The Life of Indira Viswanathan Peterson: Enriching Sanskrit, Tamil Literature, Art, and South Asian Culture and Social History
BOSTON-Indira Viswanathan Peterson is Emeritus Professor of Asian Studies at Mount Holyoke Collegeand an eminent scholar of Sanskrit and Tamil literature and Hinduism, as well as literary, social and cultural history and the performing arts of South India, especially classical music and modern theatre.
On November 19, 2022, she will receive the New England Choice Awards for Art and Culture at the Hilton Woburn Hotel in Woburn, MA.
His interests include translation, contact with European-Indian culture and comparative literature. Among his books are Poems to Siva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints (Princeton, 1989) and Design and Rhetoric in a Sanskrit Court Epic: The Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi (SUNY 2003).
Other publications include: George Michell and Indira Peterson, The Great Temple at Thanjavur: A Thousand Years. 1010-2010 (2010); Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in modern South India, co-edited with Davesh Soneji (2008); and Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India, co-edited with Martha Selby (2007). Dr. Peterson was editor of Indian literature for The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces (Expanded 6th Edition, 1995) and The Norton Anthology of World Literature (2002).
Indira Peterson completes Tanjore Renaissance: King Serfoji II and South Indian Modernity, an intellectual and cultural biography of royal polymath and innovator Serfoji II.
Here’s a Q/A with Professor Peterson:
INDIA New England News: Tell us about your upbringing. How did that contribute to what happened to you later in life?
Indira Viswanathan Peterson: I am a Tamil-speaking South Indian who grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Bombay, where I became fascinated with various languages, cultures, religions and cultural encounters. My grandfather from Delhi taught me Sanskrit. I read a lot in my paternal grandfather’s library. My father exposed me to German and Russian cultures. These are formative influences in my choice of literature and cultural history as the subjects of my scholarship and teaching.
INE: Tell us about your background. How did you end up in New England?
VPI: I landed in New England at the age of 17 in 1967, as an exchange student at American Field Service High School in Concord, MA. I was thrilled to immerse myself in New England history and culture. I got a BA in English from the University of Bombay, then I did a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard. By chance, I was appointed Professor of Indian Literature in the Consortium of Five Colleges of Western Mass. I joined Mount Holyoke College in 1982 and retired from teaching in 2016. I’m a die-hard New Englander.
INE: Who is the mentor – or are the mentors – who influenced you?
VPI: My mother, my grandmothers and my aunts, strong and capable women, are role models for me. My father, Dr. R. Viswanathan, a pioneering oceanographer and chemist, showed me that the pursuit of knowledge is limitless. My school and college teachers in Bombay were models of dedicated teaching. PV Shankar urged me never to give up singing. My grandfather S. Venkataramanan introduced me to Sanskrit, and at Harvard, Professor Daniel Ingalls made me study Sanskrit.
INE: What changed your life?
VPI: Doing a PhD at Harvard in the early 1970s opened my eyes. Harvard was a candy store for the humanities, and I grabbed as many goodies as I could, exploring Greek, German, Russian, comparative religion, linguistics, and folklore as scaffolding for the study of Sanskrit literature. These explorations showed me how exciting research could be. I never stopped asking questions which kept my research and teaching fresh for me and hopefully my students as well.
I would like to mention the two people who changed my life with their loving presence. My husband Mark was my soul mate. He revealed to me the unity of art and science. Our beloved daughter Maya made us better people and made the world a better place with her brilliant life.
INE: How has the Indo-American diaspora supported you on your journey?
VPI: When I came to Cambridge in 1967, you could count on your fingers the number of South Asians, even in universities, at least metaphorically speaking. We became close friends because there were so few of us. We bought spices at Belmont and watched Hindi movies at MIT. Over the years, it has been wonderful to see the growth of the Native American population in New England. I made lasting connections with students from India and South Asia alongside Indian American students at Mount Holyoke College, a breeding ground for fruitful friendships. I learned a lot from the different yet familiar experience of my American Indian students. Recently, I had the privilege of working with a talented team of young American Indian Karnatic music performers. I was overwhelmed by their cultural balance and their creativity. I couldn’t be more proud of our young diaspora.
INE: What life lesson do you want the community to take away?
VPI: My own experience and ideal lead me to suggest this: Embrace and rejoice in the exciting and irreducible diversity and plurality that forms the core of Indian and Indian American communities.
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