Monday, June 10, 2013

Classes at the Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies (Mallory, GH'15)

The Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies strives to "bring India and Indianess to the world," much to the delight of the Cornell students. For the first two weeks of our summer in India, we took courses on Indian Culture and Civilization, Gender in India, Indian Healthcare, Labor Economics, and Kannada, the local language. In this short amount of time, we have learned a tremendous amount about Indian ways of life. 

Jeffrey (ILR '15) enjoying classes at VIIS.

During Indian Culture and Civilization, the students were treated to retellings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two Indian epics, by Professor H.V. Rao, a nationally recognized Sanskrit scholar. These two tales are known all over India and have a strong influence on culture, values, and family life. According to Professor Rao, “The Ramayana depicts the ideal, while the Mahabharata depicts what is.” This class also discussed the caste system, minorities, tribes, family life, rituals and festivals, and marriage practices. 

Phoebe (ILR '15) with Professor Rao after class.

Dr. Shanthi, a member of the feminist movement in India, taught the Gender in India class. It was very moving to hear her personal experiences of defying gender stereotypes and “training” her family to accept her progressive beliefs. Although legally there is no discrimination of any kind in India, systems such as the Hindu faith, the caste system, and dowry reinforce traditional gender norms and inequities. India is facing a shortage of girls because of preference for male children who will carry on the family name. Women are linked to men at every stage of their lives—even in the afterlife—and have been forced to marry young, as it was preferable for women to marry before puberty at one time. It is now illegal for girls to marry before 18, but the law is difficult to enforce, especially in rural areas. When a marriage occurs, the girl’s family is expected to compensate the groom as a token of their appreciation. This practice initiates domestic violence, even amongst educated women. Learning about the struggles women have faced makes it inspiring to see so many powerful, independent women working with SVYM.

Many of the students found the Kannada course to be the most challenging. We learned basic conversational phrases, as well as words like swalpa (less) and idu beku (I want this), which are useful at mealtimes in the canteen. Our professor also had a few simple songs for us to learn, making the class more participative and fun. As with any language, the best way to learn is to practice as much as possible with native speakers. The locals get very excited when they find out we can speak some Kannada.

The course topics were highly relevant to our experiences here, as well as to our individual projects. One remarkable aspect of studying and exploring in India is that once we learn about a particular topic, we see the direct and indirect implications of it simply by being out in the community. One morning, we had a session on domestic violence with a female police officer. Just a few hours later, we visited a women’s shelter called Shaktidhama, where we heard the stories of some of the residents.

All of the professors at VIIS are amazing individuals. Even though many of them are highly acclaimed scholars, each one is very humble and has a clear passion for teaching. All have shared so much wisdom from years in the field and are very welcoming to our questions and curiosities, or “doubts,” as an Indian would say. 

Ashley (ILR '16) and Dr. MA Balasubramanya, CEO of SVYM and lecturer for a Labor Economics class entitled "HR Practices in NGOs."

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