‘A liberal education is the need of the hour’

  • Vandana Ramnani, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 25, 2014 17:48 IST

The president of the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), Professor Philip Lutgendorf, was a Hindi student at AIIS in 1980. He is a professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies and has taught in the University of Iowa’s Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literature since 1985. His book on the performance of the Hindi Ramayana, The Life of a Text (University of California Press, 1991) won the A K Coomaraswamy Prize. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his research on “monkey-god” Hanuman, which has appeared as Hanuman’s Tale, The Messages of a Divine Monkey. This is what he had to say in an email interview with HT Education.

What inspired you to do your research on Hanuman and your dissertation on Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas?

As a graduate student, I began reading the Manas with a professor at the University of Chicago after I returned from the AIIS Hindi programme. I was aware, by then of how important this epic was in north Indian culture, and I was fascinated with the ways in which people used it in their daily lives. The topic of Manas performance (through recitation, exposition, and dramatic performance as in Ramlila) became the subject of my PhD dissertation and later first book, The Life of a Text: Performing the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas (1991). Studying the Ramayana naturally made me interested in Hanuman-ji, whom many regard as the most appealing and inspiring character in the story. This inspired about 15 years of research, culminating in the book Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey (2007)

Why are Indian students not interested in epics? What should be done to get them interested?

There is great pressure on many students in India to pursue careers in engineering, medicine, and business. That is understandable, but unfortunately it has led to a severe neglect of the humanities and of the study of India’s own great culture and history, the consequences of which are already being felt and are potentially very serious. It is crucial that the concept of a “liberal, well-rounded education” be reaffirmed. (Incidentally, this is under threat in the US as well.) Students need to be taught not only how to improve the world (economically and technologically) but given an understanding of why the world is the way it is, and what it is that makes our lives in the world worth living.

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