What is India? How often have you thought about India as an entity in the last few years? How does one start to understand the contemporary situation of the nation we inhabit? Can we begin by looking at the struggle for independence? Could one start by looking at the prominent empires that ruled the subcontinent? Or should one be looking at the trajectory of past civilisations?
What did the previous versions of climate change look like? Or maybe one could start from understanding continental drift! Where does the idea of India-as-we-know-it really begin?
This is where the History faculty at the School of Arts and Sciences steps in and helps students think through such complicated questions in their first year at Azim Premji University. Making for an admittedly intense start, it helps students articulate latent ideas about what their India looks like.
The Understanding India courses at Azim Premji University
The History team helps students locate the nation within a deep context and imagine the possibilities for equitable social actions. Two courses are offered to this end, the first of these is called ‘Understanding India I: Many Pasts of India’s Present’, offered in the first semester. This is followed by, ‘Understanding India II: India’s Present and its Possible Futures’ in the second semester.
Sharmadip Basu, who has been involved with the conception and teaching of the Understanding India courses, explained that these courses are very different from typical undergraduate programmes in History. The Understanding India courses are a part of the Common Curriculum offered to all undergraduate students at the School of Arts and Sciences.
In these courses, the faculty’s approach is to initiate conversations based on students’ lived experiences, expand their knowledge by presenting relevant historical facts, act as moderators for the ensuing debates, create space for alternate viewpoints, understand resistances and lastly, help expand students’ social imaginations for future actions.
The faculty guide the students in developing a critical gaze that lets them develop an understanding of structural inequalities brought out by caste, religion and gender norms. This is coupled with a commitment to the study of actions taken by people to help themselves and others.
Sharmadip shared his hope that moving beyond the recognition of social injustice, and towards acknowledging the history of empathetic, affirmative action would let the students develop an optimistic outlook about the potential their lives hold.
On my part, I found myself wondering if my experience of India would have been different if my early life had included more conversations about social movements and resistance. During our conversation, I realised that these efforts inside and outside the classrooms represent not only the core values of the Understanding India courses and the Common Curriculum but also of the University.
Experiential learning: Understanding India courses do not subscribe to exams as evaluative tools
Subscribing to the virtues of experiential learning, the students are tasked with group projects and assignments. Like most courses at Azim Premji University, the Understanding India courses too do not subscribe to exams as evaluative tools.
Instead, students are marked on the projects like the ‘Neighbourhood Observation Project’, where in their first semester they explore Sarjapur and Yamare villages on the outskirts of Bengaluru where the University is set.
In their second semester, students undertake the ‘Bangalore City Project’, where they study the various aspects of urban infrastructure. Besides these, there are many other activities and smaller assignments which help students build a comprehensive and eclectic understanding of India.
Departure from common ways of teaching History
Sharmadip highlights the ‘presentist’ perspective adhered to in the Understanding India classes. He asserts that it is quite a departure from the typical way History courses are commonly taught.
Instead of being told stories of the past, unanchored in time, the students are encouraged to reflect on the ‘whats’, the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ of their present, of their familial resources, their social locations, their life chances and lived experiences.
This way, students learn to identify the circulating social inequalities in their lives. To make his point, he quietly offered the rhetoric, “What is the point of studying History, if not to understand the present?”
Watch the video to understand more about the BA in History programme at Azim Premji University