Center History

History of the Center for South Asia and South Asian Studies
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

By Sharon Dickson, Assistant Director Emerita

The origins of South Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reach back nearly 120 years when William Holme Williams held a professorship of Sanskrit in the Department of Ancient Languages in the mid-1880s. The tradition continued when the study of Indian classics in translation were taught in the Department of Comparative Literature in the early Twentieth Century.

In 1953-56, UW-Madison faculty Henry Hart, Political Science, and Murray Fowler, Comparative Literature, traveled to India on federal sponsorship and foundation funding to take part in technical assistance programs in applied fields such as engineering, education, medicine, and urban welfare. After these trips to India, Hart and Fowler were instrumental in the development of The University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Indian Studies in 1958.

Indian Studies Department – December 1964
Left to right around the table:
MG. Krishnamurthi, Robert Miller, Usha Nilsson, G.C. Narang, Dr. Sharma. Richard Robinson, Henry Hart, Robert Frykenberg, Alex Wayman, Joseph Elder, and Ripley Moore

As a response to the USSR’s launching of the first satellite into space in 1957, the U.S. National Defense Education Act (NDEA) was established to support university-based programs in area studies. The first NDEA grant to expand language and area studies in the UW-Madison Department of Indian Studies was acquired in 1960. With this grant, the UW-Madison South Asia Area Center was established. The NDEA grant was followed by a 1.2 million dollar Ford Foundation grant in 1962 to further expand Indian studies over the next five years. From the early to late 1960s, Joseph Elder, modern societies; Robert Frykenberg, South Indian history; George Hart III, Tamil language and literature; Henry Hart, Gandhi and modern political movements; John Hitchcock, anthropology of Nepal and the Himalayas; David Knipe, Hinduism; Robert Miller, Buddhist anthropology; Usha Nilsson, Hindi language and literature; Richard Robinson, Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, and Tibetan Buddhism, Geshe Sopa, Tibetan language and literature and Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Frances Wilson, Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit, and Manindra Verma, Hindi language, literature, and linguistics, joined the initial faculty of Indian Studies, often carrying joint appointments in other disciplines.

South Asian Studies lost an important scholarly force when Richard Robinson died unexpectedly from an accident in 1968. Despite this terrible loss, the Department of Indian Studies and the South Asian Area Center continued to grow as Steven Beyer, Tibetan Buddhism; Marc Galanter, Indian law; Muhammad Memon, Arabic and Persian language and literature; A.K. Narain, ancient Indian history and numismatics; John Richards, modern Indian history and kinship; and V. Narayana Rao, Telugu language and literature, joined the faculty in the early 1970s. Sheela Verma, Hindi language, and Krishna Pradhan, Nepali language, joined as academic staff instructors to expand the language program.

When the retirements of John Richards, Bob Miller, Henry Hart, A.K. Narain, and Frances Wilson became inevitable in the 1980s, Gudrun Bühnemann, Sanskrit and Buddhism; J. Mark Kenoyer, archeology; Kirin Narayan, anthropology; André Wink, pre-modern history; and Phillip Zarrilli, theater and Martial arts; joined the faculty, expanding disciplinary coverage to new areas.

The administration of the South Asia Language and Area Center and the Department of South Asian Studies (formerly Department of Indian Studies) were conjoined from receipt of the first NDEA grant in 1960. The Chair of South Asian Studies also served as Director of the South Asia Language and Area Studies Center, with the greatest number of faculty in the center program drawn from the Department of South Asian Studies. In 1989, at the request of the Dean of International Studies, the center and the department evaluated the advantages of separating the administration of the two entities. Beginning in January 1990, the Center for South Asia was formally established as a distinct unit from the Department of South Asian Studies, with Joe Elder serving as the Center’s first Director. Sharon Dickson assumed the role of Assistant to the Director in 1990, with changes in the position warranting a change to her position as Assistant Director in 1996. In 1995 the Center for South Asia became a member program of the newly organized International Institute, a collaborative initiative of the Dean of Letters & Science and the Dean of the Office of International Studies and Programs.

From the 1990s forward, South Asian studies has continued to reach further across campus to include Preeti Chopra, urban planning; Paula Kantor, consumer science and women’s studies; Shanti Kumar, communication arts, Hemant Shah, journalism and mass communication; Aseema Sinha, political science; and Gautam Vajracharya, art history and Buddhist iconography. The retirements of David Knipe, Manindra Verma, Geshe Sopa, and Phillip Zarrilli have led to the more recent appointments of Don Davis, Hinduism and religious studies; Aparna Dharwadker, literature in English and theater; Vinay Dharwadker, Hindi and Marathi literature; John Dunne, Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism; Christine Garlough, communication arts; Asifa Quraishi, Islamic law; and Charles Hallisey, Theravada Buddhism and religious studies.


Expand the below boxes for more specific histories tied to the Center for South Asia.

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Degree Programs

Throughout the beginning years of the Department of Indian Studies, B.A. and M.A. degrees in South Asian Studies were developed and offered through the area-focused Department of Indian Studies (renamed the Department of South Asian Studies in 1973). In the late 1960s Ph.D. programs in South Asian Language and Literature (with further concentration in civilizations or religions) and Buddhism were added. In 2003, the Department of South Asian Studies was reorganized and renamed the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia (LCA). Although the LCA B.A. still includes significant study on South Asia, it has been revised to include broader study of Asia. In 2003, the Center for South Asia developed and now offers the Undergraduate Certificate on South Asian Studies, where students can create a 21-credit program of interdisciplinary language and area studies. LCA continues to offer the South Asia-focused M.A. and Ph.D. programs, with increased emphasis on disciplinary training. Also, both M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in disciplines with strong faculty presence such as anthropology, archeology, communications, history, journalism, political science, sociology, and theater are also highly viable choices for graduate students.

Study Abroad

Wisconsin’s College Year in India Program began in 1960 when Henry Hart of the UW-Madison Political Science Department helped Tom Trautmann, a junior in Beloit College, to spend a year in India on a “casual student” visa affiliated with Delhi University. The success of an undergraduate studying in India encouraged Henry Hart to widen the experiment. In the Spring of 1961 Hart arranged for five recent Wisconsin BAs (from Beloit, Lawrence, and the UW-Madison) to receive “casual-student” visas affiliated with the Delhi School of Social Work, to study both Hindi and Urdu, and to carry out fieldwork projects in India. In the Spring of 1962, the budding College Year in India Program was turned over to Joe Elder, who had joined the UW-Madison faculty the previous Fall. Under the auspices of the UW-Madison Office of International Academic Programs, Joe signed-on as faculty coordinator of the program.

During the summer of 1962 sixteen undergraduates from UW-Madison and several colleges of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest studied Hindi in Madison in the summer with Ripley Moore and then flew to three campuses in India — Delhi University’s School of Social Work (Old Delhi), Jamia Millia Islamia (New Delhi), and Banaras Hindu University or BHU (Varanasi). Dr. A.K. Narain of the BHU faculty played a major part in establishing the program in Varanasi. Joe Elder, who was studying in Lucknow that year with a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies, monitored the three-location program. During that academic year, the three pillars of the program were established: 1) a prior summer of language training in the U.S., 2) a second-year of language training in India, and 3) an independent fieldwork project to be completed in India.
The College Year in India Program opened its admissions to students from any accredited college or university in the United States or Canada in 1963/64. Over time, study locations settled in Hyderabad, Madurai, and Varanasi.

In 1980/81, under the direction of Professor John Hitchcock, the UW-Madison launched its Kathmandu-based College Year in Nepal Program (CYIN) for Nepali-learning students. 1983/84 saw the addition of Tibetan-learning students to the Nepal program.

To serve the College Year In India and College Year in Nepal Programs, the Center for South Asia, the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia, and the Office of International Academic Programs collaborated to offer summer language study in Hindi-Urdu, Nepali, Tamil, Telugu, and Tibetan. Today, that program has been replaced by SASLI (see below), which now serves a wider number of students nation-wide, yet includes the necessary language study for CYIP and CYIN students.

Phillip Zarrilli, UW-Madison Theatre and Drama Department launched UW’s Kerala summer performing arts program in the summer of 1993 in Thiruvananthapuram. Under this program participants spend ten weeks in Kerala, learning such performing arts as mrdangam drumming or Kalarippayattu martial skills and concluding with an elaborate end-of-the-summer performance. While completing his Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin, Don Davis served as Resident Director of the program in Summer 1997 and 1998. Currently, Don lends his expertise to the program as a faculty member in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia.

Annual Conference on South Asia

In 1971, Wisconsin faculty met with a group of high school teachers to discuss teachers’ needs for South Asia classroom materials. Over the next two years, Robert Frykenberg expanded on this idea and organized the “Wisconsin Conference on South Asian Studies” which was held at the Johnson Wax Company Wingspread center in Racine, Wisconsin, in May 1973. The statement of purpose for this conference reads, “The Wingspread Conference brings together specialists of South And Southeast Asia from several campuses of The University of Wisconsin [System] and other state educational institutions, for the purpose of planning programs which will reach all segments of the population of Wisconsin with educational programs about the culture of South Asia.” Thirty-seven educators from Wisconsin high schools, colleges, and the University of Wisconsin System attended the conference. Continued annually, the 1974 conference solidified the format of scholarly presentations and an invited scholarly address. In 1974 the conference was officially named the “Wisconsin Conference on South Asia.” Although it was originally conceived as a conference that would move among the various campuses of the University of Wisconsin System, by 1976 the conference had grown enough in size to require that it be held permanently in Madison where it found a home at the UW Extension Lowell and Wisconsin Centers.

By 1981 the conference had expanded to include over 350 participants from North America, Europe, and South Asia. The title was changed to the “Annual Conference on South Asia.” By 2003, over 500 participants had consistently attended the conference so it was moved to the Madison Concourse Hotel. Today the conference regularly attracts more than 700 participants, primarily scholars, but with a noticeable contingent of journalists, NGO affiliates, government affiliates, and others.


Plans to develop a state wide outreach program was spear-headed by J.F. Richards who organized a working meeting of fifteen college and secondary teachers who met over two days in May, 1974 to plan concrete ways in which the Center could provide greater service to the teaching community. From this meeting, several programs were launched: 1) an instructional video series, 2) a civilizations of India film project, 3) two public dance performances, 3) a conference on the languages and religions of South Asia, and 4) a Medieval India bibliographic project.

While each of these items was accomplished, the instructional video series and the civilizations film project have had the most long-lasting effect. The 15-video instructional series, “Exploring the Religions of South Asia,” was developed and produced by David Knipe in 1975. Center for South Asia faculty Stephan Beyer, Geshe Sopa, Muhammad Memon, George Hart III, and V. Narayana Rao, contributed lectures along with the dozen lectures presented by David Knipe in the series. The civilizations of India film project was launched with nation-wide distribution of the black and white film Banaras, produced by Joe Elder in 1970 in 16mm format. From 1970 to today, over 35 documentary films have been added to the series, many produced by Joe Elder. Originally available in 16mm format, many films were upgraded to VHS format in the mid-1990s and most are now available in DVD format. The documentary films have been distributed internationally for over 30 years and are estimated to have reached a minimum of 85,000 viewers. Through the continued efforts of Joe Elder, a new title is added approximately once a year.

The Center for South Asia K-12 outreach program finds its roots in the Wingspread Conference and the efforts of J.F. Richards to study the needs of K-12 teachers. From the late 1970s to the present, coordinators of the outreach program have included Thomas White, Lynn Ate, Judy Benade, Ed Dixon, and Rachel Weiss. Each coordinator has contributed significant interaction with teachers and students as well as the development of supplementary K-12 curriculum materials.

In 2003, the Center received a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad grant for the project “Exploring the Cultures and Social Issues of Contemporary South India.” On this project, fourteen K-12 teachers completed a work-study program under the direction of Rachel Weiss in Chennai, Mahabalipuram, and Madurai, India. Throughout the five weeks, and upon their return, the teachers completed a curriculum project. These projects are now available world wide on the Center for South Asia Outreach website.

Library Collection

Like most library collections, it is difficult to trace the beginnings of the South Asia collection in the Memorial Library. By 1972, the collection included over 43,000 original Indian language volumes, over 24,000 English translation volumes, 3,100 periodicals, and 25 newspapers (11 in Indian languages). In 1973, Jack Wells was appointed Bibliographer of the collection and served the collection admirably until the mid 1990s when he retired. Following Wells, Carol Mitchell, and then Larry Ashmun carried joint responsibility for the South and Southeast Asia collections. In August 2004, Mary Rader was appointed Bibliographer of the South Asia collection.

Today it is estimated that the collection includes over 210,000 titles with significant holdings in South Asian Buddhism (in Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Pali), modern South Asian languages and literatures (with approximately 3,900 monograph titles added each year; particularly strong in Tamil, Urdu, and Telugu), a South India collection dating from the early Eighteenth Century to the present (including one of the finest collections of the Madras Presidency documents), the Manuscript of Shel dKar bKaagyur on microfiche, and the complete Mohenjo-Daro Sind volumes in computer file. Currently the Library subscribes to over 7,000 current serials and periodicals published in, or directly concerned with, South Asia through the acquisitions program operated by the U.S. Library of Congress field offices in Karachi and New Delhi.

In Spring 2005, Mary Rader will direct a project to identify local, national, and international periodical publications and to research where, how, and the extent of indexing that has already been done for South Asian periodicals. Following the research phase of the project, a comprehensive, web-based database will be developed to incorporate progressive standards for federated searching, and will also address issues of non-Roman script. A future project will include the actual indexing of the more than 1,200 South Asia periodicals currently received in the Library collection.

Fundraising and Endowments

In 1986, the University of Wisconsin-Madison South Asia program became the recipient of a $150,000 endowment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. That endowment included matching endowment funds from the College of Letters and Science and further matching endowment through the generous support of donors to the Tibetan Buddhist Studies program. Interest income from these funds has allowed the Center for South Asia to support South Asian studies on the UW-Madison campus through invited lectures, faculty research, and language instruction. The Mellon Foundation endowment has further served the nation and beyond by providing funds for the development of the Center for South Asia documentary films production and distribution program.

In 1961, the Taraknath Das Foundation made its first award to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to support Indian studies. Since that time, continuing gifts from the Taraknath Foundation have allowed the Center for South Asia to provide numerous student prizes for outstanding scholarly papers and to support symposia and invited lectures.

The Center for South Asia has accepted gifts on an on-going basis from interested individuals. These gifts are held in the Center for South Asia University of Wisconsin Foundation account and gain interest for future programming efforts. Gifts of any size, however small or large, have been greatly appreciated and have contributed in many ways to Center for South Asia needs.

Language Programs and FLAS

From the early 1960s forward, the University of Wisconsin-Madison South Asia program has remained a vital national force in the study of South Asia in the humanities and social sciences. Over 300 Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships have been provided to graduate students to gain both modern spoken and literary proficiency in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, Tamil, Telugu, Tibetan, and Urdu either through academic year or summer language program offerings in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia, or through support to study in the AIIS and AIPS language programs. Large numbers of students have also gained scholarly proficiency in Pali, Persian, Prakrit, and Sanskrit through programs offered in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia. Graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison South Asia program have gone on to distinguished careers in academia, government programs, non-government programs, and international agencies.


Among its peers in National Resource Center status through funding by the U.S. Department of Education, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for South Asia was chosen as the host institution for the South Asia Summer Language Institute (SASLI). Through the consortium of all federally funded National Resource Centers on South Asia, the first-ever national South Asia language program, SASLI, was launched in Summer 2003, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Center Interim Director, Christine Garlough, the Administrative Director, Laura Hammond, serve as the UW-Madison SASLI management team. 2015 will mark the thirteenth year of SASLI offerings at Madison, serving undergraduate, graduate, and special students nation-wide.