Hard-working and prolific scholar to head new center
Subrahmanyam works to bring scholars and students together across disciplinary boundaries.
Published: Wednesday, August 10, 2005
Two things define U.S. discussions about India and South Asia, he says: post-colonial theory in the humanities and the emerging markets of the region in the social sciences.
If you ask Sanjay Subrahmanyam how many languages he speaks, he will probably look at you a bit coyly and respond, "A few."
But if you happen to be in his ninth-floor office on the north side of the UCLA campus, you will know that "a few" is an understatement. Subrahmanyam has books in Tamil, Hindi, Portuguese and Italian, English and French, to name a few. In all, he knows ten languages and reads in two more.
Subrahmanyam has put these skills to good use: He has written about about Indian merchants and Portuguese trade, studied in New Delhi and the Netherlands, and taught in Paris, Portugal, Cambridge and Oxford. Now, after joining the UCLA history department as the Doshi Chair of Indian History in the fall of 2004, Subrahmanyam has been named the founding director of the Center for India and South Asia (CISA).
Subrahmanyam received his Ph.D. from the University of Delhi in 1987 where he melded history and economics into his 540-page thesis, later published in a slightly abridged form by Cambridge as The Political Economy of Commerce: Southern India, 1500-1650 (1990). This combination of disciplines molds his view of what CISA should be. Two things define U.S. discussions about India and South Asia, he says: post-colonial theory in the humanities and the emerging markets of the region in the social sciences. The problem is that "the two never meet in most places."
"The interesting and intelligent thing to do with a center is to make the connections and actually talk to both audiences." The key to placing CISA in the middle of these two discussions, mediating and communicating between them, says Subrahmanyam, will be to find faculty and students with a "broad interest in political economic questions with some historical depth." It is also important to Subrahmanyam that the lectures and events are accessible to general audiences, without sacrificing depth or complexity.
R. Bin Wong, director of the UCLA Asia Institute, says that Subrahmanyam has a, "staggering array of technical and methodological skills from those of political economy to the reading of poetry texts." Wong also co-taught a graduate seminar, "Early Modern Asia in World History," with him last winter and says, "The range of primary and secondary sources and the diverse types of scholarship that he commands are inspiring."
Subrahmanyam came to UCLA from Oxford University in part to create an environment capable of encouraging new initiatives. "I felt that the situation in Oxford was institutionally very rigid and there wasn't any scope for doing things." Oxford, he says, was not the place for someone who wants to get things moving and change curriculum.
He got his formal education entirely in India, mostly in Delhi, where he grew up. As a doctoral student, he lived with his parents. The University gave him a stipend 1600 rupees per month stipend, about $100 U.S. dollars, which he says was just enough to live in the University hostel..
At 23, Subrahmanyam left India to live abroad for the first time. He had received grants from the Ford Foundation and the Indian Council for Social Science Research to spend time in the archives in Portugal and the Netherlands, studying documents about 16th and 17th century trade. When he landed in the Netherlands he discovered that his housing had been cancelled in error so he spent his first two days away from home searching for a place to live. He had ten months worth of money to stay at the archives and spent four of those months in the Netherlands and the rest in Portugal.
It was solitary and unstructured work he says, but he found advantages in not having institutional support. "If I didn't get the work done, there was no way I was going to get more money. It instills forms of work discipline in you," he says. The Dutch archives in Hague, he says, was a pleasant place to work. The facilities were extremely modern and well-organized: "I got there and within 20 minutes I had my first documents on the table."
When he looks back on those years, dusting off the cover of his dot-matrix printed thesis, he marvels at how much and how many different things he was able to learn in such a short period of time. There was a steep learning curve, he says, and the time and intensity it takes to write a thesis is difficult to recapture.
"The truth is that every scholar worth their salt looks back on their Ph.D. as an important moment." Now, as a professor, he wrestles with how to give his own Ph.D. students that kind of experience. "For students who are good, you should just let them go -- you should even let them get lost for a bit," he says.
But Subrahmanyam says the best advice he has to offer Ph.D. candidates is that, while writing a thesis can be stressful and time-consuming, it is not the most difficult part of academic life. It is the second project, the post-thesis effort, which is most difficult. Recent graduates in the United States, he says, focus on too much on getting their first book out and getting tenure instead of channeling their energies into starting their second big project.
An earnest work ethic and dedication to his field is part of Subrahmanyam's ethos. He received his bachelors, masters in economics and Ph.D. in economics history by the age of 25. He moved away from India in 1995 and spent seven years teaching in Paris.
"I guess I had the sense that I was a little bit on the fringe of things." Subrahmanyam lived, what he calls, "not quite an underdog story." In 1990, Subrahmanyam says, he could not have gotten a job outside of India because he was competing against scholars from major Western universities. "You have to go out and do enough that people can't say, 'This is not a serious CV.'" To be taken seriously as a graduate from an Indian university, you have to do "50 percent more than the next guy." His thesis won him the Gold Medal at the University of Delhi, the highest honor for a masters student.
Subrahmanyam never imagined then that by the age of 45 he would become a professor at Oxford and then UCLA. He says he just "wanted to say a few things in this field" and "change the terms of the debate."
And he does not stop working toward those goals. In addition to helping lay the groundwork for CISA, Subrahmanyam is moving forward with his own research and co-editing Indian Economic and Social Review. In his first year at UCLA, he taught a large undergraduate course, "Europe and the World," which enrolled over 80 students. These days, you will find him with a stack of papers about half a foot high on his desk. He just finished his tenth book, a decade in the making, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400-1800, co-authored by Muzaffar Alam. Of course, he is already working on book number eleven.