Wendy Singer is an historian of South Asia, whose research focuses, primarily, on the period after 1947. Her current projects connect the history of the anti-colonial movement to the development of the post-independence state. At the moment she is finishing an essay, “Women in the State: Elected women and the Challenge of Politics in the 1950s,” which is part of a collaborative project on Feminism and Nationalism in India. A highlight of this collaboration was a conference in September of 2018 at Cambridge University. In addition, she is co-editing a volume on India’s multi-language policies and particularly the variation in language politics across states. Finally, and connectedly, she is writing a monograph on the history of "Reservations," India policy, somewhat like affirmative action, that provides designated seats in Parliament, state legislatures and other institutions for under-represented groups. The research for this book was sponsored by a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Grant. All three projects point to the organic and changing nature of Indian democracy, which was designed to emphasize its inclusiveness of various constituents and stake-holders within Indian society and, in so doing, provide potential lessons for the rest of the world.

Some of Singer’s older work lays the groundwork for this scholarly path. For example, an essay, about reservations and elections, “A Seat at the Table,” appeared in the Election Law Journal in 2012 and the book, A Constituency Suitable for Ladies and other Social Histories of Indian Elections, was published in 2007. And at the heart of all of her work is her commitment to the social history of Indian citizens, their political mobilization and their everyday lives. This began with her first book, Creating Histories: Oral Narratives and the Politics of History-Making, about peasant movements in the state of Bihar in the 1930s.

Other projects have come about along the way. For example, in response to the need for a post 1947 textbook, she published Independent India: 1947-2000 available from Routledge Press. And she had an unusual opportunity to meet and interview the Dalai Lama in association with a project on the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Results of that interview, sponsored by a Kenyon grant from the National Endowment for Humanities and the Ohio Humanities Council, include “Post Colonial Dharamsala,” in the journal Salt and “The Dalai Lama’s Many Tibetan Landscapes” in the Kenyon Review.

Areas of Expertise

History of India and South Asia, Indian politics, globalization and migration, transnational communities.


1988 — Doctor of Philosophy from Univ Virginia

1984 — Master of Arts from Univ Virginia

1982 — Bachelor of Arts from Univ Virginia

Courses Recently Taught

This capstone seminar is taught by Asian Studies Program faculty in rotation and is organized around a common theme that integrates the various disciplines and regions of Asia. Through readings, films, guest lectures and other activities, the course will lead students to synthesize their academic and personal (e.g., off-campus) experiences in a broader comparative perspective. Students will produce work that examines one or more topics of their own interest within the comparative Asian framework. Required for Asian studies concentrators and joint majors. Permission of instructor required. This interdisciplinary course does not count toward the completion of any diversification requirement. No prerequisite. Offered every spring.

This team-taught seminar explores the 20th century in global comparative perspective, through the reading, contextualization, and analysis of mainly primary source texts and documents. In any given year the seminar will focus on one of two themes: the post-war world (ca.1945-1989), or the inter-war world (1919-1939). It takes up themes of broad political, economic and social transformations; scientific and technological innovations; and the cultural shifts that occurred throughout these decades preceding and following the Second World War. The seminar sections will meet jointly once a week for lectures or films, and separately once a week for discussion of primary-source readings. In addition to the rich historical material that the course addresses, students will begin to learn the basic skills of the historian: asking questions, finding and analyzing relevant documents or primary sources, and identifying different kinds of interpretations of those sources. This counts toward the modern requirement for the major. Open only to first-year students.

This course surveys the history of India from the rise of the Mughal Empire in 1526 to the recent past. The course places the history of India in a regional and global context and explores art, film and fiction as mediums for making sense of the past, alongside analysis of traditional documentary sources. Topics include: ecology of the Indian subcontinent; Muslim rule; European trade; British colonialism; anticolonial, Hindu and Muslim nationalism; decolonization and the Partition of India and Pakistan; the creation of Bangladesh; communalism and separatism; gender, religion and caste; and democracy and economic development in the context of the Cold War and its aftermath. This counts toward the modern requirement for the major and minor. No prerequisite.

The displacement and economic consequences of climate change and the fact that global economic inequality is dramatically increasing are interrelated problems. Furthermore, we thought the spread of democracy would help solve these things. It turns out we have been led astray by policymakers, as well as some of the scientists and social scientists who informed them. This course tackles not only the biggest issues confronting our world today, but also the history of how governments, scientists and policymakers have tried to tackle them. In this class we will study different disciplinary approaches to climate change and global economic inequality and how successful they have been in crafting solutions over the past 70 years. The sources for this course include media coverage, economic analysis, scientific studies, novels, films and government reports. Borrowing from the experiences of people across the world, we will seek new ideas for approaches to common problems. This counts toward the Asia/Africa and modern requirements for the major. No prerequisite. Offered every two or three years.

People make sense of their past by telling stories about it. This course focuses on the rich and exciting traditions of literature in India as a way of studying its past, and as a way of studying history itself. Some Indian writers, such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Anita Desai, have, in fact, brought India's history to the world through their fiction. But what different visions of India do they choose to portray? This course will examine their work, but also the work of lesser-known Indian writers and filmmakers, as a way of seeing how Indian intellectuals themselves have defined and described India, on the one hand, and "history," on the other. How have these images changed over time? Among the recent films we may see are "Earth," "Train to Pakistan," "East Is East," and "Hyderabad Blues." Each challenges viewers’ notions of the past as its characters confront it. This counts toward the modern requirement for the major and minor. Permission of instructor required.

This course focuses on the conceptual frameworks used by historians and on debates within the profession about the nature of the past and the best way to write about it. The seminar prepares students of history to be productive researchers, insightful readers and effective writers. The seminar is required for history majors and should be completed before the senior year. Open only to sophomores and juniors. This counts toward the practice and theory requirement for the major. Prerequisite: history or international studies major or permission of instructor.

There are so many Tibetans in Dharamsala, India, that people call it Little Lhasa. Ramayana celebrations based on the Hindu epic in Southeast Asia reflect more ancient migrations of Indians, who carried their languages and cultures with them as they migrated. Chinese communities thrive throughout Asia where Chinese traders once settled in the course of commercial enterprise. This course will examine old and new patterns of Asian migration and the diaspora of various Asian ethnic communities. We will use cultural artifacts and products of popular culture that reflect the transit of people from one part of Asia to another. We also tackle some important theoretical questions: What is the relationship between diaspora and assimilation? What does it mean for a community to settle in a place and make it home? The converse of this question is: Who is indigenous? What effect does colonialism have on the changing meanings of migration and diaspora? The transmission of cultures and religions across Asia raises other complicated questions. For example, the "spread of Buddhism" from India eastward is usually seen through the transmission of texts and ideas. What about people? We are more apt to consider the importance of people in the spread of Islam. But surely in India, if not Malaysia too, most Muslims within a few centuries were converts, not immigrants. So how do we separate the diaspora of people from the diaspora of ideas? This counts toward the modern requirement for the major and minor. No prerequisite.