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2005 Faculty Awards: Ramusack's Research Earns A Rieveschl

Barbara Ramusack was looking for a challenge early in her career, and that was the start of a path which led to her being recognized as one of the world's top authorities on colonial India.

Date: 5/10/2005 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Dottie Stover

UC ingot   Barbara Ramusack set out on her academic career with a desire to do the kind of work that would break fresh ground.

Her status as a 2005 winner of the Rieveschl Award for Creative and Scholarly Works is an acknowledgment by the University of Cincinnati that she has succeeded.

On a broader stage, the publication last year of her volume The Indian Princes and Their States by the Cambridge University Press in its series on modern India offered the same endorsement from the other leading scholars in her field of South Asian history.

"The fact that Barbara was chosen to do the ‘princely’ volume for the series is itself a tribute to her standing in the Indian field," says Ian Copland of Monash University in Australia and editor of the journal South Asia. "And the book fully confirms the trust that Cambridge placed in her talent."

"She is held in great respect internationally among scholars of South Asian and Asian history," says Judith M. Brown, the Beit Professor Commonwealth History at Balliol College, University of Oxford. She adds: "(Ramusack) is an international ambassador for the University of Cincinnati in so many ways."

Not bad praise for a scholar who started off exploring a marginal subject, one that had almost been lost to history.

During her doctoral work at the University of Michigan, Ramusack became fascinated with the princes of India, a group of rulers who were left in control of about 40 percent of India’s territory once the country fell under British rule.

"The princes were not the focus of a lot of historical research, because at the time of independence in 1947, most of their territory had been integrated into the Indian state or Pakistan," says Ramusack. "But because the British had limited personnel and money, the princes had enabled the British to rule indirectly large tracts of Indian territory."

With so much focus on the British during the colonial period, Ramusack found in the princes the kind of overlooked subject that offered great opportunity. She spent almost two years in the mid-1960s doing her dissertation research on the princes.

In 1978, she helped open the door on this forgotten segment of history with her first book, The Princes of India in the Twilight of Empire: Dissolution of a Patron-Client System, 1914-1939.

"Indian historians soon recognized it as a very important contribution to the social and political history of modern South Asia," says Sumit Guha, a professor of history at Rutgers. "Too many histories until then had focused on the history of the directly-administered provinces of British India, and ignored the extremely diverse and important place of the 600-plus Indian states in the unfolding story of decolonization and partition."

Ramusack has spent much of the time on her seven research trips to India – each lasting between 4-6 months – digging for material on the princes. Little of what she uncovered was readily accessible.

She made trips out of the major centers and into regional archives where few researchers had visited and conditions could be far from ideal.

Ramusack recalls one early freezing trip to the city of Patiala in Punjab, which held the records of the Chamber of Princes, an advisory group. Working in an old fort with music blaring in from a bazaar outside, a small heater at her feet and a bare light bulb overhead, she struggled to keep her fingers warm enough to peck away notes on a manual typewriter.

"Even now," she says, "the conditions in many places are dissimilar from what you find in Western archives."

No matter, the subjects she was pursuing sustained her interest. Through the years, she has contributed numerous articles and book essays, while staying active in areas such as academic conferences and mentoring young academics. (She even found time to serve the university for four years as head of UC’s history department, and five years as chair of the Taft Faculty Board.)

Beyond the princes, Ramusack developed a second major research interest – the history of women in Asia. An interest in how British women interacted with Indian women blossomed into a full-on look at women’s history in the region. By 1988, she had authored a teaching packet for use by others who wanted to integrate the historical role of women in the region into their classes.

The scope of that work and interest in it grew to the point that in 1999, Ramusack published Women In Asia: Restoring Women to History, a volume in which Ramusack wrote the sections on women in South Asia and women in Southeast Asia, which formed about half of the content in the book.

She has now started another major book project, this time dealing with the history of maternal and infant health in colonial south India.

It will only add to an already distinguished career, one that reached new heights with last year’s publication of the Cambridge volume on the princes. While it is distinguished in its own right to be selected for the series, Ramusack’s colleagues agree that she took full advantage of the opportunity by producing an outstanding work.

One journal review wrote that the book "is very likely to achieve the status of a classic contribution, worthy of the prestigious Cambridge series in which it is published." Mrinalini Sinha, a faculty member in history and women’s studies at Penn State, considers it "a tour de force that should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of modern India." And Balliol College’s Brown simply endorses the book as the "single serious academic work I would hand to an advanced student of India on this subject."

That’s a tough act to follow, although Ramusack says her pleasures from her work are simple. "What I’m most pleased with is that I think I’ve made the princes into something more than exotic symbols of Indian history. I’ve documented how they were major political leaders and how many of them were very capable," she says. "They could be very autocratic, and some could be despotic and oppressive, but they could also be shrewd at maintaining themselves in power."

In short, she finds them today as intriguing as ever. The same holds true for all of India.

"I think the more I dig, the more fascinating it becomes. It also make me think, ‘Oh how little I knew when I started teaching!’ One reason I decided on India as a subject was because they had such a rich and diverse culture, so you knew you would never be bored. And it’s been true."

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