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News Feed: Students at SAI

Student Profile: Sanskrit study, From Varanasi to Harvard

Radhika Blinderman comes to Harvard after 13 years of Sanskrit study, and plans to analyze the most innovative figure in the philosophy of Indian language.

While most children her age were content to learn nursery rhymes, Radhika Blinderman, PhD Candidate, Department of South Asian Studies, was learning Sanskrit shlokas and Indian classical music.

Learning shlokas in a language she did not yet understand did not discourage her from developing a deep appreciation for Sanskrit. “I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but it just sounded so nice to me,” she says.

While a child growing up in India, Blinderman’s desire to study Sanskrit came when she “first became conscious about language,” at a very young age, and she continued to study the language, leading to a fascination with pre-colonial India. “It’s ancient India that fascinates me, and that I live in in my imagination,” she says.

After studying the language for 13 years and obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Sanskrit in India, she has carried this passion to Harvard, where she is in her first year of the PhD program in South Asian Studies.

Blinderman has ambitious goals for her time at Harvard. She plans to use her language skills to examine pre-colonial linguistic theories from Varanasi. More specifically, she intends to study the work of 18th century scholar Nagesa Bhatta, who she explains as “the most innovative grammarian of all time, and the last one to exist.”

“I want to analyze, from the point of view of intellectual history, why he was the most innovative, and how tradition accepted him as his own, in spite of his innovative ideas, and later, rejected other intellectuals, for exactly the same reason – being bold and innovative,” she says. “I want to answer the question of why tradition accepts someone, and rejects others.”

Although dissertation research tends to be very specific, Blinderman says that it is important to always keep the big question in mind when diving in to the past: “I want to talk about this [question] not as a philosopher, and not as a linguist, but as a historian, and answer a big historical question, and I hope I will.”

Blinderman says that she plans to use more than just her language skills in her research – she will also use her background in studying the philosophy of language to construct her argument.

“I will have to read original text and translate them, and analyze them, but I will also have to use my skills as a grammarian I have acquired throughout the years in Varanasi, because to prove any idea, any historical truth that you want to present, you need to have a good amount of data,” she explains. “If you want to prove something to the traditional world, and make it sound plausible, you should be able to present ideas in a plausible way to them, not just to you or historians like you. You should be able to build an argument grammatically.”

Blinderman hopes her time at Harvard will inform her research on how these concepts have developed in both the Indian and Western worlds.  In the short times since she has been in Cambridge, she has already been challenged and surprised by what she has learned.

Blinderman is enrolled in the South Asian Studies course ‘Modern India Through Narrative Forms,’ taught by Shankar Ramaswami, Lecturer in the Department of South Asian Studies and former SAI South Asian Studies Fellow. As someone who has “always retreated in to the past,” she says this course has been particularly challenging and rewarding as she studies modern India for the first time.

She is also currently taking classes in medieval Sanskrit logic, Sanskrit poetics (which she describes as “pure bliss” for a Sanskrit enthusiast like herself) and semantics. She hopes her study of philosophy, linguistics, and semantics will inform her research in innovative ways.

“I hope very much that I’ll be able to produce something meaningful during my years here,” Blinderman says.


    Hungama at Harvard

    Hungama, the largest South Asian dance party on campus, was held on Saturday, October 4th in Lowell House Dining Hall.

    The event was hosted by Dharma, Harvard’s Hindu Student Association, provides Harvard students with the opportunity to learn about and participate in Hindu cultural festivals and traditions on campus within a close-knit community of fellow students.

    The celebration brought three types of Indian dance to the students of Harvard as well as a number of intercollegiate students: garba, a Gujarati social dance with its origins in the Hindu festival Navratri; raas, another dance from western India; and bhangra, a highly energetic Punjabi dance that has become extremely popular in the United States.

    With over 400 attendees, Hungama is one of the largest dance parties at Harvard, and one of only two or three major dances in the Boston area to offer garba and raas in addition to the more popular bhangra, as well as short lessons for newcomers. The event provided a fun way for a wider audience to learn about the customs and traditions of the Hindu festival of Navratri.

      College students launch Harvard Students for Myanmar

      What do you know about Myanmar?

      A group of Harvard College students hopes to spark dialogues about a country that seems mysterious to many. The newly formed Harvard Students for Myanmar is a group of undergraduates who are from Burma, have an academic interest in the country, have traveled there, or who may not have any affiliation with the country at all.

      With a mission of ‘Talk, Teach, Talent,’ The group hopes to educate the Harvard community about Burma, while also encouraging more Harvard students to intern and work in the country.

      The group’s first goal will be to launch a social media campaign. By encouraging students to use the hashtag #askmeaboutmyanmar on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the group hopes to shed a different light on a country that is frequently misunderstood, according to founder Kyi Zar Thant, Harvard College ’15.

      “Most cultural and political projects in the US [focused on Burma] are very much pessimistic,” Thant says, due in part to traditional media having a negative tone in how they report on the country. “We want to be an un-biased middle ground,” Thant says.

      Rather than drawing on traditional news sources to teach the Harvard community about Myanmar, the group hopes to encourage discussion about the country with no filter or bias, by sharing unedited blog posts from people who have experienced the country.

      The group hopes that instead of turning to news reports on Myanmar, interested students will start a dialogue from someone who has been there. The group will reach out to students, Harvard affiliates, local experts, and even celebrities who have been to the country, and ask them to contribute to the blog, which would not be edited. Each week, a post will be published and shared widely using the hashtag #askmeaboutmyanmar.

      The new group, which is in the process of being registered under the Office of Student Life, is not a cultural or political group, in that it is not promoting a specific cause or culture. The goal is to just get people talking about a country that is not well understood.

      So far, Thant says, the group has received positive feedback from both students who have traveled to the country, and from students who want to learn more. The group hopes to host several events on campus as part of its awareness campaign, including panels, speakers, and fun cultural events.

      Questions? Email

        Meet our Graduate Student Associates

        Meet our Graduate Student Associates, 2014-2015

        Every year, SAI supports Graduate Student Associates from across the different schools at Harvard whose research focuses on South Asia. The goal of the SAI Graduate Student Associate program is to establish a community of peers to support original and independent research in South Asia. The GSA program is headed by Parimal Patil, Professor of Religion and Indian Philosophy, and Chair of the Department of South Asian Studies, and SAI steering committee member. GSAs participate in monthly workshops in which they present their thesis research to one another. In the spring, GSAs organize an end of year conference to showcase their research.


        Ed.D. Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Education
        Field of Study: Education, Religion and Nationalism
        Dissertation: Religious Nationalism and History Education in Pakistan
        Mariam’s thesis examines identity politics and religious nationalism fostered through the Pakistani education system. She has two Masters degrees, also from Harvard, in International Education Policy and Education Policy and Management, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Rice University.  Mariam founded the Harvard Pakistan Student Group in 2009 with a small community of less than 20 people. Three years later and with over 600 members, HPSG became the first university‐wide student organization recognized by Harvard University.

        PhD Candidates, Department of History, GSAS
        Field of Study: Imperial history, British Empire, colonial South Asia
        Dissertation: Empire of Letters: An Intellectual History of the East India Company, 1772-1835
        Joshua is a John Clive Fellow as well as a Graduate Affiliate at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. He received a BA in History from the University of Chicago. His dissertation explores the languages of knowledge and enlightenment in the ideologies of the Company and its critics.


        PhD Candidate, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, GSAS
        Field of study: Histories and cultures of Muslim societies
        Dissertation: Connecting South Asian Histories: Indo-Persian Folk Romances in Regional Historiography, 1650-1850
        Neelam’s research interests include tarikh (history) literature in South Asia from the 17th-19th centuries; akhlag (ethics) in literature; transnational intellectual networks and the social and cultural history of South Asia. Neelam studied advanced Urdu and Indo-Persian at the American Institute of Indian Studies, in Lucknow, India, and is also proficient in Arabic and French. Her thesis explores histories written in Indi-Persian over two centuries that marked major transformative political, economic, social and cultural changes in South Asia.


        PhD candidate, Department of History, GSAS
        Field of Study: Modern South Asian History
        Dissertation Title: The Grand Old Man: Dadabhai Naoroji and the Intellectual Foundations of
        Indian Self-Government
        Dinyar’s  dissertation is on the evolution of the political philosophy of Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), a prominent early Indian nationalist leader and the first Indian elected to the British Parliament (in 1892). In 1906, Naoroji publicly declared swaraj or Indian self-government to be the goal of the Indian National Congress. Dinyar’s dissertation traces the development of this declaration through Naoroji’s early
        economic work, his engagement with semi-autonomous Indian princely states, and attempts to build alliances for Indian reform with British Liberals and socialists. He has just returned to Harvard after three years of archival research in India and the United Kingdom where he was supported by an IIE Fulbright-Nehru and Fulbright Hays DDRA fellowship.


        PhD Candidate, Department of History, GSAS
        Field of study: International and diplomatic history; insurgency and intervention; international institutions, Cold War US foreign policy; modern South Asia; and modern Southern Africa.
        Dissertation: Stillborn States: Failed Nationalism in Nagaland and South West Africa, 1960-1966
        Lydia studies the interplay between nationalism and internationalism, activism and politics, claim and counter-claim in the emergence of post-colonial nation-states. She looks at sovereign demands that failed – what she call Stillborn States – during the high decolonization of the early 1960s.  I look at literal geographic peripheries – places like Nagaland in India’s Northeast or the contested mandate of South West Africa (independent Namibia as of 1990). In other incarnations, She has been a nuclear policy and scenario researcher for the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (New Delhi) and the Hertog Global Strategy Initiative (New York City).  She was also  a professional ballet dancer, and a founding director of the Columbia Ballet Collaborative and Delhi Dance Theater. She received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree from Harvard University.

          January public health courses in India and Bangladesh

          The Harvard School of Public Health will be offering two courses for students to travel to South Asia in January.

          Deadline to apply: Friday, September 19, 11:59 PM

          Application available via the GHP Field Trip iSite.

          Note: These courses are open to all Harvard students, although HSPH students are given priority.Once their application is submitted, applicants will have the opportunity to apply for funding through a SAI Winter Grant.

          GHP 298:  Field Trip to India

          January 5-23, 2015
          Richard A. Cash, MD, MPH

          The purpose of this course is to expose public health students and practitioners to the issue of Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) and to examine the potential policy and programmatic responses that can stem the rising trend of NCDs in LMICs, where most of the global NCD related morbidity, mortality and disability currently occurs. The course includes field visits to various institutions that are dealing with NCDs in India, comprising both governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as community and institution-based health organizations.  In addition, participants also have a field visit to community-based NCD project sites to learn about innovative implementation research strategies to address NCDs.  Faculty is comprised of PHFI, GOI, WHO, NGO’s, World Bank and others.

          “Non-Communicable Disease Prevention and Control”

          Course at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Delhi

          Click for full schedule and details (PDF).


          GHP 540 Field Trip to Bangladesh

          January 5 – 23, 2015
          Focus on Climate Change
          On Site Course Leader:  M. Omar Rahman, MD,MPH,DSc, Harvard University

          Students will have the opportunity to study public health issues at three different institutions: Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), the James P Grant School of Public Health (JPGSPH) at BRAC University, and the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research (ICDDR,B). All these institutions have had an excellent record of innovative, cutting edge public health research and practice. BRAC is the world’s largest NGO (and ranked #1) and the ICDDR,B is one of the premier research institutions in the developing world renowned for its demographic surveillance system in Matlab and applied research including the development of ORT.

          In Bangladesh there will also be a comprehensive orientation to introduce students to health and development in the Bangladesh context conducted by Professor Omar Rahman, former Associate Professor of Epidemiology at HSPH and currently Vice Chancellor and Dean of the School of Public Health at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). Based at IUB, the International Centre for Climate Change and Development’s (ICCCD) aim is to develop a world-class institution that is closely related to locate experience, knowledge, and research in one of the countries that is most affected by climate change.

          ICCCD has had approximately 60 students from a wide range of countries and institutions including the US, UK, France, Sweden, and Germany. ICCCD has developed a web portal (The Communications and Knowledge Management Programme) for research on climate change in Bangladesh, with frequent updates including blogs and articles. The website has a large network of alumni from courses and programs, coordinates the Asia Pacific Forum (L&D) hosted on Asia Pacific Adaptation Network, and publishes articles, policy briefs, and papers.

          The Centre has designed and established a field program in the south of Bangladesh through which researchers and interested individuals can visit climate change affected sites. They can learn about how local communities are trying to adapt to the detrimental changes brought on by climate change. The impacts of climate change are varied and as a result affect people’s livelihoods and health, amongst other things.

          Click for more details.