Rosinka Chaudhuri: On Cultural Studies, Her Role in CHCI, and the Location of Thought

Rosinka Chauduri is a Professor and Director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Chaudhuri detailed her perspectives on academia within the Global South, on pedagogy, and her relationship with CHCI. She notes her participation in CHCI’s 2022 Annual Meeting Face to Face and her experience being a part of a global network that informs her work and perspectives.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Danae Hart: Thank you so much again for taking the time for this interview. My name is Danae Hart. I am a postdoc working with Berkeley and CHCI this year, working on communications. Let's start with having you briefly introduce yourself.

Rosinka Chaudhuri: So I am director and Professor of Cultural Studies at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta. That is one of a set of research institutions, there are actually 27 institutions in all, and we are among the top two or three which are centers of excellence. We are under the ICSSR, which is the Indian Council of Social Science Research. Our Center is funded equally by the Central Government of India at Delhi and the government of West Bengal, which is the state in which we're located. So we are a government funded, public institution in every sense.

We were set up as autonomous institutes that would be involved in research alone, but over the years we've taken up a considerable amount of teaching. At first we used to simply run a diploma course called a research training program (RTP), but since 2009 we are affiliated to a well-known university here in Calcutta, Jadavpur University, and we offer an M.Phil. degree and, of course, we also supervise PhD students. We take a small number of students, as obviously, you can see that we are a small research institute, we're not a proper university department or a big university. Nevertheless, we're known and highly respected for our faculty. Our faculty past and present are known nationally and internationally for their excellence in research—Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chatterjee, Amitava Ghosh, Ramchandra Guha are some of our former fellows whose names you might recognise, with the first two joining the year we were founded, in 1973—so really the primary aim is the production of research works of quality.

Danae Hart: And my first question was just to describe your overall experience at CHCI’s 2022 Annual Meeting: Face to Face and the presentation that you gave on the panel Thematic Explorations: Translations, if you could talk more about that experience.

Rosinka Chaudhuri: It was a wonderful experience. I have not actually attended an offline physical board meeting at the CHCI before because of the pandemic, as you know, we've been having our board meetings virtually. I have been finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the virtual meeting, because though in the moment it is fine, but I mean you know when you're speaking to a person in person, so to speak, and you're interacting in depth that's a different thing. On the other hand when you're looking at a square that is full of little smaller squares of the many faces at a meeting - while you can still participate in the overall discussion that's happening you don't get a deeper sense of who you're speaking to, where they're coming from, or what their situation or location is in relation to the CHCI. So when this meeting opened up as a physical meeting I thought I should take the opportunity, and actually meet people face to face—to use the very term that Ranjana chose so presciently for this year's CHCI meeting.

Coming to Duke helped me connect with CHCI with the functioning of its board, with getting to know its board members and, of course, to see overall the other events that took place, as well as put together my own panel which you mentioned. To be actually present there and interact with the audience afterwards was very rewarding in a way that I'm sure it wouldn't have been if I was simply stuck at one end of a computer. Specifically in relation to the panel, I thought the translations panel went really, really well. I think the success of that panel was mainly due to the contributions made by the panel members so we had Pablo Oyarzún [University of Chile], we had Andrés Claro [University of Chile], Peter MacDonald [University of Oxford] had been invited from Oxford, and I was there, and Carlos Rojas [Duke University] was chairing. The four of us, I think, came to the topic from different points of exploration.

We originally selected just a couple of things to focus on. One of these was the famous essay by Roland Barthes, “The Face of Garbo.” We discussed translations of a few lines from that essay and the other thing that the panel focused on was a few lines from a very famous Bengali poem, ‘Banalata Sen’ (which is a woman’s name) by the poet Jibanananda Das. Das is a very, very important and well-known modern poet in Bengal and every Bengali will recognize his name, but of course he was not known by the other panel members, so I was the one presenting on him. Peter was the only other panelist who did also try and engage with the translations from the Bengali by pointing us in the direction of Google Translate and how it renders these lines. I did provide them all in advance with original translations of the poem into English by the poet himself and by the recognized translator as well. It was like a discussion at a workshop rather than a conference with paper presentations, everybody spoke spontaneously, relying on their own notes, or whatever they had made in order to discuss these issues.

I thought a lot of really interesting points were raised and discussed. I was also very happy to be able to present this Bengali poet because, as I pointed out to the panel, French, of course, is discussed and known to the western Academy in a way that Bengali isn't. Yet Bengali is spoken by one fifth of the world's population, it is actually a language that, because of the number of people who speak it both in Bangladesh and in India has a large number of Bengali speakers, yet it doesn't figure in the conversation because of the usual indices of power and knowledge and the manner in which our academic concerns are constructed in relation to the political as well. So I was happy to be able to bring that poem on board and the audience, I think, responded, really, really well. I had a lot of people come up to me and speak to me afterwards. People just came up from different languages, like Korean, and said that the overall set of conceptual points made had spoken to them in relation to their own languages and literary histories. But the most interesting finale was when we were returning to the hotel in a taxi together discussing the translations and the taxi driver turned around and asked me what we had been doing, and he spoke to me in Bengali. So I said we've been discussing a Bengali poet. He was very happy to hear we had been talking about ‘Banalata Sen’, and he knew the poet, of course, and said he had come to Raleigh-Durham from the same town in Bangladesh where Das was born, Barisal in Bangladesh. And that, for me, was really the fitting finale to our translations panel at CHCI. This was so rewarding, to step outside of just the academic arena and find a resonance in life itself, in the moment.

Danae Hart: Okay, so my next question, and you said you've joined CHCI as a board member relatively recently, but if you could discuss, and you touched on this a bit, but if you could detail your work with CHCI so far as an advisory board member and your hope for the future directions of CHCI.

Rosinka Chaudhuri: So, because I joined as recently as I have, it really has been a learning curve for me. I have interacted with the other board members, I've learned about all these other humanities centers at these American universities. I was surprised to know that there were so many humanities centers funded on occasion by private family endowments. I spoke to the director of the Taft Center. I listened to the presentation of the director of the Tanner Center. These are all centers that are named after the people who endowed them, so the fact that there were that many people in the United States, who thought it worthwhile to invest their money, often considerable amounts of money running into millions of dollars into centers for the humanities was a wonderful thing. We don't have anything like that in India. It is something that every country should have. There should be such humanities centers everywhere, because humanities as a discipline, I feel, has been pushed on the back foot, it has been pushed to the wall in an increasingly technocratic globalized world concerned only with optics and impact and numbers.

India as a post-colonial country, in any case, has always been very invested in STEM disciplines. As a newly independent country in 1947 it was natural, perhaps, that it felt that these were the priorities for nation building, but at the same time, at that time the Indian languages had an amazingly strong tradition of good writing and good criticism. The humanities did survive and flourish for a while, but now, I think in India we need more support for the humanities institutionally and that should come following the example of the humanities centers in America that I came across in the CHCI. It should come from Indian businessmen and people who have money to endow, and god knows there are enough Indian billionaires around by now. Unfortunately though, as I was saying to some of the other board members that I spoke to on this issue, Indian billionaires tend to give their money to places like Harvard rather than to their own research institutes in their own country, which is a great pity. I wish they would look towards their own research institutes and do more to shore up the humanities in their own country.

As far as the CHCI’s board activities were concerned, I was impressed with the level of commitment and discussion on every topic on the agenda. Each point was discussed seriously and concerns were flagged for action to be taken on these issues. I was also glad to see that there was a lot of global representation. It was of course largely dominated by American humanities centers because I understand that this is the original basis for CHCI. But the fact that board membership has now spread out to China, Taiwan, Latin America, Africa and India is marvelous. It's good to see that the CHCI is expanding globally and that it's bringing more voices into its working than was the case so far. I do hope that the trend continues and that CHCI is able to speak universally to many more countries and benefit itself as a result of that input from global members. I was especially happy to see the global South represented robustly at the CHCI.

Danae Hart: Great and my next question is specifically about your role as Director, what does your work as the director of the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta entail?

Rosinka Chaudhuri: A lot of administrative work, which I think directors of all institutes have to handle, but otherwise, it is a pleasure and a privilege, because the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC) (Calcutta is part of the registered name, so it cannot be changed to Kolkata on the stationery!) is one of the premier research institutes in the country. It has a very high standing among such centers in India, not just centers, but even if you look at universities, as well as research centers. I do know that we are rated very highly by most global institutes and universities who come to us as their first point of contact when their work matches with the work we do. We have had very, very distinguished people as past directors and present honorary faculty. Our current faculty are also doing excellent work, and are comparable with the best anywhere in the world.

My work as director really is to coordinate all of that activity, to organize the annual events that are the flagship events of the Institute, and to take up international projects when approached. For instance, we are at the moment involved in a five institute Mellon foundation project called “Decolonization, the Disciplines, and the University”, for which the principal investigator is Mahmood Mamdani at Columbia University. The five institutes are the University of Ghana, the MISR [​​Makerere Institute of Social Research] at Kampala, the American University of Beirut (which, unfortunately, though, because of the disturbances in Beirut has dropped out now), Ifriqiyyia - the Institute for African studies at Columbia and us in India, the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. I'm just mentioning this as an example, because there are others as well - when such projects come in, then I'm the principal point of contact as director and the person who is coordinating all of that. Apart from which there is the research that my faculty themselves do, we bring out occasional papers, we have lectures, we have a year-long academic program with teaching involved, and there's research supervision so there's a lot of work, apart from, of course, your own pet research project that you are hopefully writing a book on at the same time.

Danae Hart: And speaking of your current research, could you describe the field of Cultural Studies today and any current research projects you are working on?

Rosinka Chaudhuri: Cultural studies, as you know, took off really with the Center for Contemporary Studies in Birmingham, Stuart Hall and all of that. America has had a very large role to play in the importance of cultural studies as a direction in which academic studies went alongside postcolonial studies. Cultural studies has flourished over the last half a century, and at least, I think, since the 1980s, it has been an important discipline.

For us at the CSSSC, Cultural studies is also exemplary because of the interdisciplinarity that it allows. We at the Center have always been a very interdisciplinary place where people speak to each other across disciplines of history, sociology, economics, political science, performance studies, literary studies, or film studies. People come at it from different directions, so cultural studies has been important to my work and generally in academic studies to date. I think it will survive because it allows for this interdisciplinary and because it allows people to explore something that may spread across a number of disciplines and and you can then focus on something that you want to focus on whether that's famously the compact disc or the Donald Duck cartoon. You can come at it from various points of view and because cultural studies enables and facilitates that to happen, I think it will survive and it will continue. It's certainly continuing where we are and there is a lot of work at our Center itself spread across the disciplines of the social sciences and the humanities.

I myself am a literary scholar, I have a traditional D.Phil. from Oxford, but my work is at the intersection of literature and history. My supervisor, Robert Young, did post colonial studies, and so I engage with it, but from a vantage point (Elleke Boehmer and I edited The Indian Postcolonial (Routledge, 2010) incorporating that engagement). Primarily, I have been interested in poetry and the conceptualization of the literary in poetry in the larger context of the making of modern cultural spheres in the colony. I have been preoccupied with minor forms, minor poets, and in investigating what constitutes minority in modernity - I have three books that I now realize has this thread running through them - I’m almost never looking at the major figures, the great writers. I’ve also done translations - of individual poems for the Harvard edition of The Essential Tagore and others in other books, as well as a Penguin Modern Classic called Letters from a Young Poet of Tagore’s early letters. And then, Poetry magazine Chicago recently (this March) published three translations from an early-nineteenth century poet called Ishwar Gupta who nobody knows but who was just brilliant - again a minor figure. He wrote poems called ‘Pineapple’, ‘Reading the Scriptures’, and ‘Topshe Fish with Eggs’ and I worked on the translations with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra - this I enjoyed immensely! I’ve also done some work on World Literature, an essay published in Interventions and another on Tagore’s conception of Visva-Sahitya [World-Literature] in the Debjani Ganguli ed. Cambridge History of World Literature (2021). The book I am currently trying to finish is called Young Bengal and the Making of Modern India, focusing on a group of radical rebels in the 1830s and 40s who I think were the first to put in place the grammar of modern Indian existence in social and political life. They have generally been overlooked in history writing and it has been a challenge to recuperate the materials and construct a narrative of the changes they wrought which had such a far-reaching impact on what it means to be Indian to this day.

Danae Hart: And, you have held visiting fellow and Professor positions at several institutions, including University of Oxford, King's College London, Delhi University, University of Cambridge and Columbia University how have these experiences informed your work and perspectives?

Rosinka Chaudhuri: As any respondent would say to a question like that - I think it has been hugely productive. It is always helpful for an academic to be able to reach out and to meet with other interested scholars in other places in the world, the conversation can only increase. So just as CHCI, for instance, has opened up these windows that exist, for instance in Latin America or in China, it has been productive for me as a scholar to have contact for a while with other places. These are global perspectives that would not have been available to me so easily if I was interacting only within my own department in Calcutta. Certainly it's always enabling to be able to visit other institutes, to be able to stay for a short time to interact with colleagues in a more sustained way than just traveling to a seminar or conference to present your own work.

That's a different experience, and that is also crucial, of course, to everybody's work, but when you hold a visiting position for some period of time somewhere that allows you to stay at a place and interact with colleagues and faculty in a way that a simple conference visit or a seminar doesn't allow you to, I think that its integral to every academic’s life nowadays. It is very useful to be able to reach out and take up positions that allow you to be at a host institution for some time. Then return home and allow all of those wonderful connections to infiltrate your thoughts and bring a certain richness to your work that may not have been there, if you were you know simply in one place all the time, so I think it's crucial, and I think it's enabling.

Danae Hart: And then I had one final question. How would you describe your pedagogy and how has it evolved or changed when teaching in different locations and contexts?

Rosinka Chaudhuri: So that's an interesting question. Although we are primarily a research institute we have voluntarily chosen to take up some teaching, because I think all of us, and certainly speaking for myself, I can say that, at some point in one's career, you realize that there can be no research without teaching and there can be no teaching without research.

For me, the term pedagogy encompasses both research and teaching. I would be impoverished if I was sitting at a research institute and doing nothing but my own writing without interacting with younger students and scholars. When you teach courses to students you're forced to keep up with current scholarship. You open up fields of debate and discussion with your students in the classroom that enable satisfaction and dissatisfaction with theoretical premises to be expressed and you are able to engage with intellectual arguments in a way that is not possible when you're sitting alone in your study or in front of your computer. It is enriching to be able to teach. It is enriching to be able to discuss things with students.

It has certainly evolved and changed in different locations and contexts, and this is an especially interesting question because you find when you're in a different location, your writing changes in some way. So I, for instance, was in Oxford for a considerable period of time doing my doctoral work and I've gone back there as well as the inaugural Mellon Professor of the Global South in 2017-18, and I taught classes there as well, on world literature. You find that because you're addressing a different audience the location of your thought changes and this creates a very interesting change in perspective in the manner in which you're addressing either your teaching or your research itself. It has been my experience that physically sitting in a different location and addressing a different audience changes the sort of work you produce because I think incidentally you're always addressing somebody when you're writing something. For instance, if you're writing on world literature, you will address the primary theorists and the main interlocutors will be these scholars who have written on the matter. If you are in Oxford you have access to the latest books and articles on the subject, whereas being located in Calcutta gives you access to Bengali materials unavailable in the West, which is commonsensical, of course. But being there in the margins as you write would also, curiously, in some way, change the expression of your thought. I find that very interesting when that happens to me it's extremely enriching. That perspective and a certain point of view that comes from the periphery I would be loath to let go of. I would not myself choose to be a diasporic intellectual, for instance, albeit there are so many Indians in American departments all over the United States, who are doing excellent work. But I think I contribute something slightly different by being here in India. I'm not sure whether I know exactly what it is, or whether I can theorize what it is exactly, but it is valuable to me, and I hope it is valuable to my work as well. Of course the margins have their material disadvantages in the sense of access to the biggest publishing networks, in the sense of your voice being heard, of finding good reviews, of not fitting into those networks of publishing and knowing each other that enable the American academic, for instance. Again I think access to the CHCI is helpful over there, it gives access to scholars who come from the Global South and it allows a particular region to join in a central conversation. For us, it allows a way, a reach, into that discourse, but for you, who are based in America, perhaps I hope it allows a certain conversation to go in a certain direction that it would perhaps not do if you weren't actually talking to people as far afield as you have now chosen to talk to.

Danae Hart: That is the end of my questions. Well, it was really great meeting you.

Rosinka Chaudhuri: Wonderful. Thank you so much.

Danae Hart: And thank you so much again for taking the time.