In 1884 an article in a widely circulated Indian nationalist newspaper explained the value of technical training for Indians denied such opportunities by the British colonial state. Although MIT was little more than two decades old, the author pointed to the institute as a model for technical learning the colony should aspire to.
In the following decades, despite strict immigration laws in the USA, more and more South Asians came to MIT, which was one of the most international universities in the country. When India and Pakistan finally gained independence in 1947, numerous MIT graduates helped develop the new countries. Universities modeled on MIT have sprung up across India and Pakistan – some even with Infinite Corridors and Great Domes.
Such stories illuminate the long-standing, remarkably deep ties between South Asia and MIT. These connections and the people behind them are the focus of a new on-campus exhibit that explores the many ways in which MIT has shaped South Asia (including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal) and South Asians at MIT.
The project, titled South Asia and the Institute: Transformative Connections, is the result of a research collaboration involving a special subject class from MIT’s Department of History, with support from the Board of Directors of MIT’s South Asian Alumni Association and MIT International Science and Technology Technology Initiatives (MISTI) MIT-India program. It will be on display in the Maihaugen gallery throughout the year, with content also available online from Spring.
“I think the biggest advantage is the breadth and scope of the connections between the subcontinent and MIT,” says Nureen Das, managing director of MIT-India. “The first South Asian student came in 1880 – it’s overwhelming. Walk around these [exhibit]You see how all the South Asian countries are integrated into all the different schools at MIT and really connected to the community.”
A key focus of the project was capturing the personal stories of the pioneering South Asian alumni. These stories, as the exhibition demonstrates, are inseparable from the history of MIT, the United States, and the broader South Asian subcontinent, and offer insight into issues such as immigration and race in the United States, and decolonization and nation-building in South Asia.
“There’s an interesting way we can look at an institution like MIT and extend it to comment on the larger historical trends that we’re all caught up in today,” says associate professor Sana Aiyar, who is leading the student research effort directed. “Even if you think about students from Ukraine or Russia at MIT today, you see that world events are changing the way institutions think about their relationships with countries. But ultimately, it’s the students and faculty—the people—that are affected. The effects of [state and institution policies] are all individually experienced.”
As they conducted their research, the MIT and Wellesley College students repeatedly discovered the stories of the South Asians at MIT interwoven with the larger history of MIT, the United States, and South Asia.
The US’ troubled history with immigration was shown, for example, in the story of Madan Bagai, MIT’s first South Asian-American student. Bagai’s father lost his US citizenship in 1923 due to anti-immigration laws and later committed suicide, citing the trauma caused by this reversal in a suicide note. Bagai, meanwhile, had a successful academic career at MIT, but was unable to find employment in the US after graduation and eventually returned to India.
“The Bagai family’s MIT connection really grasps the limits of what a single institution can do, even when trying to build something global,” says Aiyar.
Undergraduate researchers led by Aiyar and supported by the MIT South Asian Alumni Association also found links between MIT and the decolonization of South Asian countries, with many MIT alumni participating in nationalist movements in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1946, an exhibition prepared by a British news agency and displayed at MIT claimed that European and Indian soldiers were paid equal wages in the British Army. MIT students protested the lie, calling the exhibit colonial propaganda and prompting MIT’s librarian to apologize.
When India and Pakistan became new nations, their governments looked to MIT as a partner in their development, leading to an exchange of ideas and the establishment of universities modeled on MIT.
“When India decided to set up its Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), it partnered with a number of countries and some institutions in the US, but ultimately the MIT model won,” says Ranu Boppana ’87, a member of South Asian MIT Alumni Association. “There are all these IITs across the country that follow pretty much the same MIT curriculum and have the same constitution. MIT is something they saw as a beacon and it had a huge impact on the global technological revolution.”
The American civil rights movement was also included in the exhibition. A poster shows alumni Jaswant Krishnayya SM ’61 and Syed Meer SM ’61 posing with Martin Luther King during the first Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) training session at Morehouse College in Georgia. The training was conducted by Indian nationalists.
While touching on moments of national importance, the exhibition ultimately focuses on the stories of individuals. Artifacts on display include a handwritten journal by MIT’s first graduate student, donated to MIT’s Distinctive Collections by his grandson, who is also an MIT alumnus, and reproductions of letters sent home by an early graduate student.
Jupneet Singh, a student who took Aiyar’s course in the spring semester, says what she enjoyed most was learning about early South Asian women at MIT.
“I think my favorite moment of looking through the archives was looking at the 1968 yearbook and seeing an Indian woman in that sea of white men,” says Singh. “You can tell she was such a pioneer. As I studied these people, I realized that’s why I’m here – because of these women.”
The exhibit also includes graphs showing the number of South Asian MIT graduates in each decade, and a map of North America and South Asia showing the first South Asian MIT graduates from each country.
“The exhibition fills a gap because this story is so little known,” says Boppana. “I think it shapes students’ identities and how they see themselves and how they see the world.”
An idea comes alive
The project began when Boppana learned about the first South Asian to come to MIT while reading The Technological Indian. She reached out to Aiyar in 2019, expressing a desire to capture stories from senior alumni. Aiyar suggested giving students training in conducting oral traditions and putting them in contact with alumni, and Das was able to provide support and connections through MISTI-India.
“This project would look very different if just one of us did it, and I think we’ve learned an incredible amount from each other,” says Aiyar.
Students have conducted research in MIT Libraries’ Distinctive Collection and conducted over 100 oral histories with alumni over the past two periods of independent activities and summers. Last semester, Aiyar taught a special subject class, 21H.S04 (MIT South Asian Oral History and Digital Archive Project), to give students a specific amount of time to devote to the project.
Aiyar says the course was such a success that she is trying to make something similar a permanent course.
“Through this project, I was able to share my love of history through this hands-on research with students who looked at primary sources and archives and built a genealogy of South Asians at MIT—a genealogy that they are in,” says Aiyar.
The exhibition’s launch on October 14 attracted almost 200 visitors. The event, held at the Hayden Library and courtyard, was standing room only and included performances by student a cappella group MIT Ohms and dance groups MIT Nritya and MIT Bhangra.
“Seeing it come together at the exhibition was a very different experience than doing the research individually,” says senior Amulya Aluru. “Getting together to watch the videos and peruse the exhibit was like a whole community coming together and supporting South Asians, which I honestly had never seen before, and it was really inspiring.”
The curators plan to continue their partnership with students to add more content to the exhibition’s digital collection and make it more accessible worldwide.
“I hope this is just the first phase of the project,” says Boppana. “There are other things that we want to achieve and we hope that people will leave their feedback and engage with us, work with us so that we can continue to grow the project.”