An interview with a couple who put together a $5 million donation for India Studies, at the Stony Brook University in New York.

“Nothing purifies like knowledge.” This statement from the Bhagavad Gita is the cornerstone of the Center for India Studies at Stony Brook University in New York (SUNY). Now it seems that knowledge just became even more accessible to students with a hefty $5 million donation, the biggest endowment ever for India Studies to any public university in the U.S.

The prime catalyst behind this is Professor Shikaripur N. Sridhar, Distinguished Service Professor and professor of Linguistics and India Studies at SUNY. For him and his wife and colleague, Professor Kamal K. Sridhar, it’s been a labour of love over the years. They are Director and Associate Director of the Center for India Studies and have nurtured it with generous support from the Indian community.

The centre has now been renamed Bishembarnath Mattoo and Sheela Mattoo Center for India Studies, in honour of the parents of Dr. Nirmal Mattoo, a leading nephrologist and Chairman of the centre’s Executive Committee, who has donated $1.25 million for an endowed chair and steered the endowment campaign. Dr. Mattoo, whose father taught chemistry at Kirori Mal College in Delhi, and who himself attended Delhi University, is a staunch supporter of public universities. He believes that India is really a treasure trove of knowledge in different disciplines and regional languages, and that this must be shared with the larger community. Excerpts from an interview with Professor Sridhar:

How did this gift come about?

It consists of a donation of $1.25 million from Dr. Mattoo for the Nirmal and Augustina Mattoo Chair in Classical Indic Humanities, a $1.25 million donation from the Indian American community and a matching grant of $2.5 million from the Simons Foundation.

What is the function of the Endowed Chair in Indic Humanities?

An Endowed Chair is the most prestigious prize a university can offer a distinguished faculty member. This will enable Stony Brook to appoint a world-class scholar in any of the fields to which India has made seminal and influential contributions, from ethics to aesthetics, linguistics to literary theory, philosophy to political science.

The University’s former president, Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny, has called the Center for India Studies ‘the jewel in the crown of Stony Brook’.

The centre is a national model of a vibrant partnership between a public university and the Indian community to create a better understanding of India’s rich past and dynamic present. We sponsor courses on India — its history, culture and the Diaspora. Our lecture series and performing arts series enrich the intellectual and cultural scene by bringing India’s leading thinkers, writers, and artists. We run an extensive outreach programme for school and college teachers, museums, public libraries, interfaith centres, civic groups, and candidates for public office. We organise conferences, publish books and journals, run a reference library, organise a ‘Study Abroad’ programme, and offer scholarships.

Today, we offer some 30 courses on India, taken by some 1,500 students every year. The success of our centre led to the establishment of a Department of Asian and Asian American Studies. Our centre’s model has been emulated in other States.

What was your prime motivation for starting this?

In most American schools and universities, the emphasis is on America and Europe, with Asia and India taught only tangentially. Students hardly know anything about India except Gandhi and the caste system. They are unaware of the momentous transformations taking place in Indian social institutions, and of India’s magnificent intellectual and cultural legacy.

How did the centre take shape?

It started in 1995 with students of Indian descent asking us for courses on India. As we worked with them, it was clear that we needed to bring about a structural change in the university. A one-time offering of a course or two would not do. We helped the students develop a comprehensive plan for an India Studies programme. They submitted this to the University President, with 700 signatures. We started teaching courses as overload, and the Indian American community mobilised financial support, led first by Dr. Azad Anand and then Dr. Mattoo. The centre was inaugurated in 1997, with a suite of offices right in the centre of the campus, and it has grown exponentially since.

Why did you need this endowment?

All these years, the centre has been supported by annual fund-raising. We wanted to put it on a permanent financial footing. A $2.5m endowment campaign was conceived of and completed in record time by a dynamic team including Dr. Mattoo, Sreedhar Menon, former deputy president of American Express Bank, entrepreneur Rakesh Kaul, long-term supporters Dr. Sudha and Sudesh Mukhi, and a number of donors.

Tell us about your students. Who opts for your courses?

Our students include Indian Americans, South Asians as well as Americans. Only about 30 per cent of our students are of Indian/South Asian background. Because these courses fulfil the university’s core requirements, people from diverse majors take our courses, and we also have majors and minors in South Asian Studies. And these students want to learn about their culture and heritage, something they cannot get from their parents, because they grew up in an essentially colonial educational system. All students want to learn about India’s growing economic and political importance on the global scene.

What impact has it had on the campus and community?

Our goal has always been to mainstream India and we have successfully integrated India into the university’s core curriculum. We serve as an authentic source on India for major American media. Our centre was the principal advisor for a PBS documentary, Asian Indians in America broadcast nationwide.

As one student wrote, “I now better understand how India’s culture and history affects its growth as a democracy, and why the success of the ‘Indian experiment’ is important for the world.”

What’s special about the centre’s Study Abroad programme?

We have taken students to India four times, about 25 students each year. The programme in Bangalore features four courses, visits to development projects, monuments of historic and artistic significance, and interaction with intellectuals, artists and activists. The response has been phenomenal. As one student wrote, “It seems as if my life now is divided into two categories: before Bangalore and after Bangalore. I know my time in India has defined me and changed me in ways I can’t yet recognise. Even today if you ask me about India I can’t help but smile and reminisce and think of how soon I can get back.”

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications and blogs at www.lassiwithlavina.com. Twitter: @lassiwithlavina. E-mail: lmelwani@gmail.com