Sandra Robinson

BA, Wellesley College. PhD, University of Chicago. Special interest in South Asian cultures, religions, and literatures. Two Fulbright awards for field research in India. Articles, papers, and poems appear in international venues; ethnographic photographs exhibited. Chair of the South Asia Council and member of the board of directors of the Association for Asian Studies; administrative board of Harvard-Radcliffe College; senior fellow, Center for the Humanities, Wesleyan University; delegate to the United Nations summit on global poverty, held in Copenhagen; group leader for the Experiment in International Living; national selection boards for institutional Fulbright grants. SLC, 1990–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

Images of India: Text/Photo/Film

Spring

This seminar addresses colonial and postcolonial representations of India. For centuries, India has been imagined and imaged through encoded idioms of orientalism. In recent decades, writers and visual artists from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been actively engaged in reinterpreting the British colonial impact on South Asia. Their work presents sensibilities of the colonized in counter narration to images previously established during the Raj. Highlighting previously unexposed impressions, such works inevitably supplement, usually challenge, and frequently undermine traditional accounts underwritten by imperialist interests. Colonial and orientalist discourses depicted peoples of the Indian subcontinent both in terms of degradation and in terms of a romance of empire, thereby rationalizing various economic, political, and psychological agendas. The external invention and deployment of the term “Indian” is emblematic of the epoch, with colonial designation presuming to reframe indigenous identity. Postcolonial writers and artists are, consequently, renegotiating identities. What does it mean to be seen as an Indian? What historical claims are implicit in allegories of ethnicity, linguistic region, and nation? How do such claims inform events taking place today, given the resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism? For this seminar on semiotics and politics of culture, sources include works by influential South Asian writers, photographers, and filmmakers.

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Indian Medical Cultures: Yoga and Ayurveda 

Fall

This seminar explores the psycho-physical disciplines of yoga and ayurveda. In beliefs and practices of India, these disciplines overlap fields of medicine, law, and religion. Indian interpretations of body and self form a foundation for the seminar. Hindu and Buddhist dietary ethics are considered. Hatha yoga has broad implications for physical and mental hygiene, preventive medicine, and public health. Ayurvedic medicine addresses anatomy, physiology, respiration, digestion, and endocrine function without compartmentalizing these systems. We draw on contemporary theories in the philosophy and anthropology of medicine in order to interpret techniques of the self that are embedded in ayurvedic teachings. With globalization, yoga and ayurveda increasingly serve as cultural signifiers of postcolonial identities.

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South Asian Narratives and Identities

Spring

This seminar explores identity formation in cultures of the Indian subcontinent through a critical analysis of life histories. Using recent cultural theory, we examine biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs of figures from diverse communities. We study pivotal events in the lives of uncelebrated figures, along with experiences of artists and writers who are more widely known. Through such life stories, we explore issues of regional and national identities, religion and communalism, individualism within extended families, personal and collective memory, generational conflicts, and caste hierarchies. We analyze "etics" of subaltern positioning and consider "emics" of postcolonial fragmentation, alienation, and affinities. Student presentations address specific case studies. Seminar topics and theories are widely applicable to cultures beyond South Asia. How do political movements exploit religious affiliations? How do media technologies influence choices between traditional and cosmopolitan lifestyles? In what ways do personal possessions reflect aspects of identity?

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Writing India: Transnational Narratives 

Fall

The global visibility of South Asian writers has changed the face of contemporary English literature. Many writers from the Indian subcontinent continue to narrate tumultuous events that surrounded the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan upon independence from British imperial rule. Their writings narrate utopian imaginings and legacies of the past in light of dystopic visions and optimistic aspirations of today. This seminar addresses themes of identity, fragmentation, hybridity, memory, and alienation that link South Asian literary production to contemporary writing from settings elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Accounts of communal violence reflect global urgencies. The cultural space of India has been repeatedly transformed and redeployed according to varied cultural projects, political interests, and economic agendas. After briefly considering representations of India in early chronicles of Chinese, Greek, and Persian travelers, we explore modern constructions of India in excerpts from Kipling, Forster, Orwell, and other writers of the British Raj. We focus on India as remembered and imagined in selected works of writers including Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. We apply interdisciplinary critical inquiry as we pursue a literature that shifts increasingly from narrating the nation to narrating its diasporic fragments in transnational contexts.

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Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

Cultures and Arts of India

Year

The Indian subcontinent hosts numerous cultures grounded in Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, secular, and unassimilated traditions. This multifaceted seminar addresses the diverse cultural traditions of India through literature and the visual arts. Beginning with core mythologies and iconography, we explore modes of Indian thought and expression found in devotional texts, court poetry, popular narratives, Hindu temple sculpture, and Mughul miniature painting. Artistic production under Mughal and British imperial rule frames our study of the formation of Indian identities. We move on to explore contemporary Indian fiction and poetry in relation to modern painting, photography, and film. We interpret aesthetic, religious, economic, and political aspects of South Asian arts in light of postcolonial theories of production and consumption. Sectarian movements and caste hierarchies are analyzed in relation to systems of patronage. Our inquiries address these questions: How do arts of the 21st century both reflect and transform traditional myths and images? What social agendas have led to conventional distinctions between “classical” and “folk” arts, and why are such definitions now widely rejected? Why does the Indian canon include cuisine and body decoration among classical art forms? Which arts historically have been available to women? How have South Asian artists “written back” to orientalist representations?

Faculty

First-Year Studies: Cultures and Arts of India

The Indian subcontinent hosts many cultures grounded in Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, secular, and unassimilated traditions. This seminar addresses the diverse cultural traditions of India through literature and the visual arts. It also introduces first-year students to history, anthropology of religions, and cultural studies, bridging college-level work in both humanities and social sciences. Beginning with core mythologies and iconography, we explore modes of Indian thought and expression found in devotional texts, court poetry, popular narratives, Hindu temple sculpture, and Mughul miniature painting. Artistic production under Mughal and British imperial rule provides a framework for our study of the formation of modern Indian identities. Sectarian movements and caste hierarchies are analyzed in relation to systems of patronage. We move on to explore contemporary Indian fiction and poetry, photography and film. We interpret aesthetic, religious, economic, and political aspects of South Asian arts in light of postcolonial theories of production and consumption. How do arts of the 21st century both reflect and transform traditional myths and images? What social agendas have led to conventional distinctions between “classical” and “folk” arts, and why are such definitions now widely rejected? Why does the Indian canon include cuisine and body decoration among classical art forms? Which arts historically have been available to women? How have South Asian artists “written back” to orientalist representations?

Faculty

Pilgrimage and Tourism: South Asian Practices

Spring

Among global cultures of travel, pilgrimage is notably prevalent in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi Islamic traditions of South Asia. At temples and shrines throughout the subcontinent, pilgrims perform sacraments, rites of initiation, sacrifices, and other acts of renunciation. Pilgrim fairs and festivals serve multiple functions, providing venues not only for religious expression but also for arts performance, social negotiation, and economic exchange. This seminar explores the proposition that pilgrimage and tourism are functionally indistinguishable. If categories of travel are to be defined, what role, if any, do travelers’ intentions play in such an analysis? Is a spiritually inscribed journey qualitatively different from tourism with recreational, cultural, or service agendas? How does the transitional process of a journey from home relate to the experience of arrival at a destination? Through a study of travel memoirs, we explore themes of quest, discovery, and personal transformation. Postcolonial writings on spiritually inscribed journeys raise issues of dislocation, exile, memory, and identity. We inquire critically into traditional mappings of “sacred geographies” and the commercial promotion of competing destinations. We analyze travel industries and the specialists who service the many spectacles and attractions found along pilgrim and tourist routes. Films and photographic sources are used extensively. Readings are drawn from cultural studies, history of religions, anthropology, and personal narrative.

Faculty

Sacrifice

Fall

This seminar explores classical Indian and Western themes of sacrifice that survive today in contemporary literature and cinema. The sacrifice of a scapegoat channels violence and legitimizes acts of killing in order to serve social interests of surrogacy and catharsis. Sacrificial practices bridge religious, political, and economic aspects of culture. As sacrament, sacrifice represents transformational mystery. As ceremonial exchange, it facilitates negotiations of status, observance of boundaries, and the redistribution of goods. In specific cultural settings, sacrifice functions as celebration, as a manifestation of goodwill, as insurance, and as a source of communion. Seminar topics include gift exchange, fasting and feasting, the warrior ethic, victimization and martyrdom, bloodletting, scarification, asceticism, and renunciation. The seminar concludes by addressing the politics of sacrifice and alterity through recent critical inquiry into: 1) sati (widow immolation) in India; 2) charity and service tourism; 3) court rituals and judicial proceedings; 4) the targeting of ethnic scapegoats in transnational politics; and 5) contemporary “bullying” incidents. Texts include Hindu liturgies, Greek tragedies, Akedah paintings, the Roman Catholic Eucharist, and selected modern literature.

Faculty

Writing India: Transnational Narratives

Fall

The global visibility of South Asian writers has changed the face of contemporary English literature. Many writers from the Indian subcontinent continue to narrate tumultuous events that surrounded the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan upon independence from British imperial rule. Their writings join utopian imaginings and legacies of the past with dystopias and aspirations of today. This seminar addresses themes of identity, fragmentation, hybridity, memory, and alienation that link South Asian literary production to contemporary writing from settings elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Accounts of communal violence reflect global urgencies. The cultural space of India has been repeatedly transformed and redeployed according to varied cultural projects, political interests, and economic agendas. After considering brief accounts of India as represented in early chronicles of Chinese, Greek, and Persian travelers, we explore modern constructions of India in excerpts from Kipling, Forster, Orwell, and other writers of the Raj. We focus on India as remembered and imagined in selected works of writers including Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. We apply interdisciplinary critical inquiry as we pursue a literature that shifts increasingly from narrating the nation to narrating its diasporic fragments in transnational contexts.

Faculty