Building a community of South Asian Scholars with Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere at South Asian University

Prof. Gananath Obeyeseekere at the podium, with chair Prof. Patricia Uberoi (University of Delhi), Prof. Sasanka Perera (Dean, South Asian University), and Prof. G K Chaddha, President, South Asian University): by Sreedeep

Faculty of Social Sciences, at South Asian University, initiated the annual program ‘Contribution to Contemporary Knowledge Series’ to execute the vision of synergetic regional scholarship. This program envisages bringing eminent scholars of the region who have made it to the international repute and have earned worldwide acceptance of their scholarship. First in the series was a public lecture by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere, former Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Princeton University and currently based in Sri Lanka, on 31 Janaury at Teenmurty Auditorium. The enormous scholarship of Prof. Obeyesekere encapsulates the themes from mythology, history, culture and religion in the framework of South Asia with specific focus on Sri Lanka and its historical intersections with India. The stature of Prof. Obeyesekere evokes reverence and awe in the domain of scholars of the region. The lecture had in attendance scholars such as historian Professor Romila Thapar, amongst other noted socials scientists from the leading varsities of India. The title of the lecture was ‘Coming of Brahmin in Sri Lanka: Sudra fate of the Brahmin Elite’, which explored the shared history and mythology of India and Sri Lanka. Prof. Obeyesekere noted the evolution of Sinhala Buddhism with reference to ancient texts and showed that Sinhala Buddhism has posterity of fusion of religious and cultural motifs. It emerged from the lecture that the contemporary version of Sinhala Buddhism, which has been bane of Sinhala society and politics, is not what all Sinhala boasted of; it was rather a consequence of syncretism and tolerant acceptance of elements from Tamil Brahmins who came to Sri Lanka in distant past. An exclusivist Sinhala Buddhism is only a political invention to suit the agenda of identity politics and propaganda of politically questionable Buddhist country.

As the second leg of the program Faculty of Social Science conducted a unique interactive workshop on 1st February at Akbar Bhawan Campus of South Asian University in Chanakyapuri, Delhi. The workshop deliberated on the possibilities of doing ethnographic studies in the context of contemporary South Asia with its multiple crises and complexities. It emerged that ethnographic monographs can offer a mechanism to overcome the identity politics rife in South Asia. Prof. Obeyesekere made it clear that scientific arrogance is not a virtue in truly ethnographic practice. The social dogmatism too cannot rule an ethnographer. For, an ethnographer is ever aware of his/her ignorance and hence there is need to conjecture and analyze endlessly. No knowledge in ethnographic enterprise can ever be absolute. More importantly, the ethnographic knowledge production entails intellectually fruitful fantasies. Without those fantasies anthropologists’ methods and techniques become dominant and canons begin to rein the minds of ethnographers. No wonder that social scientists from the region of south Asia suffer from poverty of imagination as they are consumed by canonical notions of doing research and they sacrifice on intellectually necessary fantasies. Another aspect of the decline in the knowledge production is that market forces, international funding agencies and state have become instrumental in researches. It leaves no room for the ethnographers to go beyond the easily available empirical details. Hence what emerges in the forms of books is nothing but slightly tweaked versions of reports. These reports are, apparently, suitable for policy framing and planning. But they do not yield the necessary insights into the complexity of social, cultural and political. Hence, most of our researches, in anthropology as well as sociology, are feeding into the identity politics, by offering illegitimately simplified understanding. For, social reality encapsulates cobweb of complex meanings, such as the phenomena at Kataragama as mentioned in his celebrated book titled Medusa’s Hair. Unless that cobweb of meanings is unraveled in coherent, cogent, rational fashion, there is no knowledge of society; it is only knowledge by researchers, for themselves, of themselves. To make knowledge all pervasive, it is instrumental to bring in intuition and fantasies, going beyond the Cartesian claims of scientific rationality, and capture the complex lives of the people. If we do so as anthropologist, there is little room to play with politically correct categories, which have been bedrock of both modern social scientific dogmas and identity politics. Responding to questions and observations by teachers and students, at South Asian University, Prof. Obeyesekere made it clear that South Asian scholars have to continue with the efforts to break the politics of anthropology, which has defined scholarship at international scale. Reflecting upon his own intellectual dispute with Sociologist Marshal Sahlins, he indicated that there ought to be multiple disputes of this kind in every epoch of history. Instead of talking endlessly about the post-coloniality, and intellectually seeking for the voice of the subaltern in the complex texts, there is need of south Asian scholars to produce viable anti-theses to the theses of western masters. This is not to debunk the west; this is rather to offer perspectives, which have been located in faraway places such as Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and other countries of South Asia.

It became evident that Prof. Obeyesekere is one of the most sought after social anthropologist in India on both days. The teeming number of young and aged scholars who made to the event and engaged with him was a vindication of his scholarly persona. The Contribution to Contemporary Lecture Series will continue to generate new insights in the knowledge production and transaction at this two-year-old university, which was started by SAARC in 2010.

SAU Logo Rationale

The logo of South Asian University represents the eight nations of SAARC. The basic form of the logo is octagonal, each side representing a country. The octagon, when used in the perspective of design turns into the numerical "8" that also represents infinity (∞ ) in a purely visual sense. The numerical"8" or the infinity symbol is then overlaid upon itself to present an evolving motif form that is present in varying contexts and interpretations in all of South Asia.

"Thanks to the Scholarship, I can now repay my loans"

The Scholarship awardees for this academic session at South Asian University have been announced. The various scholarship schemes at the university are helping students realise their dreams of pursuing a world-class education, without burning a hole in their pockets.

New Delhi: The quality of education is supposedly known to be directly proportional to the amount one spends for it. Arguable though it may sound, many students pursuing a course in the best universities or colleges in the world will testify for it, unless they are funded by a financial support programme or a scholarship. But for many students, scholarships and financial support these days have become nothing but sour grapes.

At South Asian University, though, the scene is pleasantly different. Out of 260 students who applied for the scholarship programme for this academic year, as many as 256 have been awarded scholarships and financial support of various kinds. A maximum SAU Scholarship carries a total fee waiver on the tuition fee which works out to around Rs.22000 per semester and a monthly living allowance of Rs.7000. The awardee also gets to stay in the hostel without having to worry about the hostel fee. Additionally, a start-up amount of Rs.10,000 is also given to all the fresh scholarship awardees who come from SAARC nations other than India. For Indian students, the start-up amount is just half of what their counterparts get.

The scholarship schemes at SAU broadly come under three major categories. a) SAU President's Award - awarded to those successful candidates who top the entrance examination merit list of their respective countries and are placed within the top 10 percentile of the combined merit list of their subject; b) SAARC-India Silver Jubilee Scholarship - awarded to students belonging to the least developed SAARC countries and c) SAU Scholarship/Financial Support – awarded to students on a need cum merit basis.

Being an international university with students from various countries, which mainly comprises the SAARC countries, these scholarships go a long way in making the lives of the students easier. Jalil Ahmed from Afghanistan said it wouldn't have been possible for him to come here and continue his higher studies without the scholarship. This first year M.A. Development Economics student had to borrow money from a friend to cover his travel expenses to come to New Delhi from his home town, Herat. He could comfortably repay the money now, Jalil said with a smile. "The living allowance grant is nothing but a boon, as it is really awkward for a married man like me to ask for money from my father, who is taking care of the educational expenses of my four brothers and sister" he added.

For a student like Roopak V, an LLM student from Kerala, whose mother took a loan for the initial expenses including admission, hostel fee and books, the scholarship couldn't have come at a more opportune time. He feels elated that his admission fees and hostel fees will all be reimbursed now.

Prof. GK Chadha, the university's President while commenting on the financial support programmes, informed that the intention of the university was to make sure that 'nothing comes between quality education and the students.' He said the university fully understands the fact that for many of the SAU students who come from various parts of the SAARC region, it would have been very hard to afford the kind of world-class education being provided at SAU without the financial support. Resounding the president's view, Md. Rubaiyat Rahman, one of the ten SAU President's Scholarship holders said, "The scholarship schemes of SAU made me convinced that this institution is careful to those who have the zeal for learning. 'SAU would help its pupil in every possible avenue that is possible'- this is the belief that SAU Scholarship Scheme installed into my mind."

South Asian University is a brainchild of India's Prime Minster Dr. Manmohan Singh. Established following an inter-ministerial agreement signed by the eight member countries, the varsity was envisaged as a Center of Excellence that will enhance the sense of regional consciousness. In fact, the funding for SAARC-India Silver Jubilee Scholarship comes from the Indian government. Thanks to the government decision to increase the number of SAARC-India Silver Jubilee Scholarships from 50 last year to 100 this year, Shweta Khanal and Dibya Ghimire from Nepal got their scholarships under this category this time. They are now able to save some money for the rainy day.

For Madhu Limbu from Bhutan, a first year student of Computer Science, thankfully she didn't have to take the loan this time, like she did for her graduate course in Bangalore. She wants to spread the word about SAU to many Bhutanese students as she knows there are many students like her who want to get quality education despite their limited means.

Over and above the scholarships, the students of SAU have the opportunity of cashing in on the Work & Earn programme where the students get to work in the study rooms, library, computer labs and the common rooms on an hourly basis, said Prof. RK Saxena, Vice President of the university. He further added that all the SAU students are also covered by a medical insurance policy that gives them a cover of up to rupees one lakh fifty thousand.

Expressing satisfaction on getting the scholarship, Chaitanya Pratap, an MCA student from Aligarh, gives a very interesting perspective, "The monthly living allowance easily covers my expenses here and I can even send home some money every month."

South Asian Studies to be made compulsory for all students

15 October, New Delhi: The second Academic Council meeting of South Asian University was held today in the university's campus in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. Chaired by Prof. GK Chadha, the president of SAU, the meeting was attended by all members of the council including the three external experts co-opted by the council - Prof. Ainun Nishat, Vice Chancellor of BRAC University, Dhaka, Prof. Adil Najam, Vice-Chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences and Prof. N. Jayaram from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Many a significant decision were taken during the course of the meeting.


'Introduction to South Asia' will now be a compulsory course for every student and they have to pass this non-credit course in order to get their degrees. With the introduction of this course, the students joining from different nations of South Asia will have the benefit of acquiring some basic facets pertaining to the region. Mention may be made here that South Asian University is a brainchild of Prime Minister Manmohon Singh and the university was established by the member countries of SAARC to evolve a South Asian consciousness.


South Asian University is also making all necessary arrangement to start Ph.D. programme from the next academic year. Publication of a journal on South Asia is also in the offing.


The university will also now institute a SAU Gold Medal to the student who passes out of the university with the best academic performance in his/her class, demonstrated by having secured the highest CGPA in the programme. In all, there will be eight such medals, one given out to a student each from the 8 post graduate programmes the university currently offers. Moreover, a SAU Certificate of Merit will also be awarded to the student who secures the best combined SGPAs in the first two semesters of all 2 year master's level programmes.


In view of the long visa process students have to go though, the Academic Council recommended the admission schedule of SAU to start from the first week of January, two months ahead of what it was last time around. The university conducts admission test across all the SAARC countries on a single day. To facilitate easy process, Indian High Commission now provides visa to students coming to the university under a special category called SAU Visa. Understanding the unique nature of the university, the council further recommended a required minimum attendance in class and satisfactory fulfilment of other academic assignments, for students to be eligible to write their examinations.


The council expressed satisfaction on the success of the Scholarship and Financial Support programme, under which virtually whoever applied was awarded scholarship and financial support, especially the students from the least developed countries. The members of the council also appreciated SAU's effort on the widespread representation of students from all the SAARC countries. Almost half of the students in South Asian University come from SAARC countries other than India.

Ph. D. Programs in South Asian University gets final nod

New Delhi: South Asian University will start Ph.D. Programs in various subjects from the coming academic year. The announcement was made after the final approval by the Governing Board, the highest administrative body of this international university.

Making the announcement Prof. GK Chadha, the President of SAU said that the university was envisaged as a center of excellence with primary focus on research and post graduate programs and hence the decision to start the Ph.D. programs was very much in line with the university’s vision. But for the space constraint that the university has been facing, the research programs would have been introduced earlier, he said.

South Asian University was established by the governments of the eight SAARC nations in 2010. The university is functioning from Akbar Bhawan in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. The government of India has allotted a 100 acre campus in Maidan Garhi, adjacent to Indira Gandhi National Open University. The construction of the campus is expected to start early next year with the total capital cost being borne by the Indian government.

The research scholars would be inducted into the Ph.D. programs through an entrance test followed by a personal interview. All the candidates of the research programs would be eligible to apply for the on-going SAARC Silver Jubilee Scholarship, instituted by the Indian Government especially for SAU students. The maximum scholarship for research scholars carries full fee waiver, free stay in the hostel, a monthly allowance of INR 12,000 and a fixed start-up amount. There are 25 scholarships earmarked for Ph.D. students.

Introduction of the research program was one of the decisions taken by the Governing Board in its 3rd meeting in New Delhi. Prof. Azad Chaudhury, the chairman of UGC, Bangladesh – who chaired the GB meeting described the establishment of SAU as a dream to meet the challenges of the region and restore its glory. He also thanked the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh and other Member States who took initiative in the establishment of SAU. He also expressed his appreciation for the progress the university has made so far, despite many daunting challenges.

The Board has also cleared the case for the Introduction to South Asia, a compulsory course for each student of SAU irrespective of the academic program being pursued. This non-credit course will make its debut in the semester that is starting in January next year.

Prof. Mohammad Osman Babury, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Higher Education, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, speaking at the meeting as the outgoing Chairperson expressed his confidence and satisfaction on the progress being made by the university and looked forward to the day when SAU will be one of the most reputed universities in the South Asian Region.

The Board during its day long deliberations took a number of important administrative, financial and academic decisions on the functioning of the university. The Board also set in motion deliberations on the second phase of the university as the first phase of five years will come to an end in 2014.

Student Essay

One Month and Still Sane

by Slok Gyawali, International Relations

South Asian University for me, like most other students who’ve enrolled, was not my first choice. Yet through a series of choices I find myself a month in, and almost institutionalized as a SAU student. If this month is any indicator of the next two years I will be surprised if I walk out of Akbar Bhavan for the last time with my pants on the right side – the hallmark of any sane person. This first month has taken liberties with my nerves; I’ve experienced the depth of boredom, and height of ecstasy, and everything in between.

Thank god first impressions are not last impressions. For if they were,one look at the temporary building of SAU and I would have turned around at the gate, got back into the rickshaw, and requested that I were taken straight to the airport. Fortunately, having spent a significant sum of money on the air ticket to Delhi, and lacking the amount to purchase a return voucher this was just a fleeting thought. At the gate the guards looked suspiciously at me, and asked my business. I meekly replied “bhaiya, admission”. He gave me the go ahead. Two steps in, and I faced another gang of guards, armed police, and a security machine. Wow, I thought, this building must really be important.

For a first timer in SAU, the hauntingly decrepit look of the building, coupled with the “What to do if there is an earthquake” board at the entrance doesn’t help one relax. And it takes a great effort of will to find the admission office and finally complete the enrollment. Having enrolled in the afternoon I waited till dinner to finally get some grub into my system, only to be left high and dry. It so happened that a protest broke out in the mess. “The damn chicken is infected! This chicken is not for humans!” shouted someone, while another group choired in “the veggies are rotten!” “No one eat! Students unite…say no to mess food! No to this damn food!” was the rallying cry. Grudgingly, for the sake of scholarly brotherhood, most of us agreed. One for all and all for one… and all that jazz.

This unity, however, was short lived. Internal discontent, negotiation with the enemy, and the general sense of starvation prevailed, miraculously cleansing the previously inedible chicken.Most students relented. In hindsight this surrender seems to have carried with it a paradoxical symbolic value. I shall explain: The waving of the white flag that day was, a way of stressing “We are here, and we’ve come to stay; do your worst, give us rotten veggies, and inedible chicken, give us broken elevators, and rooms with no internet excess, go on do your worst, we will not leave, we will not give up!”

And most of the students haven’t. Perhaps we haven’t left because of the inconvenience of leaving, or the probably it’s the comfort of habit, I can’t tell for certain, but the idealist in me wants to believe that there something more noble. Maybe a growing sense of community, or perhaps even a sense of hope. A sense of community that leads us to look for The Indian Express with dread anytime it publishes an article on SAU; and a hope that this university can be a great university, that it was a good decisions coming here, a hope that this university will not let us down. In the last month all of us, students and professors alike, have thought about these issues, haven’t we? Yet most of us have stayed.

Dear readers do not misunderstand me; by no means has the last month been a breeze. Look around, there is so much left to be done before this university finds the right footing. A month in this university has made me realize that I am not what I thought I was. Finishing college and working for a year had me convinced that I was an adult, capable of interacting with different people as colleagues. But the moral policing of gender interaction via policy of segregation has lead to me to question it. Do the higher-ups in SAU decision making circles have no trust in its students? Are we not adults? How is it we can be trusted to be in the army, in politics, in civil services, and not trusted to interact with each other as respectable people?

I thought studying 12 hours a day was enough to keep up with the readings; the International Relations faculty clearly is out to prove me wrong. Additionally, I falsely believed I was an aware member of society who knew his region well. This is not so. Coming in contact with so many people with such diverse stories has me convinced that there is so much yet to see.

South Asian University, like South Asia, is filled with contradictions. A bag filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly.A month in and I’ve seen students, normally good and decent folks, bully and disrespect mess workers. I’ve seen students cat-call their classmates. I’ve seen the educated youth litter their university and waste energy, and yet I’ve seen a tradition of sharing emerge, whether it’s during Friday chicken night, on the badminton court, or with the ice-cream-walla outside the gate. I’ve seen people from different nationalities, and religion, debate “controversial” issues in the mess and leave having earned each other’s respect. I’ve seen traditions grow, and that is special.

My uncle used to play this game with us, perhaps you’ve played it too, he would name something and we would have to describe it in one word. The word that comes to mind when I think about my first month here is: confusing. I’m confused about why I came here, and about why I’ve decided to stay. I am confused about what my course demands, and what I am capable of. It would be a horrible, and clichéd,tautology to say confusion has me confused, but there you go I’ve said it. This confusion gets overwhelming at times, and even borders on anxiety. But then I do have 2 years to figure this all out, don’t I?

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know we have the luxury of looking back in time; so rewind a month into the past, before you joined SAU, and compare it with yourself now. Is your life richer now than before? The answer, dear readers, makes all the difference.

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