AHA Member Spotlight: Anupama Rao

Anupama RaoAHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. The “AHA Member Spotlight” series recognizes our talented and eclectic membership. Would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight? Contact Nike Nivar for more information.

AHA Member Spotlight
AHA Member Anupama Rao is an associate professor in South Asian history at Barnard College and Columbia University. Rao first joined the AHA in 2002.

1. Alma mater/s: University of Chicago; University of Michigan

2. Fields of interest: Anthropology of violence; comparative colonialism; gender history and feminist theory; intellectual history; comparative and subaltern urbanism; race and caste; human rights

3.When did you first develop an interest in history?

I have an odd relationship to disciplinary history. I was fascinated by European history in high school, and decided to major in it at the University of Chicago, where I went to college. (This was in the late 1980s, when Foucault, Said, and postcolonial theory were very much on the ascendant.) It just so happened that the University of Chicago was among the more important institutions in the United States for South Asia scholarship. I came into contact with two faculty members, Bernard Cohn and Ronald Inden, who inspired my shift away from Europe, and towards anthropology and South Asian studies. As I noted earlier, this was at a time when the critique of colonialism was transforming area studies, and the interpretive social sciences. I returned to history as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the (then) recently established Interdepartmental Program in Anthropology and History.

What has this kind of a trajectory meant for my relationship to disciplinary history? I tend to be conceptually oriented. I bring a focus on category-formation and an interest in practices of alterity to how I understand historical process. I also insist that students studying non-Western history know European history and philosophical traditions as well as they possibly can.

4. What projects are you working on currently?

I have just returned from a stint as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford) followed by six months of research in Mumbai, India after publishing The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India (University of California Press, 2009). The fellowship and research leave were in aid of a new project, tentatively entitled Dalit Bombay: Stigma, Precarity, and Everyday Life, which addresses the local itineraries of global Marxism in its confrontation with the resistant materiality of caste stigma and outcaste labor in Bombay/Mumbai, the epicenter of India’s working-class radicalism for most of the twentieth century. The project revisits the relationship between caste and class through debates that structured the public and political culture of western India in the first half of the twentieth century. As well, Dalit Bombay asks how the realities of caste and class were embedded in spatial practices and forms of inhabitation that impacted social life. At its broadest level this book project is an exploration of the politics of precarity and personhood in the aftermath of collective utopias of emancipation, and in the wake of neoliberal governance and the accelerated urbanization of the global South. The book grows out of a collaborative translation project focused on the biography and autobiography of a Dalit, or ex-untouchable Communist R. B. More, which provides a rare account of subaltern Bombay, and the public and political culture that sustained the lives of the working poor.

I am also working on a critical study of B. R. Ambedkar, the celebrated Dalit leader, constitutional lawyer, political theorist, and “architect” of India’s Constitution. I am especially interested in connecting key terms and ideas in Ambedkar’s oeuvre as these were affected by the inter-war intellectual cultures of American liberalism, on the one hand, and British and German social democratic thought on the other.

5. What books or articles are you currently reading?

I am reading a lot of policy documents on Mumbai! These include neighborhood studies, planning documents, and some annual reports of NGOs doing housing-related work. Otherwise, I am reading on and around Jacques Rancière’s work on “intellectual emancipation.” Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is on my bedside table.

6. What do you value most about the history profession?

I think archival research keeps historians honest. There is something deeply democratic about the fact that anyone can check your documentation, visit your archives, and engage you on the parameters (and limits) of historical interpretation.

As well, the historian’s quest for thick description, and her commitment to working across scale (and “types” of evidence) produces an engagement with alterity, with other times, spaces, and practices that suggest worlds lost, or ways of being outside or anachronistic to “our time.” The capacity to be outside or alongside one’s own time is an essentially imaginative and ethical act that carries transformative potential.

7. Any final thoughts?

Recent research and teaching have allowed me to experiment with visualization, spatial mapping, and other non-textual modes of presenting information. This shift into the digital humanities is especially exciting for me not because I have a regard for technology in the last instance, but because I have found that I can better understand complex interconnections and causal chains by using tactile and perceptual media. This is on a personal note about exploratory directions in scholarly method.

I think we are in a very fertile period in the “doing” of history, with organizing paradigms and methodological conceits having been seriously challenged, especially in the field of South Asian history, which I know best, and where some of the most interesting work is happening not around the study of colonial society any longer, but in the areas of early modernity and the post-Independence order.

When I step back to look at the politics of doing and teaching history, I am struck by the extent to which Euro-American narratives are being de-centered as history departments experience major growth in the areas of non-Western history. However this seems to be accompanied by discomfort with structural, or “big picture” analytical frames that often stand in for “theory.” Here one runs the risk of substituting conceptual comparison with comparison at the level of description.

Editor’s Note: Are you an AHA member? Would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member spotlight? Contact Nike Nivar at nnivar@historians.orgfor more information.

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