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January 6, 2000
Columbia Professor Wins Major Prize
A P Kamath
Gauri Viswanathan's radical interpretation of the phenomenon of conversion brought her praise last year soon after Princeton University Press published her book, Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief.
"I cannot conceive of a more important reading in its detail and its strength," wrote Sara Suleri Goodyear of Yale University. "This is the work of a dedicated and highly sophisticated thinker."
And now she has won one of the most coveted of prizes -- the 1999 Harry Levin Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association.
Viswanathan, a professor in the department of English and Comparative Literature, specializes in Indian literature and cultural studies at Columbia University. She argued in her book that the general characterization of conversion as assimilative and annihilating of identity was not correct.
On the other hand, she stressed that conversion demonstrates that a willful change of religion can be seen instead as an act of opposition. The book looks at, among other things, the rebellion of Dalits as personified by B R Ambedkar.
It traces patterns of dissent in 19th and 20th century culture through both British and Indian conversion to minority religions as a protest against a secular ideology that cannot satisfy their needs and aspirations. Among the radical conversion cases she has studied are those of Pandita Ramabai, and Annie Beasant.
Viswanathan began her academic training at the University of Delhi, with a BA in English and an MA in English received in 1976. Apart from teaching at the University of Delhi and conducting research on the emergence of English as an institutionalized field of study in India, she took a leave of absence to pursue a PhD at Columbia University in the early 1980's.
In 1986 she became a Mellon Fellow at the Society of Fellows from 1986 to 1988 and has gone on to receive several other grants and fellowships from organizations such as the Guggenheim, the American Institute for Indian Studies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Since then she has become a tenured professor at Columbia and has been a visiting professor at Colgate College.
Her first book, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study in British Rule in India, was published about 11 years ago by Columbia University Press and co-published in London by Faber & Faber.
It was inspired by her experience teaching at the University of Delhi. She had become fascinated by the response of the students to the study of English.
She realized that although there was a significant gap between the levels of English proficiency amongst her students, there was also a tremendous desire among many of these students to major in English.
For over a year, she thought about the means of finding ways to help the students become more proficient in the language.
She also began investigating the difference between government-run and private schools to understand where the gap in her students was originating.
To conduct her research she worked with teachers at various institutions and supervised Butler Memorial school for a year, a Hindi medium school for orphans.
But when she found the linguistic gap between students to be so wide, she said in an interview, her focus began to shift.
Viswanathan, daughter of a United Nations officials, gradually became more interested in the history of literature, and its role in colonial history.
"I moved away from the mechanics of pedagogy toward the question of the history of English," she said.
Her research also led her to discover that English literature, as an institutionalized study, was taught in India much earlier than it was taught in Britain.
Though as an academic she has spent more years in America than in India, she has always felt connected with India because of her area of concentration.
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