Hao and Rachel Vetter Huang’s Encounters with Truths in India

By Professors Hao and Rachel Vetter Huang
Guest Contributers

This past January 2015, Professors Hao and Rachel Vetter Huang, Scripps professors of Music, were invited to visit the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar in Ahmedabad, Gujarat as visiting artist faculty. Read on to learn about their trip.

Photos courtesy of Scripps College

As our tiny car careened around yet another group of cows on the way from Ahmedabad airport to our lodgings at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, we were exhilarated by our first glance of India. Peering through the dusty haze of an early January morning, it was hard to believe that we were approaching the sixth-largest city in India. Few buildings were taller than three stories, and the sprawl of little shops reminded us at first of many anonymous cities in Asia. But  this richly diverse city continually defied our preconceptions.  All our reading of Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Arundhati Roy and others could not prepare us for the unceasing frenzy of a city that spreads horizontally, more than vertically; for the fantastically varied architecture of its Hindhu and Jain temples, Abyssinian mosques, “Persian” Haveli, British colonial edifices, and Gandhi’s austere Sabarmati ashram; or the glowing Chinese sky lanterns launched at dusk on Uttarayan (Kite Festival) Day. And we were awed to be part of academic and cultural exchange in the city where Mohandas Gandhi (also known as Mahatma, or “Great Soul”) chose to live and initiate work towards independence for India.

By invitation of Professor Mona Mehta of the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN), who taught in Scripps’s Department of Politics from 2010 to 2012, we became the first musicians to give a Western Classical music concert there. We also lectured on American musics: Jazz and Blues, and art music by American women and minority composers. Prof. Mehta’s invitation was supported by IITGN’s visionary director, Professor Sudhir Jain.  IITGN, founded seven years ago, embodies an extraordinary and ambitious project on interdisciplinarity. Prof. Jain’s progressive model, which integrates the liberal arts into an engineering curriculum, is innovative not only for India, but for higher education worldwide. Highlights include:

  1. A five-week Foundation program on creativity, communication, teamwork, ethics, social engagement and physical fitness, which received the 2013 World Education Summit Award;
  2. Project-based learning in the classroom and through student internships;
  3. An expansive range of humanities and social sciences courses, and compulsory courses in design and the life sciences;
  4. Support of internationalization and diversity through student Study Abroad, recruitment of outstanding international faculty, and a vibrant program of visiting faculty, involving some of the world’s most preeminent scholars.

In IITGN’s guest faculty canteen, we chatted with many of these visiting scholars over meals. Our attendance at some of their lectures, and theirs at ours, expressed an internationalism based on mutuality. Two especially memorable people whom we thus came to know were Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma and widely- respected author of many books on Indian history, including Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire; and his remarkable wife, Usha. Mr. Gandhi is Research Professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Our informal encounters with diversity at IITGN aptly manifest Drs. Jain’s and Mehta’s ideal of creating an interdisciplinary, international educational forum.

The most extraordinary aspect of our visit to IITGN was how communication and learning flowed many ways. For example, we not only performed and lectured on American music for Prof. Srinivas Reddy, who specializes in Sanskrit literary traditions and is also a distinguished Indian classical music sitar player, but also Rachel collaborated with him in an improvisation session for the Gandhis. Hao struck up a friendship with Prof. Guo Fei, visiting instructor in Chinese at the IITGN Confucian Institute, and Rachel taught private violin lessons to Tony Thomas, Phd student in Cognitive Science and Laurent Fradet, visiting instructor in conversational French.  Among the presentations we attended were Rajmohan Gandhi’s lectures on Darbar Golpaldas Desai, the Gujarat prince who gave up everything to become a freedom-fighter alongside Mahatma Gandhi, and on Arundhati Roy’s comments about Mahatma Gandhi’s political actions concerning the Dalits, the “Untouchables.”

America is not unique in valuing liberal arts, nor in promoting interdisciplinarity. When Professor Jain took over direction of IITGN, he decided that it should forge new paths: “Given that it is a new IIT, we wanted to revisit some ideas to make it truly innovative.” Innovations are centered around a curriculum that has a special emphasis on Liberal Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, all with an aim to promote non-linear thinking and an appreciation for other disciplines of knowledge. Prof. Jain has noted, “We became the first institution to offer a compulsory course in design and innovation… Students can also take up electives in languages like Urdu, Sanskrit, French and even Chinese; Anthropology, Archaeology and Indian History through Cinema, to name a few.” To provide further context, we would like to share other aspects of IITGN:

  •  IITGN does not have departments but rather, Disciplines. There are no department heads or Chairs but Discipline coordinators who act as links between the discipline/group and the academic administration. Teaching assignments and courses are handled by the discipline but the disciplines must align with the larger requirements of the Institute. For instance, in addition to elective courses, core courses in Humanities and Social Sciences such as Intro to Philosophy or History survey courses are offered as they are required for the undergraduate curriculum.  However, research foci are left to individual faculty who are encouraged and empowered to do cutting-edge scholarship across disciplines.
  • IITGN will move to its new campus on the Sabarmati sometime in June-July ‘15.  The new IITGN campus provides several opportunities and spaces for various kind of interactions. The academic buildings will not be divided by area of study. Therefore, the spaces outside buildings are being carefully planned to allow gathering spaces to allow for interdisciplinary encounters outside classrooms that may lead to cross-disciplinary collaborations.
  • International exposure does not happen in the way it is structured in US universities via Study Abroad programs. Instead, a different sort of exposure happens through specific internships at Universities and research centers abroad.

These were some of the truths that we encountered in India on our exchange visit.  It was our privilege to experience them.