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News Category: Announcements

Chittagong Hill Tract Children’s Books Part of HGSE Commencement Tradition


Maung Nyeu reads one of his books at the Mittal Institute Spring Art Exhibition


For nearly twenty years, new graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Education have been carrying and waving children’s books as they enter Harvard Yard for the commencement ceremony. This tradition emphasizes the importance of children’s literacy and inclusion, as the books represent different cultures from around the world.

This year amongst copies of The Hungry Caterpillar and A Snowy Day will be several copies of Harvard Doctoral Candidate Maung Nyeu’s children’s books. These multilingual books are based on stories collected by children of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Bangladesh. The books contain moral and civic values and the wisdom of generations and help revitalize endangered languages and revive vanishing cultures.

Nyeu’s project is possible due to funding from the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute for his travels to mountain villages of Bangladesh to visit schools and collect stories.  The funding enabled him to publish and distribute books in Bangladesh. So far, he has distributed over 6,000 of these books to children who never owned a children’s book in their lives. With the support of a Mittal Institute summer grant, he plans to return to CHT and distribute 4,000 more copies. 


Links to other articles about Nyeu’s books:

“People Making Difference” in Christian Science Monitor 
 The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute featured story “Saving a culture, book by book”
National Geographic Society: First Person: Save a Language, Save a Culture.
Stories Matter: Harvard Graduate School of Education
Nyeu’s Website


Congratulations, Class of 2018!

Harvard’s Commencement was Thursday, May 24, 2018. The Mittal Institute asked two graduating students who have been involved with the Institute to reflect on their time at Harvard and their plans.


Ranjani Srinvasan, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Masters in Design and Critical Conservation ‘18


What as your favorite class or activity while at Harvard?
In my 2nd year, I became interested in political ecology and began to attend the fortnightly Political Anthropology Work Group at Harvard Anthropology. This quickly became my favorite activity. I was able to gain access to a wide range of academic work and discussions, which spanned geographies and methods.

What was a highlight or favorite moment related to your Mittal Institute grant/work?
I received both my research grants to investigate the historical making and present condition of Kolar Gold Fields, Karnataka. This allowed me to meaningfully engage with the local Dalit mining community on the ground and conduct detailed interviews. My favorite moment was hearing an extremely detailed and insightful political analysis of the Bharat Gold Mines Limited (BGML) from Vellavan, a security guard.

What are you most looking forward to doing post-graduation?
I look forward to working towards the establishment of a Museum of Dalit History in India and contributing to anti-caste struggles.

Do you have any advice for current students or students thinking about applying to Harvard?
To current students: Don’t be afraid to engage with little-known regions or topics, for that is where scholarship is most required.




Anushka Ghosh, Harvard Graduate School of Education, International Education Policy ’18


What was your favorite class or activity while at Harvard?
My favorite part of being at Harvard were the conversations that I had with people outside of class. It expanded my world in a way that I would have never imagined. One of my most enriching experiences was being a part of Yoni Ki Baat, the South Asian vagina monologues. It pushed me way out of my comfort zone and enabled me to confront rarely discussed aspects of being a woman from South Asia.

What was a highlight or favorite moment related to your Mittal Institute work?
I really enjoyed interacting with the visiting artists and getting to know more about their work. It was fascinating to know more about the way people innovate through the medium of art and communicate with a broader audience about issues that are so central to the South Asian experience, especially when presented through art forms that speak volumes about this experience.

What are you most looking forward to doing post-graduation?
I am excited to be in the field and apply what I have learned in the classroom, especially regarding sustaining educational programs in areas of conflict. After this year, I feel more prepared to tackle the challenges in the field.

Do you have any advice for current students or students thinking about applying to Harvard?
Harvard is a unique place with more opportunities than there is time to take advantage of them! My advice is to identify the key experiences that you want to leave with and not stress about everything else. Harvard offers both quality and quantity, but remember that depth over breadth is key.

The Jana Swasthya Project at the 2015 Kumbh Mela

Three years ago, we launched the Jana Swasthya Project at the 2015 Kumbh Mela in Nashik and Trimbakeshwar, India. 

The Jana Swasthya Project was comprised of two components: a large-scale digital disease surveillance program, EMcounter, and a mass screening program for oral health, hypertension and diabetes offered to pilgrims, sadhus, security forces, and all visitors in Nashik and Trimbakeshwar.

You can learn more about this amazing project at this specially-created website:




New Podcasts: “Culture Eats Technology” and “How Scientists And Economists Get Things Done (And Save Lives)”

The distinguished UC Berkeley scientist, Professor Ashok Gadgil, spoke at our Annual Symposium about how he went from theoretical physicist to life-saving inventor of water purification technology, and what he’s learned about ‘knowledge translation’ (the theme of the symposium) along the way.



A fascinating conversation from our 2018 Symposium between Professor Ashok Gadgil (UC Berkeley), Professor Tarun Khanna (The Mittal Institute; Harvard Business School) and Professor Asim Khwaja (Harvard Kennedy School) – they talk about how difficult it is to solve life-or-death problems, even with great resources, and the kinds of things you have to do in order to get things done. 



Q+A: Building Relationships as a Documentary Photographer



. He recently gave a presentation titled “Cha Chakra: Tea Tales of Bangladesh,” chaired by Professor Sugata Bose with commentary by Curator Alison Nordström, in which he displayed his long-term documentary photography research project on tea industry. The project sheds light on the plight of the tea garden workers of Bangladesh who are among the lowest paid and most vulnerable laborers in the world, yet are strangely invisible to the global media. Currently, the project concentrates on labor rights and conditions within Bangladesh’s tea industry, which are a direct result of a long history of colonialism and oppression. This project aims to collect the undocumented history of the global tea industry through photography, oral histories, and archival materials.


His other ongoing projects include Rohingya: The Stateless People, The Fantasy Is More Filmic than Fictional: Bangladesh Film Industry and Life in Progress: People Living with HIV.


Before his return to Bangladesh, we talked with him about his art practice and time here at Harvard.


What experiences motivated you to work on themes surrounding social justice?

I work with various art mediums to explore what is happening around the world. When I was a University student, I was looking for avenues to express my thoughts about what was happening around me. During that time, I worked on films, documentaries and was involved in different cultural movements.  I realized that photography was the best medium to express both my individual views as well as speak about the experiences of larger groups of people. 

I started working on social justice issues as a journalist. For instance, I first went to the Tea Gardens on an assignment to cover the tea workers’ movement. I soon realized that the plight of the tea workers is a deeply rooted issue that the media cannot adequately cover in a few journalistic reports, so I decided to work on the project long-term.


What has been your approach to photographing your subjects?

The logical approach is to spend time with the people I photograph. For example, I stayed in the Tea Gardens with the workers for many days. I talked to them and got to know their stories. I believe that collecting testimonies and oral histories are an important part of the work. One challenge is that people will always see me as “other” because I see them from outside, and vice versa.


What are some of the strategies that you use to connect to your subjects?

As a student, I studied research methods. However, over time I have developed an intuitive approach. For example, I drink tea with the tea workers to spend time with them and get to know them. My intention is not to intervene in their lives, but rather to talk to them and invite them to ask me what I want and why I am there. It is important for me to become friends with the people I work with because otherwise, it is tough to get stories from people. As a storyteller, I believe everybody has a story to tell, however, collecting the stories is not always easy. People have to trust me and that requires time to build the relationship.


What is the rationale behind having multiple ongoing projects?

For me, as a documentary photographer, it is important to work on subjects for a longer period. I see most of my works as long-term projects. It is tough to wrap up a story within a short span of time.


What has been your experience at Harvard?

It has been an incredible opportunity to be able to access Harvard’s library and museum resources as a researcher and to dig deeper into my studies. It is difficult for me to access comparable archives and libraries as a freelancer. Additionally, Cambridge is a cosmopolitan area where I have met people from different areas of the world. It has been fascinating and helpful for my journey as an artist.


How did your seminar go?

The seminar brought together people from different professions as well as students, faculty, and representatives from the Bangladeshi community. Even the person I am subletting from came! It was inspiring to present my work in front of such a diverse audience. The audience was asking incisive questions, so it was a very good learning experience for me. It was a collective effort to organize the seminar, and I am grateful to Professor Sugata Bose, Curator Alison Nordstrom, Aniket De (Ph.D. student in history) and the Mittal Institute staff.


Year in Review Publication

Every year the Mittal Institute publishes an annual report that chronicles the highlights of the academic year. This report showcases the breadth of interdisciplinary faculty and student research projects, programs and events that The Mittal Institute supports related to South Asia both at Harvard and In-region.


Seed for Change 2018 Winners Announced

Congratulations to Green Screen and Umbulizer, the winners of our 2018 Seed for Change Competition.


Umbulizer, the winner of Seed for Change Pakistan, will receive $15,000 to further develop a reliable, low-cost, and portable device that can provide continuous ventilation to patients in resource limited healthcare settings. Team members include Shaheer Ahmed Piracha, Umbulizer, Project Lead; Hamza Ali Khan, Harvard Business School, Master in Business Administration Candidate; and Sanchay Gupta, Harvard Medical School, MD Candidate.





Green Screen, winner of Seed for Change India, will receive $40,000 to produce a zero-electricity, modular ventilation panel made from an agricultural waste byproduct and designed for the slums of New Delhi, India. Team members include Gina Ciancone, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Master in Urban Planning Candidate, Master in Architecture Candidate; Ramya Pinnamaneni, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Master of Public Health Candidate; David Costanza, Rice University, Technology Fellow; and Dan Cusworth, Earth and Planetary Sciences Department.





Other finalists:


Saving 9: Saving 9’s motto is ‘You don’t need to be a doctor to saves lives ‘, and the name of our organization comes from the idiom ‘A stitch in time saves 9’. We strongly believe that anyone can learn basic first aid, and hence gain the ability to support a casualty sufficiently during an emergency until they can reach the hospital. It is our organization’s mission to create a ‘safety net’ of first aid ‘literate’ citizens and robust emergency response systems. Our project is focused on creating an emergency response system in a rural village, Pind Begwal.

Team members: Usama Javed Mirza, Saving 9, Co-founder and Program Manager; Muhammad Ovais Siddiqui, Saving 9, Co-founder and Program Finance Head; Zainab Zaheer, Saving 9, Program Coordinator and PR Head; Raissa Chughtai, Harvard College Class of 2021; Saving 9, Program Coordinator and Economic Analyst

Xyal Water: Xyla Water is a water filter company that builds filters based on plant tissues. The purification ability of xylem tissues was discovered and tested by Professor Karnik at MIT. We formed a research collaboration with him to commercialize and make a product out of this filter.

Team members: Syed Waqar Ali Shah, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, PhD Candidate in Mathematics; Iqra Nadeem, MIT, Master of Science Candidate in Technology and Policy Program ; Diane Delava, Academics for Development LLN, CEO; Ali Mannan Tirmizi, Lahore University of Management Sciences Class of 2018



Pre-Texts: Pre-Texts is an effective and efficient pedagogy that acknowledges local strengths that can help promote development in literacy, innovation, and citizenship. The Pre-Texts protocol can raise literacy in low-resource communities thanks to local arts and languages that serve to interpret English language curricular material.

Team members: Anshul Kumar, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, PhD Candidate in Sociology; Jahnvi Singh, Pre-Texts Facilitator and Leaning Design Consultant; Polly Lauer, Research Coordinator for Pre-Texts

Parivartan: In India, rates of child diarrheal deaths continue to be alarmingly high despite overall improvements throughout the world. Treatment for often preventable cases of diarrheal illness is very costly for families in India and more efforts should be made to promote behaviors that prevent incidence of diarrhea in children. Hand washing with soap is a cost-effective means of preventing illnesses caused by bacterial contamination, as it decreases person-to-person transmission. However, India is one of the most water-challenged countries in the world. Project Parivartan aims to mitigate both the problems of water scarcity and absence of hand hygiene practices by introducing alcohol based hand sanitizer (ABHS) to 10 villages in the town of Palghar in Northern Maharashtra, a water-deprived tribal region of India. The use of ABHS as a substitute for hand washing provides a simple and cost-effective means of reducing the spread of diarrheal and respiratory diseases at schools in water scarce areas.

Team members: Alastair Fung, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Master of Public Health Candidate in Global Health Candidate; Nithin Kondapuram, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Master of Science Candidate in Epidemiology; Harvard Medical School, Research Assistant; Sujata Saunik, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Takemi Fellow; Vivian Zhang, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Master of Public Health Candidate

Q + A: Advancing Academic Study of Buddhism in Nepal


Leonard van der Kuijp introduces a speaker at the program’s conference in Nepal.



Last year, The Mittal Institute launched the Nepal Studies Program, with generous support from Jeffrey M. Smith, who is a Principal Shareholder with the international law firm of Greenberg Traurig, LLP. The three-year program focuses on a different faculty-led topic of interest each year and engages with scholars and practitioners both on the ground in Nepal and in Cambridge.

The Buddhism in Nepal, Past and Present Conference was held on January 5, 2018, and was led by Leonard W.J. van der Kuijp, Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies. The conference explored the spread and development of Buddhism in the India-Nepal-Tibet corridor, based on medieval documents and modern practice. The program will also hold a conference at Harvard on Monday, May 7. Before the event, The Mittal Institute asked van der Kuijp about the event and the Nepal Studies Program. 


How did you become involved in the Nepal Studies Program?

It all came together with the generosity of donor Jeffrey M. Smith. He asked me if I wanted to get involved with the Nepal Studies Program because I teach Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist Studies. Furthermore, Nepal is a very important place to me, since I have lived and worked there in the past.  


Can you talk about the importance of Harvard having something like the Nepal Studies Program?

Academia has historically marginalized Nepal. Before this program, there has never been Nepal Studies Program at Harvard despite the fascinating social history of Buddhism in Nepal, especially esoteric Buddhism.

The Kathmandu Valley houses both public and private libraries, as well as countless Buddhist manuscripts that are no longer available in India because they were destroyed or fell into disuse and disappeared. In that sense, Nepalese Buddhism played a very important role in the preservation and the continued development of late Indian Buddhism. Nepal also functioned as an important conduit of Buddhism to the Tibetan area, China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. Nepal is important in the study of Buddhism – despite being overshadowed by interest in the Indian subcontinent, China or Tibet.


Can you tell me about the Nepal Conference?

The Buddhism in Nepal, Past and Present Conference was organized by the local people at a private conference center Yalamaya, Kathmandu. The funding from the Mittal Institute made it possible for us to travel to Nepal, to rent the space, and pay for miscellaneous expenses.

The first conference was geared towards a Nepalese audience, whereas the upcoming one is geared towards a wider audience with a mix of both Americans, Nepalese and others. There is a very vibrant Nepalese community here in the Boston area.


How do you choose the speakers and subject matter? 

The overarching themes are Buddhism in Nepal based on how the Newar community perceived it and the Tibetan-Nepal interface. At the conference, there were three academics from the United States and three Nepalese scholars. Nirmal Man Tuladhar spoke about the linguistic interfaces between Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhists.

Sidhartha Tuladhar, a senior researcher from the Newar community of traders in Nepal shared his archival work. His family has traded with Tibet for 250 years and he has a very large archive of documents and photographs. The final speaker was Naresh Man Bajracharya, a well-known Buddhist priest, who discussed the foundation of Lumbini University and the Buddhist monastery in Ngubeni.  

One speaker was my former student, Kurtis R. Schaeffer, who is now the Chairman of the University of Virginia’s Religion Department. He spoke about the 18th century itinerant yogi in Northern Nepal who wondered whether he was really Tibetan or Nepalese. It became a very interesting project where he was constantly wondering about his own ethnicity because his feet were firmly planted in Tibetan Buddhism, but he was from the Northern Himalayas.

My other colleague from the College of the Holy Cross, Todd T. Lewis, is an anthropologist that specializes in religion. He spoke about the religious life of one area in Kathmandu where he lived and did field work for five years.


What is the importance of the conference?

The conference was important because it made it clear that Harvard is paying attention to what is happening around Buddhism in Nepal. There were not only Nepalese there but there were also foreigners there; there was a lot of enthusiasm in the room. Additionally, these types of programs help establish academic and research partnerships between Harvard and local scholars in Nepal. 


Q + A: Tracing the Tracks of Diaspora Hinduism


Vineeta Sinha conducts her research along the train tracks in Singapore.



Vineeta Sinha is the Department Head of the South Asian Studies Programme & the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore. She is currently a research affiliate at The Mittal Institute and is examining the culture and traditions of Diaspora Hindus in Singapore and Malaysia.   

Tell me about your new book that you have been researching while you are here.

The title of the book is Temple Tracks, which has been gifted by my son Ashish Ravinran, who is a filmmaker currently based in New York. The book draws inspiration from the field of Anthrohistory, and is based on ethnographic and archival research I have been conducting on Diaspora Hindus for many years. One of my principle interests has focused on the religious practices of Hindus in Singapore and Malaysia and the importation of festivals, deities, and rituals from rural Tamil Nadu in India into British Malaya.

In Temple Tracks, I return to theorize the practice of building temples and shrines for various Hindu deities along the railway tracks in Singapore and Malaysia. I began actively working on this topic around January 2011. By this time, it had been announced that the Singapore stretch of the Malayan railway tracks that had existed on the island since 1932 was going to be removed by June 2011. Ironically, it was in witnessing the removal of the tracks by South Asian labor in contemporary Singapore, that I was inspired to think about the laying of the same across the Malayan landscape by their ancestors, starting in the 1880s.

Temple Tracks carries several intersecting narratives: one, the history of railway construction in British Malaya; two, the history of Indian labor migration into Malaya; three, the history of religion-making in Malaya; and finally, my own ethnographic journey as a researcher, which tries to pull together these different strands. My argument is that paying attention to these overlapping strands allows a different retelling of the history of the railways, Indian labor and temple building in Malaysia and Singapore.

As I write this book, I am reflecting on how to present the material, because, on one hand, the project stands on a firm intellectual scholarly ground, addressing fundamental categories like labor, religion and technology and their interface — through a focus on the history of the railways. On the other hand, I have a sense that the book will have a traction with railway enthusiasts outside academia — whom I have encountered and engaged in the course of my research. So, I am trying to build this recognition into the book’s conceptualization, given its potential appeal to multiple audiences.


Can you share more about the book that you wrote that was a part of the 50-volume series?

The Institute of Policy Studies commissioned a 50-volume series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. In some ways, this was not a new book for me to write, because I have been working on the Singaporean Indian community for almost two decades. However, it was both a novel and challenging project in the sense that I had to write about the history of the Indian community in the port city-state of Singapore in a short 100-page monograph for a non-academic audience. Above all, I wanted to convey the internal diversity and complexity of the small Indian community in Singapore without presenting it in monolithic and homogenized terms.


Can you talk about how you first started your studies on Diaspora Hinduism?

I was born in India in the North East Indian state of Bihar. My father was an academic and practitioner in the field of agricultural and communication studies. As a young child, the family traveled all over India with him. At the age of 12, we moved to Singapore when my father took up a position here.

At the National University of Singapore, I majored in sociology and anthropology. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to meet some of the most inspiring teachers at the Department of Sociology — who sparked an intellectual interest in religion and Hinduism. The Hinduism that I confronted in Singapore was actually very different from my personal experience of everyday Hinduism. The variety of Hinduism I witnessed was South Indian Hinduism — primarily from Tamil Nadu. The temples, the rituals, the deities and the festivals were all unfamiliar to me. Yet when I began to be interested in studying Hinduism, I found myself in a strange situation. From the outside, people assumed that I was studying my own community. But actually, it was all very novel to me because I did not even understand the Tamil language at the time — and I was very much an outsider.


Who are some of the other academics who inspire you?

That’s a long list: M.N. Srinivas, Syed Hussein Alatas, Veena Das, Lynn McDonald, Geoffrey Benjamin, Dorothy Smith, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, Tzvetan Todorov, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Sidney Mintz, Harriet Martineau, Pandita Ramabai, and Florence Nightingale, just to name a few.

In recent years, Sunil Amrith has been a huge influence and inspiration given his towering role in theorizing Southeast Asian migration histories. His book Crossing the Bay of Bengal has been fundamental in producing different ways of thinking about mobility and flows of labor, ideas and material objects. I have also been very captivated by the writings of Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre and their work on everyday life. In all the work that I have done so far — both by way of research and teaching — I have prioritized everyday perspectives, a theme that continues in Temple Tracks.

As part of her work for her upcoming book Train Tracks, Sinha looked at religious shrines and buildings along 80-year old tracks.



In particular, Dorothy Smith has been decisive in my own journey as a woman academic. She has been an important resource and influence for woman scholars who continue to struggle to discover a language with which to talk about and make sense of their experiences in the workplace. Her theoretical and methodological contributions — standpoint theory and institutional ethnography — strongly resonate with me.


I can see that as a theme in your work, as you also wrote about women’s role in building institutions in Singapore.

I am currently working on a book project with my colleague Prof. Lily Kong of the Singapore Management University. For this project, we are looking at women’s presence in institutions of higher learning in Singapore. We have identified 10 female academics — in leadership positions — in the social sciences, arts and humanities and STEM disciplines. We have conducted in-depth interviews with them with a view to mapping their everyday lives as academic in institutional settings. We hope to complete the book soon.


What do you see as a path forward for female academics?

It is a struggle. It was a struggle for Dorothy Smith and it remains a struggle for all of us today. Though expressed in different modes, the problems have not gone away.

I admit that in the past I was hesitant to be placed in senior level administrative positions. In fact, many women academics opt out of taking admin leadership roles, partly due to the deep entrenchment of academic institutions in patriarchal norms. But since I have had the opportunity to be head of two departments at NUS, I have learned that women’s presence in leadership positions does matter – both academic and administrative – especially in areas where policies are debated and made.

Sitting on recruitment and reviewing committees and on management boards, I have witnessed that even my lone presence as a woman tempers the tone of the discussion and prevents loaded and blatantly sexist and even racist questions to be raised — even if it is just for political correctness. But the effect is more important in these instances. In these positions, I have had opportunities to raise critical issues, many of which I am convinced would not have surfaced otherwise. I have seen the value that even one person who thinks against the grain can bring to the discussion and this can make a difference.

While I remain skeptical of all institutions, I am encouraged enough to now say that it is indeed essential for women academics to occupy supervisory, managerial and administrative roles in universities. I have heard from junior women faculty and women graduate students how empowering it is for them to see women in leadership positions, not to mention the mentoring and role-model opportunities they see in this. I am inclined to agree with them. It is clear that the situation is not self-correcting and warrants sustained intervention at all levels.  


Ten Minutes with Professor Vikram Patel

In the developing world, 95% of people with a clinically significant mental illness receive no treatment at all, and it costs the global economy an estimated trillion dollars a year.

Vikram Patel is a distinguished Indian psychiatrist and The Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School. The Mittal Institute’s Hasit Shah caught up with him before our 2018 Symposium, where Professor Patel was one of the key speakers.