Harleen Singh receives Burkhardt Residential Fellowship

Office of the Vice Provost for Research: Congratulations! Tell me about your recent award.
Harleen Singh: The ACLS Burkhardt Award is for Recently Tenured Faculty, to offer support to be a resident at one of their centers. I will be at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. The National Humanities Center brings together scholars working in the humanities on large projects. The Burkhardt Award is given to scholars working on multi-year projects, which is their generous way of looking at my project. I’m hoping my project is less multi-year than they think it is. The Provost Research Grant allowed me to do the initial work on this project, which then led me to apply for this big fellowship.

OVPR: What led you to this work?
HS: My background is in literature and women’s and gender studies, specifically the ways in which women have been represented historically in literature. My first book The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India (CUP) was about a 19th century queen who led her troops into battle against the British in 1857. The book is about how literature retells this woman’s story to different effects. I looked at literature written in India in Hindi and Bengali, and the ways in which these different traditions, and sometimes different objectives, use the same story and tell it to different effects. And so my background is in women studies but also in narrative, and how these narratives give us insight into not only the historical past, but also into the ways in which our present is defining gender and sexuality.

This new book takes me into a different direction, where I’m analyzing literature and film alongside ethnographies, and interviews with people who are involved in many of the same questions.

OVPR: What do you learn about the films that you grew up with when you’re teaching them to a class of Brandeis students, who see the films in a different context?
HS: Great question. Because it allows me to explain something that isn’t often understood. When I teach, I’m teaching stuff that I know best, stuff I’m interested in, but I’m also teaching things that allow me to go on a journey with my students. Many times these courses are about questions I might have. Through teaching them a film, I get to look at it in a very different way, use a different lens. So some of these films I grew up with, others I didn’t because I’ve been away from India for a long time, but I get to do two things: I get to see the ways in which students see what is unfamiliar, and I also get to see the ways in which they connect to the familiar. Sometimes these films may have different context, different history, different background, different language, but on the other hand there are some human questions—Who we are, How we love, How we die, How we think about our countries, how we think about our families, many things—so for me, the most interesting thing is how students connect with the unfamiliar, but within the unfamiliar, how they can find what is familiar. I don’t want to use the word universal because I think that covers over the real difference in our lives but I do think that there are some commonalities in being human. That to me in the real beauty of the humanities, not just to find the stories and be looking at narrative and film, etc., but to look at questions that, whether they might be different for you and me, are still questions we think about, albeit in different contexts.

OVPR: In your Provost Research Grant application, you mentioned your work provided an alternate reading of the subject matter. Why do we need an alternate reading?
HS: There’s a need for an alternate reading because women in India tend to be defined with what is traditional, cultural, what is religious, what is patriarchal even, and so too often what happens to women in so-called modern India is also contextualized in terms of traditional, patriarchy, religion, etc. Women in India are leading modern lives, they’re in the workforce, they’re studying, and they’re everywhere that men are. It seemed to me that there were aspects—especially in terms of sexual violence—of India’s push to be modern that were not being investigated. There were ways in which being modern in India and being a women in India was a specifically different alternative story which hadn’t been told so far. I’m hoping it’s a way to look at India’s recent modern history, apart from its independence, from 1947 to now, that takes a different tact.

OVPR: Do you make a connection to the present day in the US, how understanding the context in which questions are being answered gives more depth to the answers?
HS: My work is focused on India but I live and work and teach in the US. My work is focused on India because that’s what I’m trained to do and know best, but I continue to see how my work on India has real resonance in the United States. The United States has somehow thought that we’re done with gender: our woman are working, women no longer have to be told to keep house, and they’re in the workforce, they’re doing everything, we’ve had a woman run for president. But the visible face of women participating in the public life in the United States makes invisible the ways in which women continue to deal with domestic violence, gender discrimination, or with putting together families and work lives. I’m hoping my work on India will help spur a conversation in the United States about the ways in which we’ve moved forward but we really haven’t. Any woman that has worked and tried to keep any kind of family has seen there are real challenges. Even at this point, with maternity and paternity leave, I’ve rarely met a woman who told me that putting a career and a family together has not been a challenge. And a lot of people have done it successfully, but I haven’t yet met someone who said it doesn’t come with some hardship.

OVPR: What about your background led to this work?
HS: I was born and raised in India and came to the United States when I was 18 and a student. In the beginning I didn’t want to have anything to do with India, and I wanted to do something very different because it seemed like everyone was pigeonholing me into knowing something about India. I wanted to be a student just like everyone else, who had things to say about other things, not just India. But by my final year I got more and more interested in literature, and I began to think about the ways in which the things I was reading resonated with me particularly because of my background, and then my background could be a strength, not just a stereotype. In fact having this background, being born in India and growing up in the United States, put me at a very interesting juncture, where I could use the best—and sometimes the worst—of both worlds to bring an analysis and to contribute in some way to talking about women and gender and social justice that I may not otherwise, if I had just one background. It took me a while to think of it as a strength but I’m very convinced that it’s a strength now.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.