Following on previous years’ successful study abroad programs in India, Allegheny College (Meadville, Pa.) in May and June of this year offered “Restaging History as Media Event”—described as an “investigation into how historical sites and narratives provide the ‘theatrical’ backdrop to contemporary media events.”
Taught by media professor Ishita Sinha Roy and theatre professor Beth Watkins, the 4-credit course, according to its course description, “explore[d} the rise of Hindutva (Hindu neo-nationalism), Islamophobia, and backlash against women, as symptoms of neoliberal postcolonial anxiety.” Students were able to witness, said the description, “how heritage arts and crafts are being threatened as well as revived by global markets, and how tribal villages are organizing their own forms of cultural survival.” Fifteen Allegheny students, including two May graduates, participated—from a wide cross-section of majors and years (including only three media students and one theatre student). Allegheny librarian Linda Ernst also participated.
Watkins and Roy set discipline-specific goals of students learning “how representations of the past in popular culture are dramatic re-enactments of old antagonisms on the national/global stage.” They focused on various case studies: the “‘Nirbhaya rape’ (and its theatrical reenactment), Padmaavat film controversy, ‘love-jihad’ court ruling, and the branding of Hindutva (Hindu-based nationalism).” The Nirbhaya rape was the 2012 incident in which a 23-year-old woman was gang raped and beaten in South Delhi, then died, prompting new laws and courts in India, street protests, worldwide outrage, and a steep drop in tourism to India, especially among women.
The tour also included meeting with Indian high school students in an international baccalaureate school, and women who are acid attack survivors and running their own cafeteria. Watkins said students learned that the women are not “victims” but persons who are “recovering on their own terms.”
Sinha Roy, Watkins and their students had a packed visit to India, and not just course content. Not only did they view various cultural performances and schedule numerous academic sessions during the trip, but the group devoted many hours just getting from place to place to soak up the most about India in only three weeks. Destinations included the cities of Delhi; Chandigarh, capital of both Punjab and Haryana; Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, both in Utter Pradesh; and Ranthambore, Udaipur, Devigarh, Kumbhalgarh, Ranakpur, Jodhpur, and Jaipur, all in Rajasthan. Sites visited, among others, included Delhi’s Red Fort, Capitol Complex, India Gate, and Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex; Agra’s Taj Mahal and Fort; Jaipur’s City Palace, Observatory, and Amber Fort; Udaipur’s City Palace; Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort; and the Ranthambore National Park, known for tigers and other large animals.
Between the class sessions before they left, and experiences in India, the course fully explored the word, “media,” in its title. In addition to watching “Bollywood” films connected to the course’s historical and cultural themes, students also engaged with Indian television, movies, theatre, dances, puppet and marionette shows, and other media and performances. The only medium not included in the course was radio, since the vast majority of Indian broadcasts are not in English.
The trip was not without challenges, both before and during the program. For example, the temperature in Rajasthan hit 114F degrees. The group was prepared for heat, but not for a heat wave, said Sinha Roy. (Still, she said, students committed to every step of the itinerary.) Students also were game for adjusting to cultural differences; when an Indian man surprised a male Allegheny student by taking his hand, the student simply “went with it,” Sinha Roy recounted. Lucinda Morgan, Allegheny’s director of international education, said students were not used to how crowded India is. Sinha Roy and Watkins also were wary of what the Indian public’s reactions might be to this year’s Indian general elections, which were held in seven phases ending May 19, so they planned the tour to not be in a major city on that date.