AHA Member Spotlight: Sanjukta Poddar
Sanjukta Poddar is an assistant professor in modern South Asian studies at Leiden University. She lives in Leiden, Netherlands, and has been a member since 2021.
Alma mater/s: BA Hons (English), St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, 2007; MA (English), University of Delhi, 2009; MPhil (English), University of Delhi, 2013; MA, PhD (South Asian languages and civilizations), University of Chicago, 2022
Fields of interest: caste, identity, affect, print culture, urbanism, modern India
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
I started out as a scholar of English literature. Due to the pedagogical structure of Delhi University, my first experience of conducting research and writing a thesis was not until I was studying for my MPhil degree. At that time, I was also teaching in various undergraduate colleges, including my alma mater, St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. The combination of teaching and research made me realize that I was primarily interested in Indian cultural and social formations from the 18th century onwards, and in asking historical questions. This growing awareness led me to apply for a PhD to the South Asian studies program at the University of Chicago. Area studies allowed me space to craft an interdisciplinary project that combined my training in literary analysis, interest in print culture in multiple languages, and desire to understand issues of identity formation in the colonial-era and contemporary public sphere. Today, an amalgamation of interests in various research methods, languages, and a longue durée understanding of social and cultural history of modern South Asia and diasporas defines me a scholar.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
The expertise of scholars at the Leiden Institute of Area Studies encompasses all of Asia: from Japan until the threshold of Europe. I enjoy the breadth of this exposure and the possibilities of inter-area, interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am exploring a conceptual/emotional history of pity in South Asian cultures as they manifest in elite and upper-caste relationalities towards marginalized communities.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
During a research visit a few years ago to a small library in Allahabad, I could not find much that was useful for my project. I gave up on the catalogue and started scouring the dusty shelves. I had to pull out individual texts and check if something useful came up. It was quite slow going, and I had almost given up, and then suddenly I came across a short bilingual tract—in Hindi and Urdu scripts—that carried a report of an intimate gathering on women’s education held in the Nehru home during the late 19th century. Until that date, I have not found a record of its publication in any catalogue. But there it is, perhaps the only copy and record of this historic meeting held in a homely setting, and attended by several women who went on to become pioneers of women’s education and emancipation.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
The rigor, the precision, and the possibilities it offers for understanding the self and the world. Around the world, communities are engaged in post-truth, ahistorical thinking. In such times, dusty old tomes and documents, art, artifacts, oral memories, et al., are the anchors that ground knowledge production, and function as beacons that illuminate a path towards balanced interpretations.
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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