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Meet Anubha Anushree and Mejgan Massoumi, graduate students researching modern South Asia

Mejgan (left) and Anubha (right) visiting Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India in July.

Mejgan (left) and Anubha (right) visiting Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India in July.

Apr 30 2019

Anubha Anushree and Mejgan Massoumi are Ph.D. candidates in history affiliated with the Stanford’s Center for South Asia (CSA). Anubha’s research focuses on modern South Asia. She is interested in the intellectual history of the colonial state, the emergence of nationalism in the region, and subaltern studies. Mejgan’s research focuses on 20th century Afghanistan through the history of the radio, music, and sound. More specifically, she is interested in understanding how Afghans developed transnational communities through cultural exchanges guided by music, performance and art during the 1960s and ’70s, a period of intense political reform and social transformation.

Anubha and Mejgan are organizing a CSA Graduate Student Workshop on “Imperialisms” that will take place on Friday, April 19 at the Stanford Humanities Center. The workshop will bring together an interdisciplinary group of students to examine the continuing legacy of empire and imperialism in contemporary South Asia.

Read the interview below to learn about their backgrounds, research interests, and the 2019 Graduate Student Conference. 

How did you become interested in studying the history of South Asia?

Mejgan Massoumi: My family background has played a pivotal role in encouraging my interest in the study of South Asia. I was born in Afghanistan and grew up in a culture that celebrates storytelling. As a child, I remember the first stories my family shared were about travel and migration. My eyes would light up listening to stories of my grandfather, a merchant who would travel to Delhi and Bombay to purchase fine china to sell in his shop in Kabul.He and my grandmother raised nine children together, including my father who, along with my mother, took my siblings and I on a voyage across half a dozen countries before arriving in America. Too young to remember the details of these journeys, the stories I was told were about refuge, loss, war, and belonging.

It wasn’t until college that I gained more exposure to South Asian literature, history, and poetry and realized that it reflected parts of my own story. The first time I read Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala, I imagined the protagonist, who traveled to Kolkata for trade and commerce, to be just like my grandfather. Learning about the adventures of a 14th century Muslim traveler, Ibn Battuta, reminded me of my family’s migration across the world and the people who welcomed us with open arms, even though we were undocumented refugees escaping from war. Reading the poetry of Amir Khusrau, Mirza Ghalib, and Rumi comforted me when themes of belonging, love, and identity mirrored the stories read to me as a child. So, in a sense, learning about the history of South Asia was interesting because I was also learning something more about myself. That discovery and intellectual curiosity has remained with me.

Anubha Anushree: When we consider the geographic, historic, and cultural expanse of South Asia, it is interesting that much of the diversity that describes the region gets abbreviated or erased because of the lack of information about the local and traditional forms of knowledge. For example, South Asia constitutes the biggest religious diversity on the planet — it boasts of birthing four major world religions and is home to the largest Muslim community. With such historical variety, it is only natural that this region developed in conjunction and connection with other regions. Yet, conventional history has failed to study South Asia in terms of its own traditions as well as its relationships with adjacent regions.

My interest in South Asia stems from contesting two misguided perceptions on the region. The first is to challenge the historical view that non-Western cultures, including South Asia, are static and dependent on the development of the Western world. The second idea that I have always found disturbing is the way South Asians themselves are ignorant of their history. The rise of nationalist ideologies in the region is a testimony to the profound and somewhat deliberate disregard of the rich cosmopolitanism that has been a hallmark of the ancient and early-modern history of the region. I became interested in studying the history of South Asia primarily to counteract these twin misjudgments — the internal and the external.

Mejgan and Anubha ride a horse in Agra, India, close to the Taj Mahal.

What is your current research focus at Stanford, and what are some of the highlights of your experience so far?

Mejgan Massoumi: My research focuses on 20th century Afghanistan through the history of the radio, music, and sound. More specifically, my research highlights how Afghans in the 1960s and ’70s formed transnational communities through cultural exchanges. I argue that these connections break down monolithic understandings of how culture, technology, gender, and music function in a society that most scholars characterize as dominated by Islam. As the shifting landscapes of revolution and counterrevolution continued to impact the country during the ’60s and ’70s, artistic expressions found in music and art reveal how Afghans understood their relationship to each other and the world.

Some of the highlights of my experiences at Stanford have been participating in workshops on campus that have allowed me to share my work in progress. Having access to a vibrant community of scholars and students has enriched my work and allowed me to gain critical feedback that has enhanced my intellectual engagements.

Anubha Anushree: My research at Stanford is on corruption in 19th century South Asia. I examine how corruption became less of a moral and more of an economic concept. I am also examining the role of British colonialism on sustaining a particular discourse on corruption.

Stanford has offered me a wonderful opportunity in widening the scope and aims of my research. I have really enjoyed taking classes across a wide variety of disciplines such as archaeology, religious studies, and philosophy. Theability to speak to other disciplines and learn from their approaches and perspectives is important as I develop my own project.

What are you hoping to accomplish through your research? How do you hope your research will contribute to a better understanding of contemporary South Asia?

Mejgan Massoumi: The contributions of my current research are twofold. First, I am trying to promote an understanding of Afghanistan that is not mired in a narrative about war and violence. Specifically, my work offers a reflection on topics that are seemingly out of place for a “war-torn” country — music, radio, and the arts. By highlighting Afghan contributions to global popular culture in the 20th century, my research challenges conventional histories that view Afghanistan as a static society, characterized by conflict and human suffering.

Secondly, I hope my research will contribute to a better understanding of South Asia by recollecting a history of interconnectedness, coexistence, and collaboration that dates back much further than the 20th century. The “South Asia” that exists today is a recent construct that created imagined borders and separations between people and places. My work, in contrast, tells the story of Afghan musicians and producers of art and culture who collaborated and performed with artists from India and Pakistan and circulated their music throughout the region. Moreover, by studying music and poetry, my work recalls more than 1000 years of textual history and material and cultural memory that connected people and places across space and time.

Anubha Anushree: My research aims to contribute to the question of public/political morality. Our political judgments develop in tandem with our moral values, which we tend to think of as private and not affected by historical and social conditions. My project argues that what is considered corrupt is, in fact, a historical phenomenon and depends on the composition of public virtues and vices in society.

I also want to highlight the double standards that shape domestic policy and international perceptions of corruption. My research will hopefully add to the growing understanding of corruption as a global phenomenon, not just a problem affecting non-Western societies.

Together, you are organizing a workshop for graduate students this spring that will examine the legacy of imperialism in South Asia. What inspired this idea, and how have you collaborated to organize the event?

Anubha Anushree: We arrived at the idea of a workshop on “imperialisms” after some very productive conversations with our faculty and peers. Empires and imperialisms define how the modern world operates. For example, many businesses we see today owe their models to the first truly global corporation — the East India Company. But few of us know how the economic, cultural, and political histories of empires intersect with our day-to-day lives. Our workshop will unravel some stubborn misperceptions and interpretations of empires. We also see this workshop as an attempt to offer innovative approaches to global studies.

Mejgan Massoumi: This workshop will address the multiple interpretations, manifestations, and understandings that underlie terms like “empire” and “imperialism.” We hope to answer the following questions: “What happens when we interrogate empire beyond the idea of territorial conquest and think about its cultural, ideological, visual, and aural manifestations?” and “Are empires just a chronological phenomenon belonging to the alterity of past?”

Anubha and Mejgan: This workshop would not have been possible without the encouragement of our mentors, including Professor Jisha Menon, the director of the Center for South Asia.