Click to Subscribe & Stay Informed via Email!

Subscribe Here!

Subscribe and stay informed about our latest news and events!
  • Please List your Professional Affiliation

News Category: News

Art Exhibition Puts a Spotlight on South Asian Narratives

Attendees enjoy the exhibit during the opening reception.

Picture 1 of 10


On April 17, 2018, The Mittal Institute hosted an opening reception and seminar for the exhibition, “Revelations: Reclaiming South Asian Narratives.” By exhibiting pieces from this year’s Visiting Artists, the show aims to unravel challenging social issues that often fall outside the limelight. This year’s artists explore themes related to The Mittal Institute’s larger research projects, including the relationship between memory and history of Partition. Furthermore, attendees were able to see art focusing on tea workers in Bangladesh, trauma, and healing in Nepal, and Dalit resistance in India.



This year’s Visiting Artists are: 

Imran Channa, Pakistan

Rajyashri Goody, India

Kabi Raj Lama, Nepal

Faiham Ebna Sharif, Bangladesh


The exhibition will run through May 10th and is located in the CGIS concourse. 

Q + A: Using Art as a Way of Reflection

Namak Halaal

Picture 1 of 5



As a 2018 Mittal Institute Visiting Artist, Rajyashri Goody’s art revolves around the complexities of identity seen through the lens of larger social, political, economic, and religious structures at play — and consequently the tug between power and resistance that manifests itself within minority communities.

Before this year’s exhibition and showcase, SAI spoke with her about her background, the arts fellowship, and the importance of art. 


Since your background in ethnography, how and when did you start making artwork?

I started to make artwork three years ago. I was working with my friend, Shraddha Borawake, a lens-based artist and photographer. My city of Pune does not have a strong art scene, and she was passionate about starting a grassroots community that would be a platform for artists to connect to one another.

The community is called the Good Artist, which is a bit ironic, but it also focuses on important questions like “what is a good artist?” The large-scale project that we were working on was an international artist workshop, for which we received some seed funding from Khoj International.

Shraddha’s work has been a huge influence on me. Her work is spiritual but it also deals with images, recycling, and retelling of stories. For me, coming from an academic background to spending time with her, I am inspired by her freedom from boundaries as an artist.

Over time, as we started working together, I found myself making my own art as well. From there, I got opportunities for art residencies, and my work consequently developed.


What materials did you use for your project “Skyscape”?

The Khoj workshop was open and we had two weeks of experimentation. The artists did not have to create something final – they were free to start something.

I decided to make a cloud of shoes and footwear using over 300 pairs of footwear. People would walk in and have a cloud of shoes hovering above them. Because I used volleyball nets, the shoe cloud would slowly lower as time passed.

Because I come from a Dalit background, I always felt the need to address caste in some way, and the cloud of shoes was an interpretation of “Purusha” or the “cosmic man” that sacred Hindu texts believe all people and caste come from. From Purusha’s head come the Brahmins, shoulders come the Kshatriyas, and so forth, and Dalits don’t have a position on Purusha’s body. Their status is below his feet. Having people move in this space below the heaviness of shoes gave the audience a performative insight into the caste system and its rigidity.


How have your exhibits been received by different audiences?

I have mostly been exhibiting my recipe booklet collections and ceramic bhakars. People can take the booklets with them for free. It has been fascinating to speak with people about them, especially at literature festivals, since it gives us a chance to talk about the Dalit authors and literature that the recipes are based on. Though Dalit literature has a strong voice, it is not as well-known as it should be, and this is my small way of gathering more interest.


How does your work deal with intersectionality of identities?

Without even trying, there is a definite female presence in my work — especially when talking about something like food, which women are inherently involved in, whether they want to be or not.

I am in the process of working on my own family photographs for this food and recipe project. I have been trying to crop out all the faces — at the same time, every time I crop photographs of the elements of food in it, somehow there is always a hand in the photo, and almost always it’s a female hand — whether it’s cooking, feeding a baby, or eating.

Men have written most of the autobiographies I have read because as first-generation writers who also were the first to go to school in their families. Even in these male autobiographies, when discussing food, there is always a female presence that is difficult look past.


What are you excited about in terms of this residency? What are you hoping to do here?

I have been attending a few classes on Buddhism and interspecies ethics, materiality and visual media. I am keen on learning and studying as much as I can. Academia will always be my first love!

I am especially interested in learning about parallels between race and caste. I attended a conference called Black Portraitures, which was helpful because I saw so many parallels between black narratives and Dalit narratives. It made me very hopeful that such big communities exist here as well and that maybe I can take this conversation forward. A lot of literature already exists on the idea of black hunger and the critique of soul food. I am trying to educate myself about that and see if I can make work later which interrelates the two narratives.


Do you have a process for condensing complex and layered issues into relatable artwork?

I am making an effort to have more fun with my art. When I first started, for example, the shoe installation was literally dark and so heavy, which made sense for the project.  However, I do not necessarily want to bring people down. I want people to think but I also want them to see the lighter and ironic side of things that in a way could be more honest.

One of my recent works includes these gigantic garlands of rock salt and red chilies, called Namak Halaal. The idea came about from seeing photographs of politicians in India with huge garlands that they cannot wear made out of flowers and money. There are awkward photographs of a person standing in the middle, with their hands folded, and seven to 15 people holding a gigantic garland around them because the garland is too heavy. If they would put it on that person, they would fall. At the same time, a garland is supposed to worn, yet this garland is made too big, as if the person’s significance is much larger than their body.

When I hung the rock and chili garland in the exhibition, people instantly got it — just seeing this big garland that people would automatically go and even pose with it and take photographs as if they were some important person within it.  

Though the work deals with a mockery of power and performance, it was hard for all of us to verbalize what it was about the very second we encountered it. I guess that is also a big part of making things fun, there is some part of your brain that just gets it but does not need to be explained.

Rather than addressing how to make work relatable, my motive is for it to be honest and be able to carry itself without romanticizing tough times or shower guilt on the viewer. That is all well and good, but the conversations the work generates can get boring and reach a pitiful dead end.

For more information about Goody and her work, please visit her website

Q+A: Studying the Past Through Genetics

Priya Moorjani



In the academic community, there are many ways to study a population and its history. Priya Moorjani, Assistant Professor of Genetics, Genomics and Development, University of California, Berkeley, is working to develop a more extensive view of the South Asian population identifying mutations and diseases in ancient DNA.

Before her participation in the upcoming panel “Are South Asians a Single Population? Insights from Culture, Genetics, and Disease,” The Mittal Institute asked Priya Moorjani about her research, which uses statistical and computational approaches to study questions in human genetics and evolutionary biology.

The panel discussion will take place on Monday, April 23rd at 4pm in CGIS South SO10. Priya will be joined by David ReichProfessor, Harvard Medical School; Richard Meadow, Director, Zooarchaeology Laboratory, Peabody Museum of Harvard University; Michael WitzelWales Professor of Sanskrit, Harvard University; and seminar chair Venkatesh MurthyProfessor and Chair of Molecular and Cellular Biology.


When studying a population’s history, what does the genetic lens put into focus? 

Genetic data carries a wealth of information about our ancestors. By studying the similarities and differences in genetic variants across individuals or groups, we can learn about how people relate to each other, what are some of the migration and gene flow events that have occurred in their past, and what genes that have helped them adapt to diverse climates or caused harmful diseases. Moreover, the breakthroughs in ancient DNA sequencing have made it possible to directly study patterns of genetic variation that existed in the past. This is very powerful, as it allows one to track the changes through space and time and build a more comprehensive view of human history and evolution.


Which recent adaptations have had the most impact on human and primate evolution? 

In humans, the main signals of recent adaptation are related to immunity, diet, and pigmentation. For instance, a mutation in the lactase gene enables Europeans to digest milk in adulthood, which is likely an adaptation to animal domestication and milk consumption. There is also evidence for adaptations related to immunity or resistance to diseases; Africans living in malaria endemic zones have a mutation that confers resistance to this disease. Recent studies have also documented many variants that cumulatively explain changes in skin color and height across populations. More anciently, there is evidence for selection at a gene called FOXP2 that is associated with speech and language. In primates, there have been multiple instances of balancing selection related to pathogen response and defense.  


What is introgression and what do introgressions tell us about early humans?  

Introgression refers to gene flow (or mixing) between two divergent groups or populations. Studies of early humans tell us that ancestors of all non-Africans and Neanderthals mixed with each other, conferring approximately 1-2% Neanderthal ancestry in non-Africans today. Moreover, ancestors of Oceanians and Asians mixed with another archaic population Denisova that lived ~50,000 years ago. This means that these early humans were not very different from us and likely had similar culture, language, and traits. More generally, these studies also tell us that mixtures between groups are very commonplace throughout human history and population relationships are best modeled as graphs with many interconnections among groups versus trees with population splits and separations.    


How can introgression be identified in genetic data?

Introgression can be identified by comparison of genomic sequences from the source, test, and an outgroup. The signal we are looking for is one where the source and test share significantly more genomic variants compared to the outgroup. We also want to see that these shared genomic variants are clustered together in “blocks” and not just randomly distributed throughout the genome — as this can allow us to differentiate between just shared ancestry and recent mixing. Block length can further tell us about the timing of the events, larger blocks imply recent events, and smaller blocks are due to older events. 


 When studying the South Asian population, are there specific diseases or mutations that you are focusing on?

In our recent study, we identified ~80 groups in India that have a history of founder events that are more extreme than those seen in Ashkenazi Jews and Finns, both of which have high rates of recessive diseases. There is no good survey of rare disease prevalence by groups in India, so instead of restricting ourselves to a few known rare diseases, we are taking a broader approach. We are collecting data from individuals in these 80 founder groups to identify recessive diseases that occur at higher rates in these communities and performing exome sequencing to map associated disease mutations. This approach will allow us to build a catalog of variants related to rare recessive diseases in India that can be used for future screening and testing efforts to reduce disease burden in the subcontinent.


What is disease mapping and what makes India such an interesting region for disease mapping?

Disease mapping refers to the comparison of cases (individuals with the disease) and controls (individuals without the disease) to identify genetic variants that cause the disease. South Asians have a unique history of population mixture between divergent groups, followed by a shift to endogamy leading to severe founder events in many groups. This history predicts that many groups may have a high burden of recessive diseases stemming from one or two mutations specific to individual groups, that are segregating at high frequencies in these groups. By tracing the signature of founder events in these groups, we can identify the variants associated with these diseases. Such an approach has been extremely powerful in founder populations of European descent like Amish, Ashkenazi Jews, and Finns. In India, there are many founder groups providing even greater opportunity for disease mapping. Moreover, extending studies to more diverse ethnic populations in South Asia provides an opportunity to discover rare, population-specific disease variants, as well as replicate findings in Europeans to minimize false positives.


How do you hope your lab’s research will help both the scientific and South Asian communities?

I am deeply interested in understanding population history and human evolution. To this end, my lab is focusing on developing methods for characterizing population relationships and identifying genetic variants that are associated with human adaptation and disease. A particular focus in the lab is to apply these methods to South Asian populations, which have been majorly underserved by genetic studies thus far. In this regard, there are two main projects that we are working on:

  • Studying how the population history of South Asia has changed over the past 5,000 years — a period of major mixture and profound change in the subcontinent.
  • Performing disease mapping in South Asians that leverages the history of founder events, uncovering disease genes in many endogamous groups.

These studies will not only provide insights about South Asian history and disease but also help refine our understanding of the biological function of various genes and pathways and offer potential new therapeutic targets.



South Asian Sisters Bring Yoni Ki Baat to Harvard

Theater and performance art can bring many things to both its audience and actors. It can educate, empower, and start difficult conversations. As part of Asian Heritage Month, the South Asian Sisters @ Harvard are producing Yoni Ki Baat, a South Asian version of The Vagina Monologues, to place a spotlight on gender, sexuality, and femininity in this cultural context. SAI chatted with co-directors Amberine Huda and Sheliza Jamal, SAI communications intern, about their involvement and passion for this production.


Tell us a little about Yoni Ki Baat and how you got involved?

Amberine: In a society deluged by post-colonialism, patriarchy, caste systems, sati, and Shar’ia Law, the notion of gender equity, and sexual empowerment has in large part been forbidden and taboo. In the early 2000’s, South Asian Sisters’ Sapna Shahani took the idea of the Vagina Monologues in India, brought it to the United States, and called it Yoni Ki Baat, a direct Desi, or South-Asian version of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues.

Sapna functioned as the bridge between the network of American feminist theater and the blossoming network of South Asian feminist theater. At my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I met the director during an audition for the inaugural production of Yoni Ki Baat. After that, I was hooked; I had the privilege of co-directing this production for three years, with South Asian women and women of color from across the campus and Wisconsin community.


Students rehearse for the upcoming performance of Yoni Ki Baat.


What led you to establish a chapter of South Asian Sisters at the Harvard Graduate School of Education?

Sheliza: I felt that the distinct experiences of South Asian women were missing from many conversations. The Asian American narrative is conceptualized in terms of Asian Pacific Islanders or in the student group PACE (Pan Asian Coalition for Education at HGSE), which do not capture the unique identities of people from the South Asian diaspora. At HGSE, there are a number of International students from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The South Asian Sisters @ Harvard provides women a place to express themselves and meet for chai to chat with like-minded women. As a SAS @ Harvard initiative, we decided to produce Yoni Ki Baat, as a part of Asian Heritage Month.

Tell me about the HGSE Performance?

Sheliza: There are approximately 10 women involved from the School of Education, Design, and Engineering. All the women are performing monologues about experiences specific to their life on topics such as sexuality, colorism, puberty, and consent. Some monologues have been written specifically for this performance, and others have been borrowed from the original Yoni Ki Baat Script. We really want to celebrate women and their many talents. From our first rehearsal, the performers showed such strength and vulnerability in their touching stories. It is truly an honor to work with such powerful, fearless, comedic, and loving women.  

Where is the show? How do people get tickets?

Amberine: The performance will be held on Thursday, April 19th at Askwith Hall at the Graduate School of Education, 13 Appian Way. Doors open at 6:00 pm and the show will commence at 6:30 pm.

There will be an art showcase featuring artwork from South Asian Female Artists with a reception to follow. We wanted to make this event accessible to both the Harvard and external community, so tickets are free thanks to support from the HGSE Dean’s Diversity and Innovation Fund from the Office of Student Affairs, and the Arts in Education Program.

SAI Hosts Open House on Fostering Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries

The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute (SAI), Harvard University conducted an open house on “Trust and Creativity, Fostering Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries,” the last in a series of events planned to mark the official opening of its India headquarters in Delhi.

Tarun Khanna, Director, The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University and Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor Harvard Business School, spoke about various aspects of encouraging entrepreneurship in developing nations. Shri Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation and a former investment fund manager and management consultant, took part in the discussion and moderated the question-and-answer session. The SAI India office marks a new era of Harvard University’s direct engagement with the region.

Tarun Khanna, SAI Director, chats with Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation at an open house in New Delhi.


For more than two decades at Harvard Business School, Prof. Khanna has sought to study the drivers of entrepreneurship in emerging markets as a means of economic and social development. He spoke about the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute’s commitment to studying and researching all aspects of South Asia, alongside its partnership with major Indian institutions in arts, social entrepreneurship, and life sciences. Mr. Sinha spoke about how entrepreneurship can improve economic growth of developing nations like India.

“We strongly believe that encouraging entrepreneurship will help our nation develop by opening multiple avenues for younger generations,” Khanna said. “The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University is committed to disseminating knowledge, building capacity, informing policy, and engaging with issues that are shaping South Asia today, by conducting research across the South Asian region. This open house is part of the monthly seminar series planned by the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute to spur knowledge-sharing amongst thought leaders. I believe these events will encourage a fruitful exchange of views on crucial issues and inform policymaking in a positive way.”

The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University, is a university-wide research institute at Harvard that engages faculty and students through interdisciplinary programs to advance and deepen the teaching and research on global issues relevant to South Asia. Currently, Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute in India is running programs/research projects in India related to the arts, social science and the pure science. The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute also serves as a nexus for Harvard’s engagement with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, as well as diaspora populations from these countries.

This article was originally published on EduNews Careers 360. 

Getting to the ‘Why’ of British India’s Bloody Partition

By Alvin Powell, staff writer, The Harvard Gazette

The birth of Hindu-led India and Muslim-ruled Pakistan in 1947 from what had been British India was horrifically violent, the start of a religious conflict in which millions died and millions more fled across the new borders toward safety.

The great sorting that occurred after the Partition of India remains the largest forced migration in human history, characterized not just by the bloodshed and tears with which it is often associated, but also by often-overlooked acts of courage and kindness, according to Harvard scholars studying it.

Partition’s echoes still resonate, and not just in the memories of remaining eyewitnesses. They are found in the two nuclear-armed nations’ postures toward each other, in the continuing dispute over their common border, in their modern demographics, in the reduced but still significant religious minorities in each nation, in the neighborhoods that arose where refugee camps once stood, and in the lessons learned that affect similar migrations such as that of Syrians currently fleeing civil war.

Since the fall of 2016, Harvard’s Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute has been taking a new look at Partition, which researchers say remains fertile ground for researchers despite prior work by scholars.

“What we’re trying to capture is this moment in time,” said Jennifer Leaning, the FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It is an extremely important part of world history.”

Researchers now can deploy tools enabled by advances in technology, computing, and data science, that let them ask fresh questions and take different approaches to answering old ones. In addition, research that relies on memories of eyewitnesses to the 70-year-old episode gains urgency with each passing year.

“Obviously, it’s urgent because those who lived through this trauma inevitably won’t be with us much longer,” said South Asia Institute Director Tarun Khanna, whose family resettled from Pakistan to northern India at the time. “Partition is a super-extensively studied issue, but also it’s my perception that there are many angles that are utterly unstudied.”

Map of Partition Routes

Millions took to the land, sea, and air to escape religious persecution in the Partition of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The project is designed to appeal to scholars from across Harvard in a way similar to that of the institute’s 2013 project on the Khumb Mela, a massive, eight-week religious festival that occurs every 12 years and brings millions of people daily to the banks of the Ganges River. Scholars participating in the Khumb Mela project examined the event from viewpoints involving religion, public health, urban planning, government administration, security, and commerce. Steering the current project are Leaning and Khanna, who is also Harvard Business School’s Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor.

“Our power is to bring to this project, this topic, to people who would not normally look at it,” Khanna said.

“Looking Back, Informing the Future: The 1947 Partition of British India” is supporting four avenues of inquiry. One, led by Leaning, is examining the humanitarian implications of migration, focusing on relief efforts and resettlement of refugees by different levels of government, as well as non-governmental organizations.

A second, led by Khanna and Karim Lakhani, Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration, is seeking to collect and analyze the oral histories of 3,000 survivors, with an emphasis on those not represented in earlier histories: women, minorities, and the poor. The third project, led by Rahul Mehrotra, professor of urban design and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, is examining Partition’s impact on cities, including some of the subcontinent’s largest urban areas, like Bombay, Calcutta, Dehli, Lahore, and Karachi.

The fourth (but not final aspect, since Khanna anticipates more in the future), examines the geopolitics emerging from Partition, focusing on analysis of political speeches by leaders of India and Pakistan delivered on the international stage. That is led by Asim Khwaja, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development, along with Khanna, Lakhani, and Prashant Bharadwaj, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego.

That project will benefit from the tools of modern information technology and data science, which allow not just the large-scale, big-data analyses of traditional information, but also increasingly allow analysis of unconventional data sets, like the content of political speeches where common themes emerge from word choices and language analysis.

The work, aided by institute staff including project manager Shubhangi Bhadada and research assistants Saba Dave, Nabil Khan, Rasim Alam, and Ajay Kumar, is being done in collaboration with partners in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which at the time of Partition was part of Pakistan. Those local partners include scholars, project staff, and an army of research assistants who act as “ambassadors” to conduct structured interviews with Partition survivors.

In addition to the research, the institute last spring sponsored weekly seminars on Partition-related subjects on campus and has held meetings on the project in Cambridge, Providence, London, New York, Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan, and Delhi, India.

Though the Partition project began early last year, one of its investigations, Leaning’s exploration of Partition’s humanitarian aspects, had a head start. More than a decade ago Leaning started exploring refugees’ experience during migration, how they were handled on arrival, and what sparked the religious and ethnic violence.

SAI Partition Team Meeting

Partition team members Rahul Mehrotra (clockwise from center) Diane Athaide, Saba Dave, Shubhangi Bhadada, Nabil Khan, and Rasim Alam pore over Partition interviews and documents. Photo courtesy of Shubhangi Bhadada.

“Some people moved hundreds of miles to the border, and the violence precipitated their decision to leave,” Leaning said. “[The violence] became quite intimate in these rural villages.”

In research published in 2008, Leaning and colleagues, including Kenneth Hill of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, argued that Partition affected many more people than previously thought.

Instead of the 14.5 million thought to have moved from country to country in previous estimates, Leaning and colleagues said up to 18 million may have moved, and between 2.3 and 3.2 million likely died in the violence. Research published in 2008 by Bharadwaj, Khwaja, and Atif Mian reached similar conclusions, saying there were 17.8 million migrants and 3.4 million killed.

At the time of Partition, the setting was ripe for a breakdown of order, Leaning said. Nascent Indian and Pakistani governments were still getting their feet under them, while the former colonial power, Britain, was broke and exhausted after World War II. Britain was demobilizing troops who might have proven useful in responding to such a large-scale humanitarian disaster and preparing for an exit from the region, Leaning said. Despite unrest for months before Partition, British officials were “surprisingly unprepared,” Leaning said, and preparations made at the local and provincial level were swamped by the numbers of people moving.

“The problem was the numbers were overwhelming,” Leaning said.

Making things worse, she said, was that among those demobilized were former soldiers who had served in the British Indian Army, arriving home with not only military training, but also with their weapons.

Leaning said that might explain something that always puzzled her about Partition: the relatively high death rate. Many more were killed then might have been expected in a similar setting. But if demobilized troops took part in organized attacks on refugees, those attacks would have been particularly deadly.

“An enormous number were demobilized but not disarmed,” Leaning said. “This was not just mass hysteria violence. There was a high level of organization and lethality.”

Results from the Partition project’s more recent investigations will likely come out later this year, and a book presenting the results is planned for next year. Khanna said he expects inquiries on the subject to continue beyond that, possibly for several years.

“We started this on the 70th anniversary,” Khanna said, “I’m hoping by the 75th anniversary of Partition we would really have published quite a few things and been able to showcase what we learned from a long-running project.”

This article was originally published by The Harvard Gazette on April 6, 2018. 

Contemporary Pakistani Artist and Academic Continues Traditional Craft

Figure 6. Yogi Mughal Salim Album, ca.1600-1605, Harvard Art Museums


Murad Khan Mumtaz is a painter and a PhD candidate in Art and Architectural History at the University of Virginia. His primary research focuses on devotional portraiture with a special interest in representations of Muslim saints in early modern India.

On April 6th, he gave a talk at SAI that will discuss sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century album and manuscript paintings made for Muslim patrons.

Before his talk, we chatted with him about his Miniature Portrait training at the Lahore National College of Art, his influences, and journey into traditional musawwari painting. 


How does your art practice inform how you approach your academic research?

As someone trained in the practice of traditional Indian painting, I always look to investigate the processes involved in constructing a work of art. Looking at a seventeenth or eighteenth-century painting, for instance, it is fascinating to see how the paper was prepared, what pigments were used, and how the drawing was built up layer by layer (Fig. 1). Knowledge of the craft can also enhance a stylistic appreciation of an historical artwork, thus helping locate its school and period.



Figure 1. Utka or Vasuka Nayika Kangra, ca.1800, Boston Museum



When did you first begin to practice musawwari painting?

I started learning the technique in Lahore, at the National College of Arts in 2001. At that time, it was the only institution in the world that had a “Miniature Painting Department,” where you could complete your BFA in the traditional medium (Fig. 2). However, I began to realize that the school was teaching an attenuated technique that had been significantly altered during the colonial period.

The ethos of the College is deeply entrenched in modern and postmodern Western-centric canons of art making. As students in the Miniature Painting department, we were encouraged to produce art from within that worldview, rather than looking at our own cultural history, context, and intellectual framework (Fig. 3).

Subsequently, I learned techniques of Pahari painting (painting from the Punjab hills) from an artist who had learned from traditional musawwirs in India. That has given me a far deeper understanding of materials—such as natural pigments—and techniques (Fig. 4). This experience also helped me find links with the historical practice.

Most recently I have been greatly influenced by the masters of Pahari painting, particularly those working in the eighteenth century Basohli and Guler schools of painting (Fig. 7).



Figure 2. National College of Arts Lahore



How has contemporary Miniature Painting practice in Pakistan diverged from the tradition of Indian painting?

For contemporary miniaturists in Pakistan, condensing a traditional methodology into a Western academic system has come with a heavy price; integral material and philosophical practices that were once transmitted organically through the ustad–shagird (the master–disciple) paradigm have been sacrificed. By contrast, musawwirs/chitrehras in India continue to be more rooted in the hereditary, artisanal guild system. However, in India patronage for the art form is rapidly dwindling. The mainstay is primarily the bazaar. 


Could you describe your process of acquiring materials? To what lengths do you have to go to procure some of these rare pigments and other materials?

I get many of the basic pigments, such as vermillion, orpiment, and cinnabar from the old city in Lahore. Others, such as indigo and white can be bought from India. Interestingly, I collected many of the earth pigments, such as ochres, browns, and cadmium yellow while hiking in the mountains in New Mexico. These are the same pigments that are still used by santeros (icon painters) in New Mexico.

There are still families in Rajasthan that make traditional handmade wasli paper, and are the main source for paper. You can also get squirrel-tail-hair brushes from them. Although, one of the first things we were taught as students in Lahore was how to make your own brush using squirrel tail hair.



Figure 3. Karkhana #9 Collaboration between Contemporary Miniaturists, 2003



How do you address what you refer to as the paradoxical messages from the global art economy, which asks for “ethnic” aesthetics but judges by the established European canon? 

In the contemporary art market—which is essentially the product of a Western and Westernizing discourse—there is no space for pluralistic art practices that want to engage with their own intellectual history. Recognizing this fact, I have gradually receded from mainstream art practice.

Contemporary miniaturist practice from Pakistan has been comfortably slotted into a niche that reflects larger trends in the art market. In general, for the last three decades or so, artists hailing from non-white—and especially Muslim countries—are given recognition only if they engage with issues of “identity politics” and cultural satire— particularly those who criticize, subvert, or caricaturize their own cultural values.

Within this dominant system, Islamic calligraphy, for instance, or traditional musawwari made for a genuinely devotional function can never be considered as legitimate art forms. In a global context, these artistic expressions are primarily appreciated as historical objects behind glass cages in museums or in the auction house, but are seldom recognized as contemporary art.



Figure 5. Mulla Shah Mughal, ca 1655, Smithsonian



Your talk and recent research explore the significance of the figure of a yogi as an emblem for the spiritual path of Sufism. What led you to explore this aspect of manuscript paintings?

When I started my research in collections around the world, I kept coming across individual folios from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that depicted portraits of local Indian saints: both Muslim and non-Muslim (Fig. 5). That led me to investigate the history of these images, as well as examining their function for early modern Muslim patrons. I realized that in the Indo-Islamic devotional landscape the figure of the yogi—both as a literary topos and as a visual metaphor—played a crucial role (Fig. 6). The image of the yogi still resonates deeply with Indian and Pakistani Muslim audiences as a figure of spiritual longing and detachment from the world.


How do you as an artist preserve tradition while allowing for innovation?

Tradition, which is derived from the Latin trādere, literally means to hand down, give or impart. Therefore, it is not something relegated to history. It is only meaningful as a term if it is living. And the best way to preserve a tradition is through practicing it. Once it is understood as a living system, and not as a static thing of the past to be viewed only in museums and catalogs, then the question of innovation does not even arise.  


Q +A: Shaping Nepal’s Leaders


Building a country’s future is no easy task. Especially since young leaders often need to be coached and given proper opportunities. Even with this challenge, Pukar Malla has spent his career conducting research and developing initiatives to bring self-sustaining entrepreneurship to Nepal. 


Before his focus on leadership, Malla spent time in the private sector — leading technology designs at Intel, AMD, Silicon Graphics and a Silicon Valley start-up, and secured two U.S. patents. While working as a senior innovation policy specialist at the World Bank, he supported the governments of India, China, and Ghana to promote innovation and inclusive growth.


As a former senior research fellow at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership, he investigated and piloted frameworks for innovators to lead change within communities. After conducting research on leadership models, Malla got more insight by applying his theoretical models in Nepal. To further his dream of prosperous futures for Nepali youth, he founded Daayitwa, a Nepal-based social enterprise that nurtures leaders who collectively transform societal challenges into opportunities through entrepreneurship and governance innovations. He is also the founder and executive coach at the Nepal Leadership Academy, which nurtures leadership in youth and public leaders for promoting inclusive growth in Nepal. Malla is SAI’s Nepal Programs Director and also serves as a member of the Think Tank at the Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare.  


In an interview with SAI, Malla discussed his work, curricula, and hopes for Nepal Leadership Academy’s new leadership Trek course.  




Pukar Malla 

What is the philosophy and research that led to the creation of your course Leading from Within?


From my work with Nepalese youth, I saw that young people have significant talent, passion, and energy to bring change. However, many young people, despite their best intentions and efforts, are unable to create a sustained impact. I joined the Harvard Center for Public Leadership as a Senior Research Fellow in 2015 and worked with Marshall Ganz and Ron Heifetz for 18 months to uncover these underlying issues and how youth leadership can be nurtured.


During my research, I noticed that there were two main trends. First, authority holders, generally in the older population, fear their loss of power and marginalize the youth. Second, young people want immediate change and resort to taking quick actions, without fully respecting the socio-political sensitivities. Additionally, youth in developing nations, are a demographic majority, however, they lack positions of authority and their huge potential to lead innovation remains unharnessed.


I began testing some of my research-based learning in the field through leadership pilots in Nepal. Consequently, I came up with a leadership framework for young innovators; Leading from Within was one of the courses that grew out of that framework.



How did you first start to develop your own leadership skills?

I first began developing my leadership skills in high school when I took on some authority positions, however, I was not able to achieve the change I wanted to see. These experiences of failure were extremely painful. I asked myself — why I was failing despite my best intentions and effort. I began to slowly discover that my individual expertise was only going to take me so far and that I needed to learn to work within a team.  I began to develop my leadership skills in order to prepare for the bigger projects I eventually wanted to work on in Nepal.


How does the unique environment of NLA’s leadership trek impact the course? 

During the Trek, the participants have a unique opportunity to reflect on their leadership learnings. The Trek will take participants through various moments — thrilling, peaceful, noisy, compassionate and more. Against these changing backdrops, participants examine their inner journeys through each of the six leadership modules by way of journaling, peer discussions, and conversations with the Coaching Advisors.



What has been the influence of Prof. Marshall Ganz and Prof. Ronald Heifetz on the creation of this course?

Marshall and Ron have had a colossal impact on my life and on this course.  Marshall’s work focuses on community organizing and is rooted in the principles of justice and grassroots actions. Ron’s work focuses on adaptive leadership, with an emphasis on diagnosing adaptive challenges within oneself and/or the system. Many aspects of their work have significantly influenced the design of this course, from theoretical to implementation perspectives. I am grateful that Marshall and Ron continue to support me in my research and other campaigns in Nepal.



What are some of the most important takeaways that you hope students will leave the course with?

I want some of the key takeaways for the course participants to be:


  1. Listening to oneself: One must understand one’s calling before one can mobilize oneself and others in this uncertain journey towards a shared purpose. Participants will learn about their agency and experience the freedom of choice.
  2. Empathizing with others: Any system includes people that will support you, oppose you, or remain undecided. Knowing their perspectives, not just in a technical sense, but by truly feeling their pain, is critical to understanding the system. Participants will learn to empathize with key system stakeholders and act politically.
  3. Diagnosing adaptive issues:  Understanding the real source of conflict in values, in terms of where participants are and where they need to be is paramount to creating action options.  Participants will learn methods to analyze adaptive problems.
  4. Taking collective actions: One must mobilize a team to transform what it has (people) into what it needs (power) to get what it wants (progress). Participants will learn hands-on tools of community organizing.



How does this course assimilate NLA’s learning about adult development and social innovation?

NLA has offered leadership courses to over 250 young social innovators in Nepal and the U.S.  In this process, we have learned how the mental complexity of adults grows as well as about how youth takes creative risks to achieve social impact. Leveraging these course experiences —including the understanding of the capability gaps of youth — NLA has designed the Leading from Within course to make the most optimal use of the three-week Trek experience.



What is the relationship between the Trek and Daayitwa?

The trek is organized by the Nepal Leadership Academy, which is a sister organization of Daayitwa. NLA was once a Leadership Lab program of Daayitwa, and now NLA offers leadership courses to various constituents affiliated with Daayitwa programs, including policy, social, and business entrepreneurs. The course incorporates learnings from previous courses on adaptive leadership, community organizing, governance innovation, and public narrative. Plus, some of the proceeds from this course will go to support Daayitwa’s rural entrepreneurs in gaining improved access to investment opportunities.







SAI Hosts Student Research Art Exhibition

Sacred Groves, Prathima Muniyappa

Picture 1 of 13

Sacred Groves, Prathima Muniyappa



On Wednesday, April 4th, SAI hosted an opening reception for its Spring Art Exhibition, “Showcasing Research in South Asia Through Visual Arts.” It features 2D and 3D art and artifacts inspired by Harvard students who traveled to South Asia sponsored by Harvard SAI travel grants. The show was curated by Sheliza Jamal (Graduate School of Education) and Neeti Nayak (Graduate School of Design). At the event, SAI chatted with them about the show. 


How did you get involved with this showcase? 

Neeti: While I was doing my research, I realized that there were a lot of art projects that were tangential to the research that I was doing. However, I couldn’t really talk about them when I was doing my thesis project.  I wanted a way to showcase the arts-based side of my project, and I was sure there were other students who had similar motivations. I chatted with Amy [at SAI] and she liked the idea, and we decided to do something about it.

Sheliza: Amy [at SAI] told me about the opportunity for an art show, and I jumped at the chance because I am interested in anything art-related.  


How did you choose the theme “Showcasing Research in South Asia Through Visual Arts”? 

Neeti: I’m working on a degree in master’s in design engineering, and we have a heavy focus on interdisciplinary work. To be interdisciplinary, you have to present your work in a way that is digestible by a lot of disciplines. And that’s why being visual is the most important thing [in bringing it to other audiences].


What was your favorite part of the show? 

Sheliza: The images, pieces of art, and artifacts are all manifestations of research in South Asia. Reading about how [the students] were inspired to take a picture, bring an artifact back, or create an original piece of work, was the most inspiring part of curating the exhibition.

Neeti: My favorite part of the show was working with a co-curator who had a completely different perspective on things. We came together to look at the layout of the show and choose the kind of images that best represent a certain line of research. 


What was the submission process like? 

Sheliza: We emailed the database of SAI grant recipients, and we asked them to submit an image of either an artifact, a piece of work that they had done, or a photograph they had taken while conducting research in South Asia. They also provided a short description so we would get an idea of their research and what that visit meant to them. We wanted to include as many pieces of art as possible, be inclusive as possible, and keep in mind the different regions. We didn’t want to have everything from one country. We were pleased that the exhibit has pieces from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Nepal.

Art as a Weapon of Resistance in Kashmir


Tushar Madav and Sarvnik Kaur’s documentary Soz: A Ballad of Maladies gives the world a look at the Kashmir region without media-sponsored stereotypes or rhetoric.

Their film is a portrait of poets, musicians, and artists who have turned their art into weapons of resistance during periods of heightened state repression and violence in Indian-administered Kashmir.

In an interview with SAI, the filmmakers of Soz: A Ballad of Maladies discuss their film and the importance of telling the overlooked stories of artistic dissent in Kashmir.

SAI will screen Soz: A Ballad of Maladies on Monday, April 9 at 12pm.


How did you decide to explore Kashmir through the music scene, as opposed to other communities?

Kashmir is one of the most troubled regions in South Asia today – its geographical location makes it a strategic geopolitical territory. The political belligerence of three nationalities consumes Kashmir, leaving no scope for a people’s own voice or history to surface.

Unfortunately, most mainstream discourses on Kashmir’s conflict are devoid of the region’s historical context. Kashmir has a history of political dissent through music and art that goes back more than 400 years. The contemporary Hip Hop artists draw heavily from their own folk traditions such as the Ladishah — a folk music art form that employs satire and poetry to critique ruling regimes. Art and music are born out of the lived experiences of artists and musicians, and we decided to use this alternate lens to understand Kashmir’s conflict.

Our journey into the region began in 2013, with a rock-music competition organized by the Army at a venue in Srinagar, which also functioned as a military garrison and interrogation center- guns and guitars featured on the same cinematic frame. As we dug more, Kashmir’s rich folk history surfaced as context to understand the region’s political conflict.


You have mentioned in past interviews that Kashmiris can be distrustful of the media. How did you find artists to participate in this project?

Mainstream Indian media is not particularly trusted in Kashmir, as it often misrepresents the voices of people to suit and conform to the state’s narrative on the region. Moreover, the popular media in Kashmir is heavily surveilled and controlled by the state and military machinery. Many young artists featured in the film, such as MC Kash, are underground since the Government of India has banned some of their work.

As documentary filmmakers, we had the privilege of not working against the deadline of an immediate news telecast. We knew that an agenda and narrative had to be found through our experiences with the artists, and that is exactly what happened.

The contemporary artists of Kashmir are aware of the landlocked predicament that Indian nation-state has imposed upon them. We, as makers of Soz, were aware of our own insignificance as members of a vast empire we call India. However, Soz held the promise to be a canvas that could bring to life the Kashmiri people’s struggle against the brutal occupation of their land, by way of personal experiences and narratives of its artists. We didn’t veer away from this intent, and as a result we were lent the expressions and voices by these artists to craft this film.


How did you navigate the challenge of gathering multiple narratives of such a complex conflict into one film?

The history of Kashmir is complex and rich. Someone once told us — “Nothing in Kashmir is straight except for the poplar trees”; and I believe it is very true. Since film is a very limiting medium, as it is bound by structures and timelines, we had to find a unifying theme to tie the film with a common thread. Art and music as a tool of resistance became that unifying thread and Zareef Ahmad Zareef’s interlocution helped us make sense of creating an overarching narrative for the multiple voices captured in the film. We spent a year editing over 100 hours of footage, and constantly restructuring it to find the best narrative.


How does Kashmir’s history of oral storytelling differ from the state-recorded history of the region?

Every year, people in power spend a lot of money keeping Kashmir at a certain level of rhetoric in the national media, which manufactures consent and adds fuel to the diatribes and virulent exchanges on social media. The young Kashmiris we met felt conflicted about the history that they studied at school and the ones that were sung at home.

The youth discover these oral and aural histories, and thus they view the present day from the prism of this experiential history that found no place in official narrations. The youth’s belief that their experiential history will be lost one day is strengthened by the administration and civil citizen’s denial of human rights violations, the unmarked graves and enforced disappearances. When Kashmiris are free to acknowledge their history without fear of persecution, I believe many separate narratives will find space to coexist peacefully.


Do you think art is an effective medium for protest?

Art and music transgress borders and languages. As a medium they also offer a palatable viewpoint to a conflict that seems to have become such a crucial block for India’s nationalistic imagination. MC Kash draws inspirations from artists like Tupac. Artists like Showkat Kathjoo speak through performance art to express their dissent.

I believe that guns and stones have a role to play in a fight against military occupation, especially for those who may not have the luxuries of producing art; however, art offers an alternate and perhaps a more sustainable path to digress from passion-driven calls for freedom and provide space for a much larger audience.

During the making of Soz, I often wondered if art is an effective tool to wield when the oppressor comes armed with LMGs, AK47s and an entire system of oppressive laws to continue to persecute those who dare to protest.

As we spoke to MC Kash, a thought took root in my mind that I have not been able to shake off – that advocating that art is a better form of resistance might be a colonialist line of thought. People living through their bitter experience may or may not have the agency to express their dissent through art, but their lack of artistic ability should not deter them from expressing their political opinions. Theirs may not be an artistic expression, however, no one should write off their expression of dissent.


What do you hope people will learn from this documentary?

We hope that this film will allow people, both in India and abroad, to reflect upon the voices of the people who have experienced Kashmir’s long-standing history of violence and state repression. The film also offers a reason-driven understanding of the Kashmir conflict from the lens of music and art, which are as universal as air and water.

The film is an attempt to “re-story” Kashmir in the popular Indian imagination by illuminating this landlocked region’s historical milestones, in order to provide a context for present-day Kashmir. The idea is to move the discourse away from rigid binaries of national and anti-national; terrorist and patriot; Muslims, and Pandits – to arrive at an informed, empathetic, and certainly more humane perspective.