History with Empathy

Divya Chandramouli '14

Image courtesy of Divya Chandramouli '14

Divya Chandramouli '14, Graduate Student

Major: history, Minor in anthropology

Award: Wilma J. Pugh Grant

Graduate Program: MA in the Social Sciences, University of Chicago

Researching for my master's thesis at the University of Chicago, I spent the past year immersed in the writings of Subramania Bharati (1882–1921), a celebrated Tamil poet, nationalist and fervent advocate for women’s empowerment. Drawn to the feminist implications of Bharati’s writings, I explored how he employed seemingly patriarchal themes to present nuanced representations of women in the political and private domains of south Indian society.

I was aware, from the very beginning of the research process--in sculpting the ‘ideal’ research question, to identifying which sources would be useful—of how valuable a foundation Mount Holyoke’s History department had given me. At the level of fundamental skill sets, our professors trained us to conduct research independently, all the while guiding us so that we were critical of the questions we asked and the sources we used. We were also taught to craft well-supported, cohesive arguments.

Experiences like my undergrad thesis defense, one of my most treasured and pleasurable moments in college, strengthened the confidence we had in ourselves as historians — a loving, supportive collective of scholars reminded us that our ideas were powerful and worth giving voice to. In graduate school, these various skills came to my aid often, guiding me when there wasn’t a clear roadmap ahead.

At a larger, ideological level, I learned at Mount Holyoke that scholarship injected with an activist sensibility is all the more valuable and impactful, for the author as well as her readers. In other words, a history major at Mount Holyoke revealed the importance of conducting research with empathy, of striving to tell those stories that might have been ignored by the historical record, of imagining and understanding the realities of human existence without passing judgment.

Classes like Professor Kavita Datla’s “The Indian Ocean World” or Professor Holly Hanson’s “African Cities” underlined the rich and diverse forms of human connection across time and space. These narratives revealed the varied and interesting ways people have expressed their agency. I began to understand, then, that agency is not something we authoritatively assign (or not assign) to peoples of the past, but something we seek to understand in its nuances, in the beliefs and actions of these people themselves.

It was this understanding that allowed me to argue, in my master's thesis, that Subramania Bharati and many of his readers might have challenged the patriarchy even while subscribing to some of its rhetoric. Clearly, people’s efforts to use even patriarchal discourses as fuel for positive change does not mean that they are sadly manipulated, but that they are all the more agential as humans. Recognizing that human experiences can be so complex and diverse, allows us to narrate the past more effectively, and ensures that we stay true to the voices we represent.