Interview: Historian Srinath Raghavan on the NIF fellowships 2021
What interested you about the New India Foundation’s fellowship initiative?
I have been associated with NIF for a decade now - initially as a member of the fellowship jury and later as trustee. I find NIF to be a remarkable institution on at least two counts. First, as a historian of 20th century India, I have felt sharply the absence of a substantial body of historical scholarship on independent India. The NIF was set up by Ramachandra Guha and Nandan Nilekani precisely to fill this gap. The NIF has a clear and urgent mandate. It is entirely agnostic about topics and approaches, ideologies and methods. The only criterion for selection is the innate interest of the topic and the intellectual quality of the work.
There were upwards of 900 entries this year for the NIF fellowship. What do you particularly look out for in an application?
It has indeed been an extraordinary year for the NIF fellowship! The sheer volume of applications meant that the process took longer than usual, but there was no letting up in the rigour. We began by reading each submitted application and came up with a long list of about 45. We did another round of close reading and shortlisted 21 candidates whom we interviewed.
The recently announced list of awardees has the highest number of acceptances in the history of the programme. What are the kind of proposals that particularly interested you this year?
We were delighted to award more fellowships this year than ever before. The outcome attests to the exceptional quality of applications. The fellows will write on a diverse array of topics -- cities and forests, politics and literature, sport and business, caste and tribes -- with compelling points of entry. These books will transform our understanding of the contemporary history of India.
Do you feel that, in today’s global political climate, fellowships such as the ones offered by the NIF are all the more important to aid in providing an open space for research projects?
Indeed. And there are few comparable fellowships open to Indians.
As the fellowship focusses on a representation of narratives that are currently shaping the way in which an idea of post-independence India is formed, will we see governmental responses to the ongoing pandemic also emerging as possible subjects?
Even in the latest round of fellowships, there were applicants who wanted to write on the pandemic! Going forward, I am sure there will be a lot of interest in mapping its impact on India.
The Foundation’s trustees also work with writers as mentors. Apart from financial assistance, how else are writers supported?
We work closely with our fellows -- from reading drafts to helping them find publishers. We also provide in-house editorial support with getting the manuscript in shape for submission to publishers. So there is a lot more on offer than fellowship stipend.
What projects are you working on currently?
I am currently finishing a book on Indira Gandhi and Indian politics, which will be published by Penguin RandomHouse. I am also researching a biography of the astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.