History

Indian-American Historian Sunil Amrith Awarded MacArthur Fellowship

The 38-year-old Harvard scholar works on migration in South and Southeast Asia, and how this shapes social and cultural dynamics.

Sunil Amrith, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., on Sept. 15, 2017. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, CC BY-SA

Sunil Amrith, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., on Sept. 15, 2017. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, CC BY-SA

New Delhi: Indian-American historian Sunil Amrith has been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship and one of this year’s 24 “Genius” Grant recipients. Amrith is the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies and a professor of history at Harvard University.

The MacArthur Fellowship is meant for “celebrating and inspiring the creative potential of individuals through no-strings-attached fellowships”. The fellowship comes with a $625,000 award.

“The real difference it will make is that it will make the projects that were somewhere in the dream category possible, the ones that don’t neatly fit into a research grant application but nevertheless bring out other dimensions of the issues I am passionate about,” said the 38-year-old scholar, according to the Harvard Gazette. “The no-strings-attached element gives an even heightened sense of responsibility of needing to do something good with it.”

“I’ve long been interested in working with documentary film,” he added. “The MacArthur is an encouragement to work in different media and with new people, to bring a new dimension to the work I’m doing.”

Amrith’s work focuses on migration in South and Southeast Asia, and how this shapes social and cultural dynamics. “His focus on migration, rather than political forces such as colonial empires and the formation of modern nations, demonstrates that South Asia (primarily India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka) and Southeast Asia (including Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore) are tied by centuries of movement of people and goods around and across the Bay of Bengal,” the fellowship announcement says about Amrith. “…Using narratives and records left by coastal traders, merchants, and migrants, he evokes the lives of ordinary Indians who made homes in new lands across the bay. Amrith’s examination of the emergence of diverse, multiethnic coastal communities sheds new light on the social and political consequences of colonization. Colonialism diminished some of the intimate cultural, social, and economic connections among the peoples of coastal areas while enabling new ones. Many bonds finally snapped during decolonization, however, when defining national boundaries and national identity became the priority.”

Amrith, born in Kenya, received the Infosys Prize for Humanities in 2016. “To have two of these in a year is insane. It’s a lifetime’s good fortune and then some,” he told Harvard Gazette. He is the author of Decolonizing International Health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930–65 (2006), Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia (2011) and Crossing the Bay of Bengal (2013), and is currently on sabbatical working on another book, Unruly Waters.