South Asian Studies Professor Receives ‘Genius’ Grant

Sunil Amrith
2017 MacArthur Genius Grant Winner Sunil Amrith works in his study at home in Cambridge.
Last week was a life-changing one for Sunil Amrith, a History and South Asian Studies Professor.

Not only did he welcome his second child into the world—Amrith also won a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Grant.

Each year the MacArthur Foundation awards 24 unrestricted $625,000 fellowships “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

Amrith said he was shocked to receive a phone call notifying him that he had won the grant, as he had no idea he had even been nominated. “It was truly, completely… out of nowhere,” he said.

Amrith joined the Harvard faculty three years ago after teaching modern Asian history at the Birkbeck College of the University of London for eight years. His research focuses on the history of migration in South Asia, as well as its modern political implications.

“The big themes of my work are movement and migration, and what happens if we actually put migrants at the center of the histories that we write instead of taking national boundaries for granted,” Amrith said.

Though his research centers on immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, Amrith said he is interested in studying parallels between the movement of people in the past and in today’s current political climate.

The author of two books, Amrith said he will use the grant money to “speak to a wider audience” about his research. The money will also enable him to begin to tackle some of his “dream projects,” like working with a documentary filmmaker or travelling in China to expand the scope of his scholarship, he said.

Amrith said he was inspired by the other MacArthur Genius fellows’ wide range of specialties. Other fellows named this year include novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, folk musician Rhiannon Giddens, and MIT computer scientist Regina Barzilay.

“There are people I would love to meet; you know, there are very very interesting creative people—artists, novelists, you know—I would love to see what kinds of opportunities, collaborations come out of that,” Amrith said.

Amrith already knows one of his fellow Genius recipients, historian Derek Peterson—they started their first jobs at the University of Cambridge together 13 years ago.

Despite the breadth of Amrith’s extensive research, he also described the sense of fulfillment he feels from teaching his students.

“I’m learning as much from my students as they are from me when it comes to the history of South Asian communities here in the US, and that’s been exciting,” he said. “It’s coming back here and being in the classroom that brings it all together for me, as well as hopefully for the students that are taking my courses.”

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