AHA Member Spotlight: Chandra Mallampalli
Chandra Mallampalli is the Fletcher Jones Foundation Chair of the social sciences and professor of history at Westmont College. He lives in Santa Barbara, California, and has been a member since 2000.
Alma maters: BA (religion), Gustavus Adolphus College 1987; MDiv, Fuller Seminary 1993; MA, University of Wisconsin 1995; PhD, University of Wisconsin 2001
Fields of interest: modern South Asia, comparative world, British Empire, South Asian law and politics
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
My first love was religious studies, particularly non-Western religions. After studying theology, I worked as a journalist in South Asia. My travels and writings on a variety of topics made me curious about the history of India. I never imagined making a transition from religious studies to history, but I ended up finding the study of India's past captivating. The strong cohort of grad students and faculty at UW-Madison laid foundations for an enduring fascination for archival research, conversation about and travel to South Asia, and projects that engage my core interest in religious identities and their evolution.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
Santa Barbara is located between the mountains and the ocean. What could be more breathtaking? Because of the rising frequency of fires and threat of floods and mudslides, we are also very tuned in to the global warming reality. As beautiful as Santa Barbara is, living here also brings a sense of immediacy to environmental issues, and I appreciate that. My history colleagues at Westmont are extraordinary teachers, scholars, and people. Our department consistently nurtures a climate of collegiality and cross-regional conversation. Westmont is also a place where the cultivation and inspiration of our students is a top priority.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am presently working on two articles: one that compares Arab migration to Hyderabad (India) and South Indian migration to Burma during the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Having just led a study abroad program in China and India, I am also working on another article that explores minority vulnerability in China and India. These threads are part of a larger interest in religion and cosmopolitanism. What factors in history have inclined adherents of religious communities toward greater openness to and empathy for outsiders? What factors have inclined them toward greater rigidity and closure? I look forward to probing such questions in my next book project.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
Teaching at a private, liberal arts college has forced me to teach broadly and comparatively. Fresh out of grad school, I longed for more specialization. It was not long before I saw the excitement of taking the world history turn. This was a direction for much of the field and it became something that enriched my experience of the classroom immensely along with my scholarly interests. As excited as I became about this larger world history canvas, I also developed a fascination for micro-history, or perhaps micro-history that addresses big picture questions. My most recent books, Race, Religion and Law in Colonial India and A Muslim Conspiracy in British India? (CUP 2011 and 2017) tell unusual stories arising within South India localities, but link them to transnational developments relating to race, migration, and flows of information during the 19th century.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
I have found the records of the Judicial Committee of London's Privy Council to be a treasure trove of information about India's imperial past, the law, and the workings of Indian society. A familiar trope of colonial histories deals with European men and their unions with local women. While perusing the Privy Council cases, I was delighted to find the original documents of just the opposite: a case concerning a Tamil speaking man from an untouchable caste who married a woman of Anglo-Portuguese descent and acquired wealth as a distiller. The rich documentation of this Privy Council decision helped me reconstruct the story of this interracial family (CUP 2011), its liquor business, and the legal dispute that fashioned identities of both sides.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
Over the years, I have developed a stronger interest in South Asian environmental history and have made it a point to integrate environmental themes into my courses. In this connection, I have found Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement to be an evocative, paradigm altering intervention. It offers a unique angle on Asia's place in the anthropocene, the impact of the colonial past on global warming, and issues of climate justice. This book combines Ghosh's gifts as a prolific novelist with his commitment to local, historical research. It has offered my undergrads a unique, Asian perspective on global warming and the role of academic disciplines in perpetuating its denial.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
Our discipline provides an antidote to the impulsive, utilitarian use of knowledge that underlies current political discourse. This is especially the case with the rightward shift in global politics, its demonization of minorities, and reckless exploitation of populist sentiments. When these impulses arise from distortions of the past, historians need to present a more accurate story. Amid today’s surge of populism, we need to get better at making our work accessible and interesting to broader audiences.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
Over the years, I have benefitted immensely from belonging to a guild that sharpens, informs, and expands my appreciation of the work we do. The AHA's journal and publications, conferences and workshops, and network of contacts has made this vocation one of steady growth and enrichment.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
Well, when I was on the job market interviewing at AHA a long time ago, I had a bad cold and actually avoided shaking anyone's hand at the interviews. Not sure how exactly this impacted the results.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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