The Telegraph
Saturday , February 8 , 2014
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Presi lectures on humanities

Barely a week ago, the students at Presidency University pulled off the most unusual union elections. Hustings were held where the candidates presented their ideas, and the entire assembled student body was free to query, criticise and assess them, two days before the actual elections.

And then they voted for the ideas and issues, and the people who took up these causes. This was clearly not done along political party lines.

What surprised me most was that the major issues that concerned the students were academic ones, as they should be. There were worries about the classroom and library facilities, fairness of the examination system, standard of teaching and academic curriculum, and about the gaps in communication between teachers and students. This was reassuring.

In December, a large number of students came to the Presidency authorities asking to organise an academic festival. We were thrilled with some of the ideas that emerged, and from this came the first installment of the Presidency University Lecture Series, in association with The Telegraph.

The series consisted of science lectures delivered by a bunch of frontline scholars from across the world. I was thrilled to see the enthusiasm and academic conviction that went into the event.

Now comes the second half of the series, also in association with The Telegraph. There will be nine talks — from February 9 to February 11 — in humanities and social sciences, delivered by renowned authors, historians, economists, journalists and philosophers. Like before, all of them are open to the general public.

Former foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan will talk about economic implications of the European Union’s foreign policy on rising Asian nations, focussing particularly on China. Nirmalangshu Mukherji, a professor of philosophy at Delhi University, will explore from the perspectives of both philosophy and linguistics how the language of the mind has progressed through evolution leading to the development of cognitive powers.

Prof. Nicholas Roe, of the University of St. Andrews, UK, is well known for his entertaining scholarly lectures. On Sunday, at the AJC Bose Auditorium at Presidency, he will explore King Alfred as a man and myth for the Romantic poets, in particular his significance for the poetry of John Keats.

Keats’s famous Ode to Autumn is the most Alfredian poem in English language, on which Prof. Roe will elaborate.

Prof. Amita Dutt, the Uday Shankar professor of dance and dean of the faculty of fine arts at Rabindra Bharati University, will speak on “Tagore and Dance”. She will illustrate her talk with quotations from Tagore’s poems, essays and letters.

Sugata Bose, the Gardiner professor of oceanic history and affairs at Harvard University, will review the idea of Asia in modern history, exploring the theories of universalism, cosmopolitanism and internationalism.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph will look at the early history of Hindu College, and its transformation into the very influential Presidency College in the 19th century.

Manosi Lahiri, MD of Infomap, who introduced digital mapping in India, will delve into the mysteries of historical maps of India made in the 17th and 18th centuries, and elaborate on the political-social-economic ramifications of cartography.

Among the nine speakers, two will speak via international weblink. Dilip Mookerjee, professor of economics at Boston University, will deliver an e-lecture on “panchayati raj and participative developments: challenges and necessary reforms”. Jayanta Roy, senior economic adviser of Deloitte Consulting, US, and former economist at World Bank, will examine the economic policies and strategies of India.

The science lecture series in December was attended by students of all disciplines, and also by schoolchildren and members of the public, a lot of whom were alumni revisiting their old college and memories.

To me, it was remarkable that the audience had the widest range of backgrounds: students of history and literature and economics were listening to lectures of biological molecules and black holes.

This has always been the spirit of Presidency. Students have always had broad interests. Often the best poems in the college magazine were written by students in the science stream, and students of humanities actively participated in debates and talks on scientific issues.

With the advent of the new GenEd programme replacing the pass subjects, this has become more institutionalised: all students majoring in science now have to take subsidiary courses in the humanities, and vice versa. In the last two semesters, the most popular courses among the science students have been “Shakespeare for everyone”, and among humanities students “Space, Time and the Universe” and “Modern life diseases”.

The author is dean, faculty of natural and mathematical sciences, and head of the physics department at Presidency