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ACTS OF KINDNESS AND CARING, BIG AND SMALL: HOW THE CENTER CAME TO BE

S. N. Sridhar, Founding Director

The journey we celebrate today started in January 1995 when officers of the student
organization Club India asked why there were no courses on India at Stony Brook. We had
been asking ourselves the same question. There were occasional special topics courses,
but no regular India-related courses, let alone a program. We offered to help the students if
they could prove there was a strong student demand for courses on India. We helped them
draft a petition, and, to our amazement, they collected some 700 signatures and submitted
the petition to Stony Brook  President Shirley Strum Kenny, who had recently joined Stony Brook, and was a champion.

Word of this student-initiated movement reached Long Island Newsday, and Somini Sen Gupta, who later became the New Delhi bureau chief for The New York Times, wrote a detailed story in Newsday on April 19,1995, titled "India Studies mulled at SUNY."

We announced the India Studies Program with two courses in Fall 1995, as overload:
Introduction to Indian Civilization, taught by S.N. Sridhar, and Elementary Hindi taught by
Kamal (Meena) Sridhar, with about 75 and 50 students respectively.

The students got busy, spreading the word and mobilizing their cohort. We organized our
colleagues in various departments who were interested in India, and involved the India
Society at Stony Brook. The members spontaneously pledged some $2,000 to help the
students realize their dream –- our first fundraising!

The students demanded more courses and we added Hindi II and Indian Literature, again
taught as overload. As we thought about the demand and the needs of a basic India Studies
program, it was clear that a program could not be sustained by two professors teaching
courses as overload.

 

But those were lean times for the university (the situation has not changed!) and we feared
the fledgling program would be shot down if we asked for money. So, we formed a campus
committee with Professors Viswanath Prasad (Associate Dean of Engineering), Farley
Richmond (chair of the Department of Theatre), Prateek Mishra (assistant professor of
Computer Science), Subir Maitra  (research faculty in Emergency Medicine) and N.S. 
Ramamurthy (professor of Oral Biology). We met with the President and explained our goals.

I made a cold call on Dr. Azad Anand, who was active in the India Association of Long Island.
He was excited to hear about the program and invited us to discuss the proposal. Faculty and
community leaders met several times with President Kenny and the then Associate Provost
Robert McGrath. The idea of a Center for India Studies began to take shape. We enlisted then
Consul General of India in New York, Hon. Harsh Bhasin, who met with the president and the
community leaders and pledged the support of the Government of India.

Dr. Anand and friends at the Shanti Fund, Drs. Anoop and Urvashi Kapoor, Mr. Sudesh and
Dr. Sudha Mukhi, Mr. Surinder Rametra and, especially Mr. Arvind Vora, organized an elegant
breakfast at the Hamlet Club in May 1996 to inform the larger community of the India Studies
Program at Stony Brook. President Kenny and Consul General Bhasin were the main guests.
We invited deans and senior faculty from many disciplines. Although it was not intended as a
fundraiser, the attendees were so excited about the vision, energy, and momentum of the
movement that Dr. Anand collected spontaneous pledges totaling nearly $100,000. It was an
electrifying moment.

Realizing the symbolic and real importance of a local habitation and a name, and realizing
that the Dean had the authority to approve Centers without any investment of funds from the
university, we sought his approval to establish a Center for India Studies for coordinating
India-related activities. It was approved by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The
President and her administration allotted a suite of rooms in the library, in the heart of the
campus, and the Center was inaugurated on April 26, 1997.

Dr. V.S. Arunachalam, Scientific Advisor to three Prime Ministers of India, was the keynote
speaker. He wished the Center a future as bright and distinguished as that of the great world-
class universities of ancient India, Nalanda and Takshashila. The event in the Staller Center
was attended by over 700 people and was covered in a 2-page spread in The New York Times
with the caption, Asians Making an Impact on Long Island.

Support for the Center has only grown with time, thanks to the unfailing energy of the members
of our Executive Committee, first under the chairmanship of Dr. Azad Anand and then under
Dr. Nirmal K. Mattoo.  They have advised the director on initiatives to implement and expand its
mission and raised funds year after year, through annual benefit dinners, through sponsorships
in the thematic journals and through major donations.

 

Publication: Ananya

In 1996, we were presented with an interesting proposition by the Association of Indians in
America, the oldest national organization of this most highly educated, successful, and
influential of the groups that immigrated to the U.S. after 1965. Dr. Nirmal K.  Mattoo, then
national president of the association, and Dr. Narinder Kukar, chair of the Board of Trustees,
wanted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of India's Independence by publishing a book on
India that would present the panorama of Indian civilization in an authentic and
comprehensive manner. The book was intended for a dual audience:  Americans who
wished to learn about this new immigrant group; and children of Indian immigrants who
wanted to learn about their heritage. Dr. Mattoo and Dr. Kukar invited the Center to produce
the volume.

The idea fit nicely with the Center’s mission to produce authentic knowledge on India
presented in an accessible way. We accepted the challenge. Given the impossibly brief time
span and the vastness of the subject matter, there was no way any one person could do that job.It would have to be an edited  volume with many contributors. We invited the most
distinguished authorities ---authors, critics, scholars and intellectuals -- to contribute chapters on various aspects of Indian civilization from 3500 B.C.E. to the present. The result was Ananya: A Portrait of India, a hardcover volume with 41 chapters, edited by S.N.  Sridhar and Nirmal K. Mattoo, designed and produced at the Center with the help of Professor Kamal
Sridhar and brilliant students such as Ashu Patel. Ananya was published by the AIA and
released at a glittering function organized by the AIA at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on August
15, 1997.

Ananya, with its vast scope, stellar contributors and excellent production values got
enthusiastic reviews in India and the U.S. Ananya’s success established the reputation of
the Center as a serious player in India Studies.

We continued our strategy of authentic but publicly accessible research in our annual
thematic journals (edited with great help from Professor N.S.  Ramamurthy). Each is
focused on a specific theme  about India, for example, India's Contribution to  World
Knowledge.

Other events that gave major exposure to the work of Center were the International
Conference on South Asian Languages (2004), the first Stony Brook Conference on India
Studies (2008), and the Symposium on Vijayanagar.

Our Study Abroad program in India, starting in 2004 was another major initiative that
proved to be  tremendously popular and raised the profile of the  Center.

Dr. Nirmal Mattoo became chair of the Executive Committee in 2001. Under his leadership,
the Center began to take the first steps to ensure financial security by establishing an
endowment fund. Two benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall by India's premiere Sarod artist,
Ustad Amjad Ali Kan and his sons Aman and Ayan, started the fund.

 

The Ananya Fund

The annual fundraising model provided the minimal resources needed to teach courses on
India but it was extremely demanding and labor intensive. As the courses became more
popular and the Center’s functions expanded and our constituencies’ expectations grew, a long-term strategy became necessary. To take the Center to a higher level, and ensure the
continuation Center’s functions in perpetuity, we launched an endowment campaign, and
through the Carnegie Hall concerts and an endowment dinner hosted by President Kenny,
created the Center’s first endowment of over $300,000, which we named the Ananya Fund.
That fund stood us in good stead in the years when we could not organize an annual dinner.
Since the creation of the Ananya Fund, we have expanded the number and range of
courses offered, mainly by recruiting part-time adjunct faculty.  The success of the Center
was a catalyst in the establishment of the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies
in 2002 and the appointment of the first new tenure-track faculty in India Studies, Professor
Andrew Nicholson. The courses have grown from almost none in 1995 to about 30 a year.
 Now some 2000 students take India-related courses each year. There is a minor in South
Asian Studies and a major in Asian Studies with South Asia as a possible concentration. We
have just added two Masters programs, an M.A. in Contemporary Asian and Asian American
Studies and the other, led by Prof. Andrew Nicholson with the Philosophy department, an
M.A in the history of Philosophies, East and West.

 

Foundation for the Future

Over the last six years, we have worked tirelessly to create a permanent financial resource
for the Center in the form of a second endowment fund. The successful completion of this $5
million endowment, the largest endowment for India Studies in any public university in the
U.S. is the proud legacy of everyone who has worked for the Center over the years. An
international, multidisciplinary search culminated in the appointment of Professor Arindam
 Chakrabarti, an outstanding scholar and respected  authority in India Studies as the
inaugural holder of  the Nirmal K. and Augustina Mattoo Chair in Classical  Indic Humanities,
another major accomplishment,  for the university as well as the Center.

 

Community Engagement

We have always believed that because the Center is  part of a public university, we have an
obligation to  make the fruits of our research and teaching available  to the public. To this end,
the Center, from its  inception, has sponsored a distinguished lecture  series and performing
arts series. These series are  described elsewhere in this journal. The establishment  of the Charles B. Wang Center gave an added boost to  our programs, and the campus calendar has numerous India-related programs. The speakers and  performers in our series are among the very best in  the Indian intellectual, artistic and cultural arena. The  Center has thus enriched the intellectual and cultural  ambience of the campus and the community. 

In 2004, the Center served as principal advisor to the  PBS documentary, Asian Indians in
America, which has  been broadcast nationwide. The program features  Stony Brook, the
Center, its students and faculty.  


Yet another undertaking that has received  widespread appreciation has been our India
Outreach program, launched in 1995 but continued vigorously  all these years, with over 200
engagements.  


Community engagement is another feature that sets  the Mattoo Center apart from other
South Asian  Studies programs. Our Outreach Program has served  local, regional, and
national cultural, civic, social  service and media organizations and schools, colleges  and
universities. A listing of the institutions served  and the types of programs can be found
elsewhere in  the journal. In addition to schools and colleges, we  have assisted museums
and public libraries; media  outlets, governments, candidates for political office,  and ethnic
organizations.

 

Response

The Center has received recognition from the India  Studies community, the Government of
India,  universities in India and the U.S., community  organizations, and the media. A recent
example is our selection to lead an international research team to  translate a major regional
language Mahabharata into  English to be published in three volumes by Harvard  University
Press. Another example is the the  Government of India’s gift of a magnificent bronze  bust of
the great poet Rabindranath Tagore. There  are numerous others. A third example of
recognition  of the Center’s contribution was when Chancellor  Nancy Zympher conferred the
rank of SUNY  Distinguished Service Professor—the highest rank for  faculty in the country’s
largest university system—on  S.N. Sridhar in 2011.

The Center have been featured many times and  prominently in mainstream media outlets,
such as the  New York Times and PBS and in Indian American  television and print media. (A
sampling is included  elsewhere in this journal). The Center has become  one of the first
resources that journalists and others  writing on India turn to for resources and information
 on India.

The work of the Center has come to be regarded as a national model. We regularly get
requests from  universities across the country—for example,  Harvard, Illinois, Houston,
Florida International, and  Texas—to address students, faculty, administrators  and
community leaders about the “Stony Brook  model for a Center for India Studies.”

 

Looking Ahead

We have come a long way, but our job has only begun.  To quote W.B. Yeats, “In dreams
begins  responsibility.” We must dream big: to make our  Center one of the best in the world—a
vibrant and  comprehensive resource center, with the range and  depth of faculty resources worthy of the great  country and civilization we represent, bustling with  graduate and
undergraduate students and research  scholars specializing in many areas of India Studies,
 with all the necessary resources in library, staff, and  program support to sustain them. In
short, we need  to build an institute or a school of India Studies at  Stony Brook. Given the
energy and commitment of  our community, the ambition and cooperation of the administration, and the affection and involvement of  our alumni, this is a goal we can reach
in our lifetime.