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News Category: News

Congratulations, Class of 2017!

Here at SAI, we are wishing the young minds of tomorrow the very best as they celebrate their triumphs, diligence, and vigor. Happy commencement!
(PC: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer)

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Registration Open for Liberal Arts Education Workshop

The Harvard South Asia Institute (SAI) Workshop on the Liberal Arts in Higher Education is a forum for higher-education faculty, administrators, and leadership from universities across South Asia, the Middle East, and neighboring regions (Central Asia and East Asia) to explore ways in which universities may develop a liberal arts education program for undergraduate students, while fostering such objectives as sustainable development; social inclusion and peace; and cooperation across national boundaries among individuals, institutions, and governments. These goals are essential to addressing shared global challenges and to realizing opportunities to advance human well-being. Universities, as institutions that prepare future leadership of societies, have a unique role to play in the achievement of these goals, educating students as global citizens who can understand, value, and contribute to the common good.

The inaugural event of the Harvard SAI Liberal Arts Education Workshop will be held on August 19-20, 2017, at the Ismaili Centre in Dubai, with the aim of launching a consortium of stakeholders committed to a robust and vibrant future of liberal arts education. This workshop will allow Harvard SAI to initiate a multi-year engagement convening on an annual basis for collaboration, knowledge sharing and the exchange of ideas.

Harvard University faculty will be leading the discussion on a range of topics, enabling participants to customize their schedules in accordance with their university settings.

Registration for the workshop is now open. Learn more about the event here.


Register by Friday, July 7

Request an invitation here.


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2017 SAI Symposium: Arts Panel [VIDEO]

Our fantastic arts panel at the 2017 Symposium featured:

Shahzia Sikander: A Pakistani-born visual artist – trained in Pakistan and New England – who challenges the strict formal tropes of miniature painting as well as its medium-based restrictions by experimenting with scale and media. She received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2006.

Shanay Javeri: Assistant Curator of South Asian Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is a graduate of Brown University, where he studied art semiotics and history of art. He completed his doctorate at the Royal College of Art in London, specializing in South Asian art.

Homi Bhabha: Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University.

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The 2017 SAI Symposium was where we briought together scholars, practitioners and audiences to discuss, debate and dissect major South Asian themes from an interlocking variety of perspectives. This year, we explored migrations and transformations in society, from the points of view of visual arts, life sciences, and the study of displacement.

Our speakers included distinguished academics, artists and activists from Harvard and beyond. The event was free and open to the public and our guests in the audience were a vital component of the learning experience for all of us. It was an enlightening, essential get-together.

Full report coming soon…

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“The Social Texture of an Artist” – reflections on the 2017 SAI Mahindra Lecture

By Rajna Swaminathan, PhD candidate, Department of Music, Harvard University

In his Mahindra Lecture earlier this month, vocalist T.M. Krishna presented his philosophy on the possibilities for art to break through social habits and boundaries. Drawing on his experience as a person from a privileged background and rising to fame in the Carnatic music scene, Krishna illustrated the ways in which music led him from the personal to the public and political, advocating a spirit of questioning that is uncommon to most classical art forms. Focusing on aesthetics as a site of precipitation for the social, Krishna led those of us who identify as artists to ask: Are we really being creative? Or do we take creativity for granted, conditioning our minds along certain paths, and being very comfortable through all of it?


(L-R) Homi Bhabha, Rajna Swaminathan, TM Krishna, Vijay Iyer

Krishna recounted his excursions into placing the privileged middle class of Chennai (the central locus of the Karnatik music scene) in dialogue with marginalized art forms, communities, and issues: the Jogappas (a community of transgender performers from Karnataka), Urur Olcott Kuppam (a fishing village in Besant Nagar, Chennai), and the environmental crisis surrounding Ennore Creek. He pointed to the mutual vulnerability that ensued in such encounters, as well as the general state of receptivity that artists must strive for, cutting through comfortable social tendencies.

After his talk, Krishna presented an unusual (and recently composed) Carnatic song in the vernacular Chennai dialect of Tamil — “Poromboke” (a derogatory word that was originally used to refer geographically to the ‘commons’ that became categorized as ‘unprofitable’ land under colonial powers), for which I accompanied on mrudangam. While singing, Krishna took breaks to explain certain words and intentions that were artfully worked into the song. During the ensuing conversation with Professors Homi Bhabha and Vijay Iyer, both honed in on the various textures of vulnerability at play in the cross-community encounters that Krishna had described. Krishna responded by outlining the gradual nature and tenuous micropolitics of having such polarized communities interact. According to him, having the privilege to start such conversations was only the first step, and subsequent encounters allowed for vulnerabilities and privileges to be exchanged in subversive ways.

The conversation ended by pointing toward the role of the “insider-outsider,” and being in a position to secure institutional support, subvert the power structures at play, and catalyze new kinds of dialogue that included marginalized voices. Professor Iyer connected this to a story related to him by jazz legend Muhal Richard Abrams: while traveling in Europe, a circuit that many jazz musicians depended on despite their difference being on display for consumption by predominantly white audiences, there was an unexpected empathy that took hold through the music. Something rung a bell somewhere, for both audience and performers, cutting through the social circumstances. Embracing a shared humanity through sensitively curated interventions, forming unlikely bonds through the collective experience of beauty, and always keeping a receptive mind and creatively questioning one’s context — these were the lessons and the persisting questions that will continue to resonate for everyone who was present.

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Livelihood Creation Profile: Craftizen Foundation

This is part of a series in which we will profile organizations in India who received a Social Innovation grant through the SAI/Tata Trusts project on Livelihood Creation.


Craftizen artisans in Odisha



  • Mayura Balasubramanian, Founder and CEO



To preserve and evolve Indian craft skills so they remain an integral part of our cultural fabric.


To provide business acumen support to craft groups to enable sustainable livelihoods for Indian artisans.

Broad Objectives

  • Enabling structured, long-term development support to craft groups
  • Building capacity and capability of craft-based organizations to help them scale
  • Reviving patronage of crafts through large scale, sustained interventions
  • Providing market-driven strategies to craft groups
  • Facilitating design development to enhance functionality of craft products

CRAFT IN FOCUS (Design Innovation Lab)

  • Name of the craft: Leather Craft of Andhra Pradesh, traditionally known as Tolu Bommalata (Shadow Puppets).
  • Key distinctive feature: Luminosity of the leather.
  • Different products that can be made in this crafts form: Traditionally, leather puppets, wall panels and paintings depicting mythology scenes. Popular items at present are lampshades of various designs and decorative items for home use such as clocks and wall hangings.
  • Time taken to make a product of the craft: Artisans buy the goat skin and prepare the leather themselves. It is a meticulous process of soaking the raw leather in hot water and lime, followed by vigorous scraping, cleaning and drying to get the required translucent sheets. To prepare the leather takes 2-3 days. Designs are then etched on the leather with pencil. Subsequently, the outlines are marked with black ink. Perforations are made with various chisels on the designs, which further enhances the beauty and luminosity of the leather. Bright colours are used to fill up the designs. To create an elaborate wall panel, it can take up to one month depending on the complexity and detailing. Smaller pieces such as small lampshades or puppets can be made in a day.

SAI team at Craftizen Bangalore


Craftizen Foundation is a social venture and a not-for-profit, which functions as the business acumen partner for the Indian handicrafts sector. The focus is on enabling sustainable livelihoods for Indian artisans by building capacity of craft groups with market-ready skills and know-how.

Its programs include:

  • The Patron Program: This is a structured Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative that enable craft-based livelihoods for marginalized groups. Corporate funding is channelized to crafts groups and artisans. Craftizen is currently implementing projects in Bengaluru, Kolkata, Delhi and Varanasi impacting 600 beneficiaries including people with disabilities and women rescued from a life of trafficking.
  • Kalashala: A finishing school for artisans and craft groups to equip them to be market-ready. Craftizen’s biggest challenge was developing a curriculum for artisans, most of whom have not even completed primary school. An interactive, game based approach to learning was adopted, through which artisans are taught business skills, production planning, quality and delivery, sales and marketing, story-telling and design thinking, which is customised to their craft and context. Each concept is first learnt by doing an activity, then by experience sharing and finally with the help of guidelines and pointers that are reinforced with visual material to reinforce learning. This initiative is supported with a social innovation grant from Harvard University’s South Asia Institute and Tata Trusts.
  • Design Innovation Lab: Traditionally, handicraft designs evolved through the interaction of artisans and customers. With rapid urbanisation, there is an increasing socio-cultural disconnect between them. Crafts produced today often do not have relevance and functionality for the current-day consumer. Through the Design lnnovation Lab, Craftizen aims to bring together artisans and designers to collaborate on market-driven design development. Further, the focus is on benefiting handicrafts that have not evolved adequately with changing trends and market preferences. To pilot the design lab Craftizen chose the Anantapur leather craft from Andhra Pradesh, traditionally known as Tolu Bommalata (Shadow Puppets). This initiative is supported with a social innovation grant from Harvard University’s South Asia Institute and Tata Trusts.
  • Customized Handcrafted Merchandise: Craftizen provides design and marketing support to crafts persons by focusing on design development that enhances the functional utility of craft products. Products are made for customized orders from corporates and individual buyers. Availability of working capital as well as fair pricing to artisans is ensured.




Craftizen’s collaborative model is unique. It partners with several not-for-profits and social enterprises that are working in the crafts sector to collectively maximise reach and impact. The organization brings a market-centric approach to the crafts sector through research, trend analysis, strategic planning and inputs. This ensures long-term sustainability. It’s presence across the entire value chain helps in tackling multiple challenges and results in long-term solutions as well.



  • Partnership with several NGOs / craft-based organizations to implement CSR funded projects. Some of the CSR funded projects include Women’s Interlink Foundation in Kolkata, Kriti Social Initiatives and Centre for Social Services in Hyderabad, Seva in Action, NIMHANS and Vidyaranya in Bangalore.
  • Various artisan groups for design and marketing. Some of the groups include Varanasi wooden toys, Cherial craft group in Telangana, Tollu bommalu in Andhra Pradesh, Applique work in Orissa and Bastar tribal crafts of wrought iron and dhokra.
  • Large corporate donors like Accenture India and Deloitte India who support and fund livelihood initiatives.
  • Diverse set of corporate, academic and institutional clients like India School of Business (ISB), Titan Company Limited, Quest Alliance amongst many others for custom merchandise.
  • Government institutions who have been donors, patrons and clients. They include National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) amongst many others.

Tollu Bomalata artisan from Andhra Pradesh


Till date Craftizen has impacted over 1000 beneficiaries from marginalized groups through CSR funded and craft-based livelihood programs. It has also worked with close to 200 traditional artisans and 42 non-profits and crafts groups to provide ongoing design and marketing support through orders and events. The organization has also developed close to 58 new Crafts designs and raised grants of over INR 14 million.

“We play the role of craft architects, building bridges that connect the crafts sector to newer possibilities.”

  • Mayura Balasubramanian, Founder & CEO


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Livelihood Creation Profile: Freeset Fabrics

This is part of a series in which we will profile organizations in India who received a Social Innovation grant through the SAI/Tata Trusts project on Livelihood Creation.


  • Organisation Name: Freeset Fabrics
  • Year Founded: Private Limited Company
  • Year Founded: 2014
  • Locations: Sherpur, Murshidabad, West Bengal
  • Email:
  • Contact Number: +91- 7718705887

    Artisans working on ergonomically designed looms

    Artisans working on ergonomically designed looms

  • Website:


  • Kerry Hilton, Director
  • Ron Salmon, General Manager
  • Janet Rogers, Designer and Business Consultant


Freeset Fabrics’ goal is livelihood creation in poor rural communities of Murshidabad, West Bengal for vulnerable women who would otherwise be at risk of trafficking into prostitution, bonded labour or migration. Their goal is excellence and quality as they compete with other commercial enterprises.


  • Name of the craft: Handloom weaving
  • Key distinctive feature: The look and feel of handloom fabric has a unique beauty and quality that sets it apart from fabrics that are created on powerlooms.
  • Different products that can be made in this crafts form: An endless range of products can be created from handloom fabric direct from the loom with minimal finishing: scarves/ stoles, home accessories including table runners, throws and rugs. Other processes, including embroidery and hand printing techniques add value.
  • Time taken to make a product of the craft: Depending on the competency of the weaver and the complexity of design, for a typical scarf of 2m length and 65cm width, an average of 3 and 4 units can be woven in a day.
  • Other crafts activities that are ancillary to this craft form: Freeset Fabrics is focused on the handloom processes and finishing techniques. Other forms of embellishment are likely to be introduced in the future to add value and provide work for more women. These may include embroidery, beadwork, block printing, screen printing, specialist dyeing, including natural and azo-free dyes and other specialist techniques such as Shibori.


Freeset Fabrics has a unique focus of reaching out to women who are under the threat of trafficking in Murshidabad district, often considered as the capital of trafficking in the state of West Bengal. In the villages surrounding Sherpur

Janet Rogers at the Harvard SAI workshop

Janet Rogers at the Harvard SAI workshop

where Freeset Fabrics is based, agriculture is the main source of family income. Irregular income and poverty are known drivers for trafficking and migration. Freeset Fabrics provides an opportunity for training and employment to such women from poor agricultural communities in the villages surrounding Sherpur, within a 12 kilometre radius. The enterprise is established on Freeset’s model which provides employment to women who have been trafficked and wish to return to their village, or to those who are vulnerable or at risk of trafficking.

Handloom weaving using natural fibres (currently cotton and wool) and creating scarves and fabric for export is the livelihood creation activity at Freeset. Training in all processes connected with handloom weaving is given over a six to twelve-month period. Once training is complete and a trainee has graduated, she receives a productivity bonus in addition to a basic wage. A direct impact has been noted on women’s wellbeing and confidence as well as a growing sense of community through training and working together. Freeset Fabrics also contributes to Government pension (Provident Fund) and ESI health scheme for its artisans.

For the first two years after Freeset Fabrics was incorporated, its focus was on training women in the skills required for weaving, including preparation of yarn, logistics, management and finishing. Having started with a group of seven women, the company has grown steadily. By the end of the second year, 42 trainees and employees had joined the team, with a waiting list of close to 600 women. In addition to learning handloom skills, training is also given in other areas, including numeracy, literacy, basic health care, life-skills and advocacy.


  • Income from export sales and sales to visitors

    The scarfs for international customers

    The scarfs for international customers

  • Start-up funding from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to cover training, wages and running costs
  • Harvard SAI and Tata Trusts Social Innovation grant for ergonomic and technical innovation


The equipment initially procured for weaving came from established manufacturers within West Bengal, but was found to be basic in design and difficult to operate.  The quality of products and efficiency of its use, proved to be a significant constraint on production of export quality products, so work started on improving the design of the equipment.  A contributing factor to this concern was also the ergonomics and the risk of long-term repetitive strain of operating various equipment needed for all the processes on the operatives.

Freeset Fabrics has paid a lot of attention to the design of the looms and the way they are operated. It has engaged ergonomics specialists and consultants to study the effect of existing loom designs on the health of the weavers and efficiency of their work. Minor and major improvements to the existing loom design have made a remarkable difference to the comfort of weavers and efficiency of operations.

From an ergonomic perspective, changes and innovations to other parts of the looms, including a faisel crankshaft mechanism, a faisel handle, improved seating and pedals/shaft operation enhanced the comfort and efficiency of weaving and would lead to less stress on weavers’ bodies.


Freeset Fabrics works with various organizations:

  • Freeset Business Incubator Pvt Ltd., to develop further business opportunities.
  • Tamar, a project of Freeset Trust, delivering life skills training, counselling and other social support.
  • Justice Ventures International, to bring justice and freedom from oppression to the poor.


200 people have been impacted through livelihood creation – based on an average of 5 in each family Freeset Fabrics works with. Freeset plans to reach out to over 1000 people over the next 5 years. People working with Freeset have directly benefited through this opportunity with improved income, nutrition and health, as well as self-confidence and self-esteem. The fact that in September 2016, around 500 women wanted to be considered for recruitment (250 in February 2016) indicated the desire and need for more such opportunities for social and economic benefits.

The Social Innovation Grant from Harvard SAI and Tata Trusts has enabled Freeset Fabrics to improve and strengthen its equipment and processes, increasing quality and efficiency.  We are thankful that, with these ergonomic and technical innovations, more women now have the potential to weave more freedom for themselves, their families and their communities.

  • Kerry Hilton, Director
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Looking Back, Informing the Future: The 1947 Partition of British India

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Professor Jennifer Leaning discusses forced migration at one of our Partition seminars


By Tarun Khanna (Director, SAI; Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School)

Both my mother’s and my father’s sides of our family migrated from what is now Pakistan. As a result of Partition, many of them had to leave their lives behind, with years of hard work quickly wiped out, when they moved to New Delhi and were forced to start again. Partition has always been part of my family’s folklore but my grandfather, who bore the brunt of it, passed away very early. I never had the opportunity to discuss it with him.

At the SAI, we have embarked on a major research project to understand the history, context and continuing impact of Partition, as its 70th anniversary approaches. There has, of course, always been a great deal of interest in this defining historical event from scholars at Harvard and elsewhere. Professor Jennifer Leaning’s team from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has been studying Partition for more than a decade — her ongoing work is central to our collective research.

At the SAI, we have already undertaken a major interdisciplinary project of a similar scale. Our work on the Kumbh Mela was a very successful collaborative effort involving dozens of faculty, students, graduates and undergraduates. We created a platform so that other people could participate; scholars from the region as well as other universities around the world. We produced scholarly papers, videos, architectural designs and ultimately, a book.

The SAI hosted a series of eight seminars at Harvard, beginning on Feb 1, in which Harvard faculty and visiting scholars presented research on various aspects of Partition’s legacy, influence and implications. These were free and open to the public. The seminars also formed the basis of a series of podcasts, also produced by the SAI, to bring this research and these conversations to a much wider audience.

We are also approaching the primarily historical and qualitative study of the Partition through alternative analytical lenses. This will involve attempts to quantify Partition and examine its magnitude, much as we did with the Kumbh Mela; this will add a new dimension to our collective understanding. A collection of us – Professor Asim Khwaja from HKS and Professor Prashant Bharadwaj from UC San Diego, both political economists, have teamed up with Professor Karim Lakhani, a crowdsourcing expert, and me for this part of the project – will use political speeches, crowdsourced oral histories and other data to analyze Partition in a way that has not been done before.

Partition is one of the most important events in human history; it is the largest migration that ever took place. Millions of people were affected, mostly negatively. Right now, huge numbers of people are forced to leave their homes in distressing circumstances and as academics, it is important for us to gain an understanding of the mechanics and impact of involuntary migration, particularly in the modern context. We are also studying how new countries are born. Pakistan was a brand new nation-state; India became smaller; Bangladesh eventually came into being. Through the lens of Partition, we are able to study the formation (and regeneration, in India’s case) of the institutions that are necessary for the functioning of a country. Again, these are modern issues and it is as important for us to understand them today as it was 70 years ago.


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SAI visiting artists’ reflections on time at Harvard

In March 2017, we welcomed our Spring semester Visiting Artists: Madhu Das (Mumbai, India) and Rabindra Shrestha (Kathmandu, Nepal). Both work in visual media; they displayed their work on campus, met with students, attended classes and gave public seminars from March 20-31. Applications are open until Monday, August 15, 2017 for the Fall program.

Madhu and Rabindra offered these reflections on their time at Harvard:


I was able to Interact with people from different parts of the world and see how they responded to my work. This will help me to look at my work from a different perspective. I can now get a sense of India as an outsider as well as an insider. I haven’t been outside my home country and the unfamiliar landscape, weather and culture opened my mind.


I can’t fully express the power of the days I have spent here. People back home will be curious to see what I will do with this new exposure; it has given me fresh energy. Artists must come here with an empty mind; it’s almost like a holy place, where you have to absorb as much as you can.



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