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Virginia Tech cultural historian receives fellowship to conduct research in India

June 19, 2001

BLACKSBURG, June 20, 2001--When cultural historian Peter Schmitthenner travels to India this month for scholarly research, he will take on two new challenges: researching technological history and carrying out oral history research.

But being in India will not be a new challenge. Schmitthenner spent most of his youth up to the age of 18 in India with missionary parents who were following in his grandparents' footsteps there. He also did a year's doctoral research there. This time, he will take his own family with him, making his 10-year-old daughter the fourth generation of the family to live in India. She will attend the same international school he attended as a youth.

Schmitthenner was inspired to take on this project because of his personal connection with South India and also because of Virginia Tech's interest in technological issues.

Schmitthenner will spend a year in India supported by a fellowship of the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), a cooperative, non-profit organization of 50 American colleges and universities that supports the advancement of knowledge and understanding of India, its people, and its culture. Not many institutions offer opportunities to study in India, and the AIIS and Fulbright are two of the top.

Schmitthenner, an associate professor of history and also of humanities in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Tech, is a specialist in the 19th-century cultural history of South India. He looks particularly at how the influence of British colonialism transformed the cultures of South India. He is the author of a book published this year, Telugu Resurgence: C.P. Brown and Cultural Consolidation in Ninteenth-century South India, which focuses on a British scholar who studied the South Indian language of Telugu. Brown's scholarship on Teluga helped to foster a new sense of cultural identity to the people who speak that language, Schmitthenner said. People whose native language is Telugu comprise about 8 percent of India's population, or more people than make up the population of France.

The fellowship from the AIIS is related to Schmitthenner's interest in the cultural history of South India. He will research "Hydraulic Engineering and Cultural Construction in South India: The Legacy of Sir Arthur T. Cotton (1803-1899)." The study investigates how large-scale systems of irrigation based along rivers, introduced under colonial rule, helped transform the culture. "It's been a misconception that the technologies introduced into India by the British were all transported from Britain," Schmitthenner said. "Rather, British engineers adapted older Indian technologies when designing irrigation works in South India."

Schmitthenner will examine particularly the efforts of Arthur Cotton, a British civil engineer who masterminded most of the irrigation works introduced into South India in the mid-1800s. "He is a cultural icon in that part of India," Schmitthenner said. Cotton, for example, is the only non-Indian in a line of statues in Hyderabad honoring past people of importance to South India.

Splitting his time mostly between the cities of Hyderabad and Chennai (Madras), Schmitthenner, who speaks Telugu and Tamil, will try to find out more about the folklore of Cotton. He will spend time in the historical archives of two South Indian states, Andrha Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and will talk to the engineering establishment. But he also hopes to get out into the rural areas that have been impacted and get a sense from the indigenous people of how the culture was transformed by the irrigation systems.

"Until recently," he said, "village governments had a head man and an accountant, and they were hereditary positions. Given the importance such people place on keeping genealogies and family histories, it is quite probable that, through descendants of such figures, I can learn tales of their ancestors in the mid-1800s. I haven't done oral history, so this is another new venture for me."
Although the fellowship is for nine months, Schmitthenner will spend a year in India. The AIIS offers grants to scholars, doctoral candidates, and some artists and performing artists. Applications are due July 1. Information can be found at or the American Institute of Indian Studies, 1130 East 59th St., Chicago, IL 60637.

PR CONTACT: Sally Harris

Virginia Tech

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