Undergraduate seminar takes students to India

Nearly 8,000 miles from the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in Philadelphia, eight students immersed themselves in “The Performing Arts of Modern South India” through a year-long course that included a 12-day visit to India and continues through the spring.

During the fall semester on campus, the students reviewed the development of the performing arts in pre- and post-colonial South India, such as Bharatanāṭyam dance and Karṇāṭak music. In addition, they wrestled with questions surrounding citizenship, caste politics, law, marginalization and disenfranchisement.

The class is a part of an ongoing series of courses called “CU in India,” co-sponsored by the Center for South Asia and the Department of South Asia Studies. While “CU in India” has been in existence for a few years, this is the first time Davesh Soneji, an associate professor in the School of Arts & Sciences who started at Penn in the fall of 2016, is teaching it.

Soneji specializes in the intersections of social and cultural history, religion and anthropology. His work centers on religion and the performing arts in South India, along with gender, class, caste and colonialism.

While some college-level study-abroad programs are generic cultural introductions, Soneji says this Penn Global Seminar takes a different approach.

“We begin with micro-histories about music, dance and theater and dive into larger questions about South Asia's modern history, which includes critical examinations of issues like gender, class and caste, as well as the ‘meta issues’ of modernity and its discontents in this part of the world,” Soneji says. “The course uses the performing arts to talk about issues related to social justice, religion and contemporary politics.”

More important, the class explored the ways in which these art forms were essentially appropriated from socially marginalized populations who were prevented from embracing their cultural heritage as a result of social-reform movements.Curtis Kuo, a senior biochemistry and biophysics major in the School of Arts and Sciences from East Lansing, Mich., says the most jarring thing he has learned so far in the course had to do with this sort of cultural hijacking.

“In the reinvention of classical traditions, the government and upper-class elites have taken groups' means of livelihood and cast them aside, while marketing the art forms as ‘pure and ancient Indian dance, musi, or theater,’” Kuo says, adding that last semester was heavy on reading and lectures to prepare the students for when they actually arrived in India.

The cohort traveled from Dec. 22 to Jan. 2, visiting towns and villages in South India. This short-term overseas-travel component contextualized the content, allowing for an in-depth understanding of classroom concepts.

“Part of the course,” Soneji says, “involved visiting historical sites related to the production of music and dance in the 19th century but also involved speaking to artists from disenfranchised communities about their experiences in the modern world of India's arts.”

Tara Giangrande from Frederick, Md., says by traveling to India, everything that the students talked about in the classroom turned into “a real, tangible experience of how hereditary performance communities have been impacted by elite cultural agendas.”For another student enrolled in the course, Courtney Daub, a freshman from Milton, Pa., the trip made her want to visit again in the future but stay for a much longer amount of time.

“It was really focused on engagement with people and learning about their expertise and experiences within the context of what we'd been learning in the course,” Daub says. “A lot of what is appealing to me within cultural anthropology is this engagement with people and an emphasis on the histories that inform the present, mixing academic and activist work.”

All on-the-ground costs were covered through the Ahmad Fund and Penn’s Global Engagement Fund.

Through unique opportunities like Penn Global Seminars, Soneji says, he is able to share his work in a niche setting while students were able to connect firsthand with highly specialized research that grapples with “big questions” in the field of South Asian studies.

“Students were able to see how the historical issues we examined have deep and long-lasting consequences for real people even up to the present moment,” he says.

For the rest of the current semester, the students will be completing independent research projects that will culminate in a final 30-page paper.

At first, Kuo was hesitant to sign up for the course because of the year-long commitment, but he’s glad that he did.

“The ‘CU in India’ program is for students who are otherwise too busy to fit a semester or summer abroad. It’s tough for biochemistry majors to take a semester abroad, so this was perfect for me,” Kuo says. “It’s a great way to spend my final year at Penn.”

For photos from this Penn Global Seminar, click here.

Penn global seminar in India