Collecting conflict: an interview with C. Ryan Perkins

May 30, 2019
David A Jordan
Gayatri Chakraborty interviewed by Citizen Historian Sarmishtha Biswas with camera person Debanjan Sengupta

C. Ryan Perkins accepted appointment as Stanford’s first South Asian Studies Librarian in the autumn quarter of 2015.  At that time, there was a broad university-led effort to expand South Asia-related scholarship, teaching, and research across campus. In this interview, Ryan gives an account of his first four academic years at Stanford and describes his current projects and priorities.

C. Ryan Perkins

What was your path to Stanford?

After receiving my Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania's Department of South Asia Studies in 2011, I was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Chicago before joining the University of Oxford as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Indian History and Culture.  I then moved back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon to be closer to my two children and began working on a startup and enrolled in a coding school.  While I found coding fascinating, I was much more interested in the social and cultural implications of technological change more broadly, from the introduction of the codex to the Internet.  When I heard about the newly created position at Stanford Libraries, my ears perked and I jumped at the opportunity.

What is the focus of your research and publication?

As a historian of South Asia and the Persianate world spanning the 18th-20th century, I am particularly interested in working with previously unexplored vernacular archives.  In my current book project, The Islamic Public in British India: Abdul Halim Sharar and the Emotions of Belonging, I examine how a rising Urdu author by the name of Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926) introduced a revolutionary idea that distinctions between the elites (ḳhāṣ) and the commoners (‘ām) had been broken through the birth of the Islami pablik [Islamic public]. I argue that the Islamic public was inaugurated as an idea in the latter part of the 1880s, supported by new genres of literature, a rise in volunteerism, and a valorization of the everyday that questioned traditional class distinctions. The revolution my book discusses was one where the quotidian entered into the realm of elite discourse, thus transforming both in the process. I have published articles in The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Modern Asian Studies and the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.  In my most recent publication, “A Bounty of Gems: Yūsuf u Zulaykhā in Pashto,” published in Jami: A Worldwide Literature, I look at the production and circulation of the Pashto translation of Jami’s famous masnavi, Yusuf va Zulaykha and the emergence of a Pashto elite navigating the frontiers of empire.

What are your curatorial assignments at Stanford Libraries?

As the librarian for both South Asian Studies and Islamic Studies, I am responsible for building the collection of materials from and about South Asia and the Islamic world in English, European languages, and languages of the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia.  This involves building and sustaining a network of antiquarian dealers, book vendors, scholars, publishers, and libraries in South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East.  I also oversee the Baha’i Collection, a wealth of rare and unique archival materials and books on the Baha’i Faith and the first university-based collection of its kind in the United States.

How many Stanford professors are among your clientele?

There are currently over forty core faculty members in various departments whose research focuses on South Asia and/or the Islamic world and more than twenty others affiliated with the Center for South Asia and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.  Apart from responding to faculty teaching needs, I work in collaboration with the Center for South Asia and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies to provide research assistance to faculty, students, and other library users. 

How greatly have South Asian collections expanded during your tenure?

In the previous three-and-a-half years, Stanford Libraries has increased its holdings in more than 13 South Asian languages from fewer than 1,000 processed titles to more than 15,000.  This growth is significant and provides much needed support for the range of faculty and student research interests.  We are currently working with a vendor in Pakistan to digitize a rare collection of 15,000 books in Arabic, Persian, Pashto, Urdu, and Punjabi from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Is there a common theme in recently acquired collections and ongoing projects?

Some of the most exciting and groundbreaking projects focus on human rights and conflict in South Asia and making these archives available online for researchers at Stanford and around the world.  Unfortunately, conflict is the current political reality of South Asia.  In addition, we have acquired important personal archives from some of the most prominent Iranian intellectuals of the past century; the most recent acquisition is from the late Shahroukh Meskoob (1924-2005).

What is an example of collecting the history of regional conflict?

The continuing conflict between India and Pakistan is a legacy of the 1947 Partition when the subcontinent achieved independence from the British and was divided into the independent nation states of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.  In one of the largest forced migrations in human history, 12 million people crossed the newly formed borders and more than one million lost their lives.

The 1947 Partition Archive, a non-profit organization founded by Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, has trained volunteers to become Citizen Historians and collected more than 7500 video interviews of Partition survivors during the past seven years.  In a partnership forged about two years ago, Stanford Libraries began to stream these interviews online through the Spotlight at Stanford digital exhibition platform.  Creating metadata for each interview with sufficient detail and the proper format to make them discoverable in the Stanford Digital Repository is a challenge; we have done so for about fifty interviews that are available online now.

How do you use the Partition Archive in classroom settings?

As a lecturer in Stanford's Department of History, I am currently (Spring 2019) offering an advanced seminar, Oral History and the Partition of India (HISTORY 297/397D), the first course of its kind and a template for future pedagogical use of the interviews. The Partition interviews provide human voices as context to more than 70 years of post-colonial conflict, including numerous wars, fraught relations, and the periodic threat of nuclear deployment between India and Pakistan.  How could neighboring communities, accustomed to centuries of relative peace, have suddenly turned so violently upon one another?  The archive of thousands of survivor statements allows us to explore the Partition and its legacy through the lens of oral history.

What is the Archive on the Legacy of Conflict in South Asia?

In 2017, Stanford Libraries and the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford determined to collaborate with the Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights Initiative at the Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkeley to create the Archive on the Legacy of Conflict in South Asia. 

Professor Angana Chatterji, founding co-chair of the Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights Initiative at UC Berkeley, imagined this pioneering collection in collaboration with civil society leaders, activists, NGOs, and scholars across South Asia.  Housed at Stanford in both physical and digital form, the Archive is assembling the first such comprehensive repository of materials on the subject.   

What are the priorities for these two archives?

Both archives are unique in the world and underscore Stanford Libraries’ increasing role in housing novel South Asia-related archives and making them available online.  Ingesting the materials into the Stanford Digital Repository is our first objective.   Beyond that, we are seeking philanthropic funding to establish a research program that will convene conferences and sponsor fellowships focused on new and formative scholarship, policy proposals, and a deeper understanding of the historical and contemporary situation in South Asia and how it affects the broader world.