Sumathi Ramaswamy, Ph.D.
James B. Duke Professor of History
I am a cultural historian of South Asia and the British Empire and my research over the last few years has been largely in the areas of visual studies, the history of cartography, and gender. My recent publications in this area include The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India (Duke University Press, 2010); and two edited volumes, Barefoot Across the Nation: Maqbool Fida Husain and the Idea of India (Routledge, 2010), and Empires of Vision (co-edited with Martin Jay, Duke University Press, 2014). My pictorial monograph titled Husain's Raj: Visions of Empire and Nation was published in 2016 by Marg, Mumbai. My work in popular visual history led me in 2006 to co-establish Tasveerghar: A Digital Network of South Asian Popular Visual Culture. More recently, in collaboration with Heidelberg Sinologist Barbara Mittler, I have started a comparative project titled, "No Parallel?: The Fatherly Bodies of Gandhi and Mao." This project has been funded by the Humboldt Foundation which honored me in 2016 with the Annaliese Maier Research Award.
I am also pursuing a new research agenda on the cultures of learning in colonial and postcolonial India. As part of this agenda, I have recently published a monograph titled Terrestrial Lessons: The Conquest of the World as Globe (University of Chicago Press, 2017), in which I explore the debates in colonial India about the shape and disposition of the earth in the universe and examine the course of science education conducted around the terrestrial globe as a pedagogic object as it enters Indian schools.
A second project tentatively titled "A Strange Kindness? Giving & Learning in Tamil India," draws upon my experience as Program Officer for Education, Arts & Culture for the Ford Foundation in New Delhi (2002-2005). It charts the ethical, economic and political impulses that have governed private philanthropy directed towards the establishment of colleges and universities across Tamil India from the 19th century into the present.
or the secular citizen-artist of our times, is the inheritance of the twentieth century a burden to be overcome, or a gift to be embraced? Iconic Interruptions explores this question with the help of some select works of Indian artist Gigi Scaria who lives and works in New Delhi. Over the past two decades, Scaria’s lens-and-screen based works have exposed with deep insight and searing irony the catastrophic outcome of runaway urbanization, environmental degradation, and human displacement, but at the heart of it all lies an abiding concern with the state of the Indian nation, forged and fostered over the course of the last seventy years and yet clearly in the artist’s vision in a state of crisis, especially with the consolidation of a majoritarian nationalism and the retreat from a vaunted pluralism. Occupying the cusp of what he has characterized as ‘the burdened past and the disconnected future,’ Scaria periodically recalls the iconic figure of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, to interrupt a triumphal neo-liberal narrative of India 2.0 that has gained traction in recent years. Yet such a reactivation is not without an aesthetic awareness of the inevitable fate that awaits such founding figures and master men, be they Gandhi or Mao, Lenin or Stalin. Yesterday’s heroes and today’s icons are tomorrow’s relics, ‘a new layer of debris glittering on old trash.’  Curated by historian Sumathi Ramaswamy with the assistance of Katie King, Iconic Interruptions is a compelling reminder that artists like Gigi Scaria are conscience keepers of our times, as they are also creators against the grain of inherited pasts and foretold futures.
This project uses the tools of digital humanities to track the itineraries of the terrestrial globe in Mughal India. Supported by grants from the Arts and Sciences Committee on Faculty Research and the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University, I have undertaken this project as a cultural historian interested in documenting cartographic practices in the Indian subcontinent. Using Turning the Pages™ software, I have assembled imperial Mughal paintings from the seventeenth century in a digital album (muraqqa’) that showcases "the calculated display” of the globe of the earth within the frame of each work. I have also been concerned in this project in making available to a wider public a specific set of highly-specialized arguments regarding the arrival of the terrestrial globe as an object and as representation in India. Not least, this project uses the new tools of digital humanities to explore both the promise—and the limits—of online scholarship and curatorial work.