Moving back into my family home in the British Asian quarter of north-west London, having left Emmanuel, I realised that I had been neglecting the aesthetic traditions of my own community.
The legacy of empire that pervades the British education system had led me to believe that European languages and cultures are worthier academic subjects than their South Asian equivalents. Hoping to overturn this scholarly prejudice, I applied for Emmanuel’s Herchel Smith Scholarship to study South Asian art history and postcolonial theory at Harvard University.
The interdisciplinary privilege of the Herchel Smith Scholarship enabled me to enrol in a variety of courses from several departments, and to study South Asian visual culture from several different perspectives. I studied works from the early modern Mughal period up to the present day, and was taught by art historians, historians and film scholars. I had the extraordinary chance to look at material firsthand at the Harvard Art Museums and Houghton Library, and to see rare moving-image works at the Harvard Film Archive, projected in textural 16mm or 35mm rather than in synthetic digital renderings. Moreover, I took an intensive Hindi and Urdu language course, and am delighted that I am now able to read, write and speak these in addition to the regional Indian languages I speak at home.
Perhaps the only term I can use to describe the year at Harvard is luxurious. I feel entirely spoiled that Emmanuel funded me to work so closely with the university’s collection of rare books, art and film; to be taught by leading scholars and write papers under their generous supervision; to submit work for Harvard publications; and to encounter other students who are infectiously enthusiastic about their area of interest. I am looking forward to indulging further my curiosity for South Asian visual culture, and its entanglement with colonial politics, when I return to Cambridge in October for my PhD. My proposed project expands on
research I undertook at the Harvard Botany Libraries and Herbaria, exploring eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British colonial
compendia of Indian botany.
A generous benefaction from the late Dr Herchel Smith enables us to send a few recent graduates to Harvard as Special Students each year. In addition, around five current undergraduates take part each year in Harvard’s Summer Program for Research in Science and Engineering.