Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology – Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai, India

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by Sarah Marten

Dr Stephen P Hughes works as a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He has just returned from fifteen months working in India, conducting research into the social history of Tamil cinema during the 1940s in Southern India at the Chennai-based Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL).

Chennai (formerly Madras) is the established centre for Tamil film-making, and is situated on the south-eastern Coromandel Coast of India. It is a large commercial city with a population of 4.34 million people. The RMRL provides research materials and facilities for students of Tamil studies, and also houses an internationally important collection of books, journals, newspapers and clippings spanning the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries. RMRL was originally set up by the University of Chicago, but is now an independent research institution funded by a variety of sources including the Indian government. Dr Hughes recently spoke to Sarah Marten about his fascinating experience of working in India.

How did you plan your move to India?

One of my main concerns about working in India was to make sure that this would work well for my wife and family. My wife is also an academic, and she was fortunately able to undertake her own research in India at the same time as me. This took some careful planning, and we had to wait some time before both visits could coincide. I have two children aged five and ten, the younger of whom was about to start school in reception, and my older daughter would be have been going into year five. We needed to do our trip before our ten year old would be starting at high school as we did not want to disrupt either girl’s education.

Planning financially for the move was also important, and we needed to make sure we could cover our UK mortgage whilst we were in India. I was not paid my SOAS salary whilst in India, but received funding from the US government as I have dual US and UK nationality. This funding was less than my UK salary, but once differences in the cost of living in the two countries had been taken into consideration, everything balanced out evenly.

Did you have any other concerns about moving your young family to India?

Health issues were another concern for us as a family – we wanted to be sure that our children would remain healthy during our time in India. Again, we need not have worried. In fact, we had far fewer colds and other bugs than we would have done had we stayed in the UK! Whilst travelling in North India we were particularly careful to avoid tap water to minimise potential stomach upsets

How easy was it easy to settle-in?

Having lived in India before I have many friends there, which made the settling-in process for the whole family go quite smoothly. My two daughters settled in well within a couple months and in fact they really thrived in their local Indian schools. The schools can be excellent – English is widely spoken and education is highly valued. My older daughter did well academically and came back to the UK not only well-educated (particularly in maths and surprisingly, French) but full of confidence. My youngest child benefitted from the slightly less formal approach in a Montessori-style school.

What about your accommodation?

Whilst in India we rented a flat in a small block on the southern side of Chennai, in a very pleasant and quiet residential area with tree-lined streets near the sea. When we first arrived we stayed in a flat reserved for visiting foreign scholars, and then found a more permanent flat via an advertisement in a local newspaper .It is very easy to find rented accommodation through housing brokers, which are similar to estate agents. Back in the UK we rented our house out to a visiting academic and his family, and this worked out very well.

Did you need a visa to visit India?

We applied to the Indian Consulate for research visas, which are required by the Indian government. The application, though quite lengthy was straightforward, and you need to show that you will be affiliated with an Indian academic institution. You also need to demonstrate that your research is properly funded. The visa took about a month to arrive once all the paperwork had been completed.

What was the purpose of your research in India?

One aspect of my research focussed on how films were circulated in rural areas; in the 1940s Tamil films reached remote rural audiences via touring cinemas. The communities were without electricity, and films were shown using diesel generators, at a time when many people might think that cinema was an urban phenomenon. My research involved looking at the business records of the film distributors in the Roja Muthiah Research Library, and I also worked closely with the University of Madras. Another part of my research looked at how local business people took over the Tamil music recording industry.

Do you face any language barriers?

Most of the documents I use at the research library are in English, probably because English was widely used following colonial rule. However, I have a good knowledge of Tamil, which is actually a very difficult language for Westerners to learn as the structure is so completely different to anything that we are used to. Having studied Tamil at university (as part of a graduate degree) I worked hard to further develop my skills, and became proficient after spending seven years living in India. Learning Tamil was worthwhile but challenging.

What is the HE sector in India like?

The higher education sector in India is booming. The reasons are two-fold: firstly the Indian government has increased university grants and secondly there is growing support from international business leaders in India’s expanding economy. The number of higher education courses has increased greatly across the spectrum in recent years, including science, engineering and humanities. This is the opposite of the unfolding situation in the UK.

There are also concerns about the number of qualified staff, and India knows it will need to change in order to compete internationally. The Indian national policy since Independence was understandably to offer university jobs to Indian nationals only – I personally think that this will change in order for the Indian HE sector to remain competitive.

What about your teaching in India?

Whilst in India I delivered various lectures to students at the University of Madras within the Media, Film and TV department. One lecture was entitled “When Film came to Madras 1896-7) - the public lectures comprised of about 100 students at all levels including undergraduates and postgraduates. The HE sector in my discipline of sociology and anthropology is well-developed in Indian universities.

Within the Sociology Department at the University of Madras I also ran some discussion groups for postgraduate students, looking at issues including the sociology of film audiences. 

How do you find the Indian students?

Being based in the UK at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) I am used to working with international students from all over the world, and in fact many come from India. At SOAS there are large numbers of mature students, whereas in India most students attend university straight from school, and they are tightly tracked by their teachers.

Indian students are hard-working and well-motivated – education is a high priority for families and many make sacrifices to send their children to university. Funding is available for some of the best disadvantaged students. A degree in India is seen as the passport to success.

The student’s relationship with their teacher in India is formal and respectful, which is a notable cultural difference in India in comparison with western countries. When students are planning research projects, they will often be given the subject by the supervisor, rather than choosing it themselves.  However, overall I have found that the Indian students I have worked with often exhibit well-developed critical thinking skills.

What was the social life like?

We made friends through our daughters’ school, and found that local people were very hospitable and readily invited us into their homes. I had lots of professional contacts established during my previous visits to India and so overall we enjoyed a good social life during our time there. A social club with swimming pool near our flat offered more opportunities to meet people.

The opportunities to travel were superb, and we made several trips, including visits to Sri Lanka and southern India, visiting historical sites and learning about ancient civilisations. Madras is known as a centre for the performing arts, including classical Indian music and dance and we were able to attend several enjoyable concerts during our time there.

We also had wonderful opportunities to eat out and enjoy not only Indian food, but international cuisine from various places including Japan and Korea.

What do you enjoy about your work in India?

The whole experience of working in India has been an amazing one, both academically and in so many other ways for me and my family. My children have been able to visit ancient sites and learn about Indian history, as well as making friends with their new classmates. Their level of cultural awareness has developed significantly.

I enjoyed a much better work-life balance and had much more quality time with my family during my time in India than happens at home. This is partly because I have a long commute to work in the UK whereas our flat was very near the research library. I was also much more productive with my research than I have been at SOAS.

Is there anything that you did not enjoy?

For me, the only difficult part has been returning to the UK and making sure that my children were able to secure places in the schools of our choice. Our youngest child was not initially offered a place at our first choice of primary schools, although we were delighted when a place unexpectedly became available a little later in the term.

How has working overseas helped your career?

Since returning to the UK I have published work in academic journals based on the research I conducted whilst in India. I also developed networks with many Indian and other international scholars which will help me in my career.  

Any advice for other academics planning to work in India?

Everything must be carefully planned in advance for your trip. If you are taking your family, you need to plan the children’s education, both in India and for your return very carefully. India is very much easier for foreign nationals to live in than it used to be, and there are specialist organisations out there to help newcomers make use of all the available resources.


Dr. Stephen Hughes was born and raised in California.  He completed both MA and PhD in Social and Cultural Anthropology at The University of Chicago, where he specialized in media history and visual anthropology with special reference to cinema in south India.  In addition to SOAS, he has also worked for two years at University of Amsterdam on the research project on religion, media and politics in south India.  Having lived and worked in Tamil speaking south India on and off over the course of the last twenty five years, he has conducted research on a various topics related to the history of film audiences, sound media, religion and politics of mass media in south India.


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