Ulka Anjaria '97
It’s time for us to set aside academic snobbery and approach the humanities with curiosity.” That vision is the driving force behind the career of Ulka Anjaria ’97. Professor, celebrated author, literary critic, and newly appointed head of the Mandel Center for the Humanities at Brandeis University, Ulka works passionately to dust off the outworn image of the humanities (dry old men reading dry old books) in favor of one that is fresh, approachable, inclusive, and global.
For a young woman who loved reading and talking about books, teaching at the university level was a tailor-made profession. Her years at The Potomac School nurtured Ulka’s bookish bent, offering an eclectic range of literature electives while teaching her skills essential for critical thinking and informed discourse. She reflects, “When you grow up in the suburbs, you can wind up fairly insular, without a lot of exposure to global thinking. The books I explored in my high school African American and Latin American literature classes expanded my worldview in important ways.”
She adds, “I recognize that my education was a privilege that many young people don’t have. This fuels my desire to introduce students to new ways of looking at literature.” After earning degrees in literature and anthropology from Harvard University, Ulka pursued an interdisciplinary PhD in modern thought and literature, with an emphasis on Indian literature, at Stanford University. Rather than studying literature for its own sake, she was keenly interested in examining – and reimagining – its social uses or, as she describes it, “the place of literature in the world.”
Ulka believes that literature – and more broadly, art – has a unique ability to illuminate social issues, including economic, gender, religious, and racial discrimination, opening doors to a deeper understanding of individual struggles and the human condition. How the stories in literature – whether classic or popular – are told, taught, and used is of primary importance to Ulka as a scholar and teacher.
In 2007, Ulka joined the faculty of Brandeis University, where she now serves as professor of literature. She reflects, “Some employers might balk when an interviewee is seven months pregnant with twins, but not this university, this department. They saw what I had to offer and welcomed me, making the necessary short-term accommodations.” She adds, “I am in the perfect place to do work that I love and believe to be important. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to think and talk about books all day!” Being a teacher is just one of a professor’s roles. Classroom time is limited to a handful of hours a week; mentoring individual students and doing required committee work take up a few more. The balance of a professor’s time is spent researching and writing. Publishing scholarly articles, reviews, and books is the means by which an academic advances both her area of study and her career.
At Brandeis, Ulka has taught a range of undergraduate courses with such intriguing titles as Decolonizing Fictions, Indian Love Stories, Bollywood, and 21st-Century Global Fiction. Her classes, she says, attract “smart, motivated, energetic students who are hungry to learn about the world.” Additionally,
Ulka serves as an advisor and mentor to doctoral students, helping them clarify how they can translate their academic hopes and dreams into a future in the humanities. Ulka’s own research and teaching aim to “decolonize” the humanities and embrace what some critics might dismiss as pop culture. She explains, “The area of study that we call the humanities was born in a Europe that looked very different from today’s world. I would like to see young people and academics think more broadly about the humanities, including under that umbrella all means of exploring and expressing the human experience.”
In her new role as director of the Mandel Center for the Humanities, Ulka has a unique opportunity to put this vision to work. She aims to make the center an intellectual hub for students and faculty alike – a place that fosters research, teaching, and programming with a global, interdisciplinary perspective. At the heart of this effort is an idea that Ulka terms “public humanities” – an approach that reimagines how literature, philosophy, and the arts can engage people, helping to create connections and solve problems that have “too long been solely the purview of policy makers and social scientists.”
Bollywood as Art Form and Cultural Artifact
Ulka’s work as a teacher is informed by her efforts as a scholar and author. Her books Realism in the Twentieth-Century Indian Novel: Colonial Difference and Literary Form (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Reading India Now: Contemporary Formations in Literature and Popular Culture (Temple University Press, 2019) were intended primarily for an academic audience. But with her new book, Ulka is poised to reach a wider audience. Understanding Bollywood: The Grammar of Hindi Cinema, published by Routledge earlier this year, is an introduction to the popular genre of Indian film that both dedicated movie buffs and the merely curious will find accessible and enlightening. Mumbai is the epicenter of Hindi film production, with between 300 and 400 Bollywood films released annually – and these movies have a large and devoted fan base. Further, Bollywood has a significant cultural impact. The films’ devotees in India can be fanatical, often waiting in line for days to secure opening-night tickets. Once seated, they enjoy a highly participatory experience, singing, crying, and cheering throughout the three-hour show.
Bollywood influences the Indian fashion industry with sumptuous fabrics, eye-popping colors, and trend-worthy designs. And it’s not uncommon for Indian wedding parties to take to the dance floor to replicate new (and increasingly complex) choreography from Bollywood films.
While this unique cinematic genre has begun to gain popularity in the West, audiences outside South Asia often do not understand the art form’s norms, tropes, and cultural significance. Bold, colorful, vivacious, fantastical, Bollywood films are also unapologetically formulaic, melodramatic, and far-fetched.
In her book and in the classroom, Ulka introduces the uninitiated to the building blocks of this art form, creating an understanding of how the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. She also considers how Bollywood films might serve as forms of social commentary, noting, “Although these films seem to repeat traditional stories centered on family, revenge, and romance, they also use those formulas to comment on such political and social issues as cross-border (India-Pakistan) conflicts, police corruption, gender fluidity, and women’s rights.”
She observes, “Once you understand the formulaic moral structure, you can appreciate Bollywood films and their cultural significance more fully. The key is coming to these films on their own terms.” Asked who takes her undergraduate course on Bollywood and why, Ulka says, “Some are students of South Asian heritage who want to learn more about the films they have grown up watching with their families and friends. But the majority are not Indian and have no cultural attachment to Bollywood.” She adds, “The world is a bit depressing right now, and young people may be gravitating toward something a bit lighter. My classes are serious, but we also have fun. It’s okay to have fun! There are not many places in college where you can get so much enjoyment from something you are studying.”
By watching and analyzing Bollywood films, Ulka’s students develop both cinematic and cultural literacy. This, she says, “can enhance their ability to appreciate any art form or genre that they encounter in the future. And, ideally, it offers them some new insights, revealing how art – even popular art – can both illuminate and enrich the human experience.”