ways this is different. I’m looking forward to the quiet that the Pacific Northwest offers, the outdoors – it is incredible to have a view of water and the mountains on your way to work! I think the quality of coffee is what has impressed me the most about Seattle. And really an inspiring set of colleagues at the South Asia Center – I can’t emphasize this enough, I’ve read some of them for a decade now.