Indira V. Peterson
Citation for 2001 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship
Indira is the scholarly equivalent of the winner of the Olympic pentathlon. She excels in not five but six domains of South Indian culture: history, music, dance, folklore, religion, and literature. Her athleticism in language is notable because she is fluent in her native Tamil, in English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi, French and German; she also uses Russian and Greek. Because she is a notable teacher as well, her students know that she is a performer in South Indian dance, music and voice, since she introduces these arts into her courses. Some of her students here from India say that she has introduced them to whole areas of literature and history new to them.
Outside Mount Holyoke College she is known as a leading scholar of classical Sanskrit, of classical and modern Tamil languages and culture, of classical Hinduism, and of colonial and gender studies. She is known equally as translator and historian of Sanskrit and Tamil poetry and sacred hymns. Since 1982, when she first came to Mount Holyoke, she has published at least one major article a year, she has served as editor of Indian literature for the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces.
She has also written three singular books. Poems to Siva, The Hymns of the Tamil Saints, published in 1998, is the now classic study of Saiva literature in Tamil, basic for understanding the development of modern Hinduism. Design and Rhetoric in a Sanskrit Court, that will be published this year, translates and analyses one of the major lyrical-narrative works of a great Sanskrit poet. And now nearing publication is her book on the early Tamil fortune-teller dramas called "Kuravanci," in which she uses folkloric and other indigenous sources to study the relationships of literary genres and cultural identities. If one were to single out any of her articles, it might be one published in 1999, "The Cabinet of King Serfoji of Tanjore," a study of a European-oriented king in early 19th-century India that involves fascinating accounts of German as well as Indian culture.
It would nonetheless be wrong to think of Indira Peterson only as a scholar's scholar. Her love of Tamil and Sanskrit poetry shows in her translations which, even to Mount Holyokians innocent of any knowledge of the languages, embrace wit as well as convincing metaphor. We might leave the last word to a few lines from a hymn to Siva by the poet Cuntarar, which Peterson succinctly characterizes as having a "teasing, complaining tone" far removed from most Western religions:
Handsome Lord, you have made me your own slave,
I go about serving you.
Yet you wander as you please, insulting people, picking fights,
doing repulsive deeds, boasting of worse.
Give me sweet perfumes, fine clothes,
and jewels from your store....