Two Delhi University professors create what they hope will be a stimulating platform for the revival of Humanities.

This is an initiative born in Delhi but is in response to a worldwide phenomenon. It is backed by academia but has the potential and promise of roping in anyone, in any nook of the country. The lone requisite is, the heart should beat for the humanities.

A path breaking initiative, MargHumanities, spearheaded by two Delhi University academics along with a clutch of like-minded thinkers, is aimed at combating the global phenomenon of increased depletion of institutional support to the Arts, India including. With the two key factors involved — humanities and academics, the idea had all the potential to become an elitist, academic project to ponder in a rarified atmosphere the politics of humanities worldwide in the shifting times. But the beauty is, it is not. MargHumanities is no high brow, limited entry mission. In fact, it comes across as an endeavour to create a vibrant community, beyond the institutional space, “a meeting point, a hub” to debate on the challenges of the times faced by humanities comprising the fields of literature, language, theatre, performing arts, et al. The community would include, academics of course, but also students, artistes, writers, theatre-persons too, anyone connected to humanities either “directly or remotely”. Together, they would build a platform, “both real and virtual”, to battle the ever-growing “anti-Humanities brigade” and carve out an animated slice of public space countrywide for the Arts.

Brinda Bose and Prasanta Chakravarty, Associate Professors of English Literature in Delhi University, and the brain behind MargHumanities, in fact, have already created an interactive virtual space by launching a website (www.marghumanities.org) recently. In a chat, the duo explains the genesis of the idea: “Worldwide, humanities is facing an existential crisis. There is more and more withdrawal of institutional support for the Arts and humanities, apparently with the active encouragement of policy-makers and administrators. Much as we see it as a crisis, we also would like to look at it as an opportunity for a critical pause, of self-reflexivity, of re-girding battalions and marking fresh targets.”

Welcome signal

With policy thrust on technology a global reality, traces of which can be increasingly seen in governmental policies here too, skills picked up from studying humanities are more and more losing their value. With students often at the receiving end, Brinda and Prasanta have clearly sent out a welcome signal to the community for active participation by naming the initiative MargHumanities, the Marg bit drawn from Delhi University's arterial Chattra Marg, a public thoroughfare on which tread scholars from across the country and abroad.

To battle the tide, humanities in many parts of the world have already seen New Age offshoots like Digital Humanities, which is digitising collections of historical texts and using digital tools and methods to analyse them. Indicating that there are no two opinions on whether humanities is really undergoing a crisis in India, the duo is clear: either you are with it or against it. “The practitioners of Humanities who are cynical, dejected, compliant or abject or resigned are as much the opposition as the visible anti-Humanities brigade which is empowered, identified and incites us to battle,” they say. Giving an idea of how humanities is not on the priority list of our policy makers, Brinda points out, “More and more IITs and IIMs are being set up but till today, nothing has been done to rectify the fact that there is not a single humanities centre across India. We have good institutions like the Centre For Studies in the Social Sciences in Kolkata but not a focused humanities centre.” Delhi University could have set an example in this regard, she says, “instead it thought of setting up a technical centre.” Also, institutional funding is increasingly drying up.

Strategies for debate

To whip up the debate, MargHumanities has assembled a four-pronged construct. One of the platforms is Parley Arts which would attempt to bring people from the field of dance, painting, film, writing, photography, music and related areas to create a space of “dynamic interrogation, intervention and interaction to do with the arts.” Its first colloquium is slated for this month in Delhi.

Then there is Englit India Now, which will probe deep and “gaze back on English Studies in India which has not had much self-scrutiny since the early 1990s, and will seek to identify ways in which its future can be reinvented.” While its programme, Humanities Underground, is a space given to people to express themselves in the form of writing, its Global Humanities Initiative is MargHumanities' international face. It is born out of a partnership between Professor Michael Levenson, founding director of the Institute of Humanities and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia, US, and MargHumanities to hold a series of conferences in Charlottesville (Virginia), New Delhi and elsewhere in the next three years and come up with publications stemming from these discussions. The first conference will take off in Virginia in April 2012, to be followed by one in New Delhi's Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in August next year. The duo says, “These conferences and publications will take forward discussions, arguments and action-resolutions about the state of the Humanities globally, agreeing that while it is a global concern, it is not made up of a set of globally or universally-identifiable matrices and so must be carefully discerned and understood.” And the path to it is already laid out — “an ebb and flow of opinion, debate, argument, agreement, dissent, consent, thought, pause and passion.” Well, watch out opposition!