How the Annual Conference on South Asia Began

By Robert Eric Frykenberg
Emeritus Professor of History & South Asian Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison
October 2011

Among many memories of the early years of South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin, perhaps none are more vivid than recollections of how the Annual Conference on South Asia first began. During the 1970-71 academic year, when I was chair the Department of South Asian Studies and director of the South Asia Center, we were told by Washington, in quite explicit terms, that our three-year Center grant would not be renewed unless we could give evidence showing how South Asian Studies at UW was reaching out to other institutions and providing services to the general public. But how, with our then very meager resources, were we going to demonstrate that we were, indeed and in fact, reaching out to wider constituencies? That was our challenge.

It was at that time that we devised a shell-in-shell, or box-in-box, paradigm of seven concentric “spheres of outreach” whereby the benefits of understandings of South Asia could be disseminated more widely. Circles, or constituencies, of possible influence were demarcated as : (1) the department; (2) the college; (3) the UW campus; (4) campuses of the state; (5) campuses of the Mid-West; (6) campuses of North America; and (7) campuses of the whole world, especially in South Asia itself, as well as in Europe, Australia, Africa and the Far East. To this end, we decided to hold a major conference in Wisconsin. We contacted executives of Wingspread, the Frank Lloyd-Wright-designed conference center near Racine, Wisconsin, run by the Johnson Foundation. Describing what we wished to do, we asked for their help in hosting a path-breaking event. They replied in the affirmative, indicating that while they could not provide over night accommodations for conference participants, they would gladly provide such meeting rooms as we needed, together with some food and refreshments. With this generous invitation in hand, we set about organizing panels and sending out invitations – to any and all South Asian scholars wherever they might be located, but especially in the Midwest. We were astounded at the response. Scholars came from near and far. Most South Asianists from Chicago came. So did scholars from Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri, as well as from Pennsylvania and UC-Berkeley.

The very first Wisconsin Conference of South Asian Studies took place at Wingspread on the first weekend of November, 1971. At that time, we decided that it would be good for all prospective future participants to easily remember that the event would always be held on the first weekend of November. But such was the constant and coincident advent of snow and bitter weather on that very weekend that, eventually, the date was moved up to mid-October. The event was truly memorable. Among those who participated, revealing his scholarly prowess for the first time, was Velcheru Narayana Rao. His remarkable performance made a considerable impact upon the minds of all who heard him. Among others who were there was the late and noted Sanskritist J.A.B. (“Hans”) Van Buitenen who gave his film production on Vedic Sacrifice in Pune. So also were Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph, as well as A.K. Ramanujan. Lest there be any invidious omissions, no further attempt is made here at listing names of those who were present at that event. Suffice it to say, there were some eighty to one hundred esteemed colleagues and scholars at that first conference.

The Second Annual Wisconsin Conference on South Asian Studies was held on the UW-Madison campus. This too was a resounding success, attracting many more participants. Then, because South Asia Center at Wisconsin wanted to demonstrate the wish, and fulfill the promise, of “reaching out” beyond the Madison campus, the Third Wisconsin Conference was held on the campus of UW-Oshkosh. While this event, convened and organized by John Richards, was also a success, we quickly realized that, henceforth, future annual conferences should be held on the campus of UW-Madison. There were a number of reasons for this: efficiency and regularity. Slowly conference policies and procedural conventions were evolving so as to assure continuity, and some measure of control over the quality and quantity of panels for each conference. Each year’s event was to be organized by a conference committee in which a blending of old and new members combined a sense of continuity with fresh energy and insights. Over the years, successive refinements of procedures came into being, dealing with various difficulties as these came up and setting precedents for future conferences. Eventually, campus facilities became inadequate, so that in 2001 the venue was moved to the Concourse Hotel, one block from the magnificent Wisconsin State Capitol.

What has astounded all Center for South Asia faculty and staff at UW-Madison, and continues to astonish them to this day, is the reach of the Annual Conference on South Asia. With participants now coming from every continent, and numbering over six hundred each year, the event has obviously fulfilled a need that was felt world-wide. In metaphorical terms: it was as if a match were thrown onto a floor covered with gasoline. Fires that flare up among South Asianists who come to Wisconsin each year have continued to attract more and more onlookers and participants. While there are now many other South Asia Conferences, in different regions of North America and different regions of the world, the Annual Conference on South Asia remains the most well-attended and among the most attractive. Only one other event is comparable. This is the European Conference of Modern South Asian Studies. This wonderful event, just about as old (if not older), takes place every other year, with each being convened in a different European city. This conference is just as popular but has never attracted quite as many participants; and hence, tends to be more close-knit.

The role of many colleagues in bringing the Wisconsin Conference to its current level of quality and prestige can hardly be exaggerated. Joseph W. Elder and Manindra K. Verma both served on the first organizing committee. During his long tenure as department chair and center director, Manindra patiently and carefully developed the Annual Conference. Joe’s continuing presence, throughout these years, has been ever ubiquitous. During the early years, staff work was done by Judith Paterson. Sharon Dickson, who took her place, also served for many years. B. Venkat Mani, director, Lalita du Perron, Associate Director, together with Andrea Fowler and other staff, carry on the day-to-day planning and administration. Many others, too many to mention, have faithfully served in bringing this annual event to its current level.