An exceptional friend of India
Few Americans — indeed few Indians — have developed the combination of deep historical knowledge while
keeping abreast of the rapid changes in contemporary India that Marshall Bouton has, says Devesh Kapur.
It is only fitting that Marshall Bouton be recognized for India Abroad’s Friend of India award coming as it does almost 50 years since he first
went to India.
As a pre-med student at Harvard,
Marshall was intent on going onto medical
school. However, he was fed up with going
to school and by chance happened to take
a course on South Asian civilization in his
last semester at Harvard taught by Daniel
Ingalls, the great Sanskritist at Harvard,
and Susanne Rudolph, one of the most
incisive political scientists on India. As he
recounts, he just fell into the idea of going
to India on a program run by the American
Friends Service Committee.
Marshall was born and brought up in
New York City and wound up spending
two years (1964-1966) in rural Thanjavur,
living in a village of 1,000 people, 200
miles south of what is now Chennai and
totally fell in love with it. Thanjavur is not
only the rice bowl of South India but
because of its long history of natural irrigated paddy cultivation, it was one of the rich-est rural regions in all of the South and gave rise to a rich
cultural heritage, including magnificent temples, bronzes,
paintings, and literature. It is the Dravidian heartland.
When Marshall first went to India, back-to-back droughts
had created food shortages and his mother thought he was
going to starve to death. Instead the transformative experience changed his life, leading to two long-term career interests: Asia in general and India in particular; and agriculture
and food security issues, interests he has sustained since.
After returning from India, Marshall went on to do a
Master’s in South Asian Studies at the University of
Pennsylvania, studying under political scientist Francine
Frankel, who — a quarter century later — would establish
the Center for the Advanced Study of India, the first
research center in the United States with a focus on contemporary India, and whose international advisory board
Marshall would go on to Chair with singular distinction.
Marshall earned a PhD at the University of Chicago,
studying with Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph who deservedly
were conferred the Friends of India Award last year by India
Marshall’s dissertation became the foundation of his landmark book Agrarian Radicalism in South India, published
by Princeton University Press.
The book, based on careful fieldwork in Thanjavur district
in Tamil Nadu, examined agrarian radicalism, an issue of
considerable importance at the time amidst fears that the
Green Revolution might turn red.
Marshall Bouton at a small dam in Saliamangalam, Tamil Nadu, in 1995. He helped build the dam.
COURTES Y: MARSHALL BOU TON
Devesh Kapur is the Madan Lal Sobti Associate Professor
for the Study of Contemporary India, and Director, Center
for Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.
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