Haji Mohamed Idris

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Ashis Nandy

Vinay Lal

Shilpa Jain

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Ashis Nandy

A Short Biographical Note (2004)
by Vinay Lal

Ashis Nandy is, without a doubt, India's most formidable and controversial intellectual, its most arresting thinker, and a cultural and political critic without perhaps any equal in South Asia. At the present juncture, when Indian intellectuals and writers have left an indelible imprint in most fields of humanities and the social sciences (not to mention the sciences, where an Indian intellectual presence in the modern West has a relatively earlier history), Nandy not only easily takes his place alongside Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Arjun Appadurai, Salman Rushdie, Amartya Sen, and many others, but is in many respects singular in the kind of presence he commands and the divergent "constituencies", so to speak, whose allegiance he has gained. His books are not bestsellers, and it is unlikely that he would be able to draw even half the audience that Arundhati Roy would be able to attract at short notice, but it is widely recognized that his work is enduring in the most unusual ways. His writings are of wide academic import, and he has published by far the greater number of his fifteen odd books with Oxford University Press; and yet he is only a half-hearted academic, never having occupied (except for various short stints as a visitor) a professorship at any Indian or foreign university. Nor, unlike other Indian intellectuals who are read widely in the academy across the world, especially in the Anglo-American world, has Nandy been educated outside India: he is, in a word, a home-grown product. The label of "activist" does not sit well on Nandy's frame either, but he has served on a number of fact-finding commissions and has been part of teams sent to monitor elections in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; moreover, activists use his writings widely, and Nandy has done his bit to bring activists and academics into conversation with each other.

Nandy is, if one had to find a phrase that would uniquely describe him, the ultimate dissenter. To those who think they know what is signified by dissent, Nandy's defiance of the established categories of knowledge will take them by surprise, just as a little turn of phrase here and there signifies the presence of an extraordinarily perspicacious sensibility, a rare combination of intellect, intuition, and counter-intuition. The usual platitudes with which men and women of his intellectual breadth and temperament are described -- "renaissance man" and polymath, among others -- can scarcely help us to understand that it is not some insatiable curiosity or the spirit of (Western) humanism which drives him. Nandy, with a handful of other intellectuals, has provided the frameworks with which we are now positioned to comprehend the politics of knowledge and the politics of culture. His scholarship is unimpeachable, but he does not work within the established academic disciplines. Neither the opulence of the American academic establishment, nor the privileges of the American star system, have been able to seduce him into abandoning either India or the intellectual and political positions by which he abides.
Nandy's writings are quite widely known, and the accolades he has collected tell their own astonishing tale: among the formal lectures he has given, one could take note of his Inaugural Address, World History Congress, Wesleyan University, 1994; Keynote Address at the 18th International Congress of History of Religions, Mexico City, 1995; Keynote Address, American Academy of Religion, New Orleans, 1996; Jerusalem Lectures on Indian Civilisation, Jerusalem, 1997; W. B. Yeats-Rabindranath Tagore Lectures, Nehru Centre, London, 1998; Inaugural Lecture, Institute of Postcolonial Studies, Melbourne, 1999; Keynote Address, Freud Conference, Melbourne, 1999; Keynote Address, 14th International Congress of the International Association of Group Psychotherapy, Jerusalem, August 2000; Keynote Address, 29th Annual South Asia Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, 2000; Keynote Address, Conference on The Twentieth Century, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, 2000; and so on. Yet, it is plainly obvious that the academic establishment has not done him the same service that they have performed for Edward Said, Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, Frantz Fanon, or other thinkers with whom Nandy can profitably be compared. Nandy sits on the editorial board of more prestigious journals -- Psychoanalytic Review, Public Culture, Review of International Political Economy, Ecumene, Futures, Interculture, Periodica Islamica, Postcolonial Studies, Anthropology and Medicine, Cultural Values, International Journal of Indian Studies, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, and a dozen others (some, important to note, with much less recognition) -- than perhaps any other intellectual in the world, a striking testimony to his influence across wide fields of inquiry.

For nearly his entire working life, Ashis Nandy has been associated with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, whose directorship he occupied for five years in the 1990s and where he was a Senior Fellow for three decades or more until his retirement in 2004. Nandy is also Chairperson of the Committee for Cultural Choices and Global Futures, which derives some of its membership from the Centre. These formal designations, however, do not as much as hint at his extraordinary place in the public life of India as a writer, thinker, public intellectual, human rights activist, and mentor to innumerable young men and women. His influence, moreover, extends far beyond India and the neighboring South Asian countries to which he has been a regular visitor. He has played a critical role in alerting Indian intellectuals to the fact, which comes as a great surprise to many of India's metropolitan elites, that there is a world beyond India and the West, in establishing activist links between countries in the southern part of the world, and in initiating an intellectual dialogue between India and other Third World nations. Long before India formed a close if involuntary relationship with the West, it had cultural, intellectual, and trading links with Southeast Asia, the Arab world, the east coast of Africa, and central Asia, and Nandy has done at least as much as anyone else to initiate dialogues within the Southern hemisphere. Nandy has also striven to forge a close relationship with such of those Western scholars and intellectuals who constitute a dissident minority in their own cultures: in this respect, Gandhi's ecumenism and pluralism, the recognition that freedom is indivisible, have been of critical importance to Nandy.

For a lengthier introduction to Ashis Nandy's work, please consult Vinay Lal, ed., Dissenting Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

See also Ashis Nandy: A Bibliography

A Sampling of Ashis Nandy's papers -- for the final published version, see the Bibliography (above)







(original title: "Fear in the Air: The Inner Demons of Society", Times of India,
14 October 1994; subsequently published in Vinay Lal, ed., Dissenting
Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy
, Delhi: Oxford UP, 2000, pp. 205-08).

THE PHILOSOPHY OF COCA-COLA (Times of India, 27 August 1994;
subsequently published in Vinay Lal, ed., Dissenting
Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy
, Delhi: Oxford UP, 2000, pp. 201-04).


(First published in Vinay Lal, ed., Dissenting
Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy
, Delhi: Oxford UP, 2000, pp. 186-200).



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