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Talking Education with Former Miranda House Principal Kiran Datar

Kiran Datar talks about her love for history, making education a career and traveling to America as a Fulbright scholar.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   15-07-2015
Top educator and Former Miranda House principal Kiran Datar
(third from left) at a panel discussion.
Kiran Datar's prolific teaching career spans over four decades and several top educational institutions. Legions of students at Miranda House in Delhi know her as their former principal. She has been an advisor to India's National Knowledge Commission and says she focused on making the classroom a place for “wisdom and happiness,” rather than one of stress.

Datar has been the Dean of Colleges, Officiating Vice Chancellor and Advisor at the University of Delhi. She is also the author of several books, including "United States of America: Two Centuries of Growth and Change" and "Malaysia: Quest for a Politics of Consensus."

Datar completed her Ph.D. in History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi while specializing in International Relations and American History. She also traveled to America as a Fulbright scholar to study history at University of Washington, Seattle. She has several awards under belt including the prestigious Dorothy Lee Grant and Mahila Shiromani Award.

Delhi's well-known educator talked to about teaching as a career and her experience as one of India's first Fulbright Fellows.

  1. You have over 45 years in the field of education. Would I be wrong to presume that even as a student you loved learning?

    That is correct. But you have to remember that I came from a generation that was post partition and education was extremely important. I was one of three girls, we had no brothers and the sense of making it on your own and achieving something was important.
  2. Was it unusual in your day for a woman to throw herself into academia?

    Somewhat yes, with the emergence of new careers. The huge thing for a bright student was to get into the administrative services. My elder sister did. She was one of the few women who got in; so for my parents it was important that I followed suit because it was the desired career path in the India of that time. However, I was very clear  that I wanted to teach. I had been taught by wonderful teachers and teaching was something I wanted to do with my History degree.
  3. You were one of the early recipients of a Fulbright Scholarship. What prompted you to apply for it?

    I did very well as a student. I topped my university when I did my Masters. I was the only student to get a First in History that year in the University of Delhi which was quite unusual. I think that kind of pushed me into following an academic path and also pushed me into, you know the moment I walked out of the university; and got a job. I wasn’t even 21. But I was young and I knew that I needed to broaden my own intellectual and academic horizons in order to become a good teacher. So one of the avenues was to take a look at what was available outside and the Fulbright was this huge desired avenue; very prestigious. I tried for it and got it.
  4. What did you do with your Fulbright Scholarship?

    I wanted to do a further study and what I thought was important at that point was the history of emerging neighbourhoods to India. You have to remember the context, India was emerging as a country, India was emerging as a power within the context of South East Asia, and again like American history, these were areas that were not being touched upon in Indian universities. I wanted to do some work on South East Asian history and the University of Washington in Seattle at that time had some of the best teachers in South East Asian history. That is why I was placed in Seattle at the University of Washington.

    My attraction to American history developed from the fact that I wanted to get a better picture of the country where I was studying — that led me to courses in American History in Seattle. I was taught by great people who inspired me. The India that was emerging in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was following a path that I could see at many points had parallels with 19th Century America. I still see many parallels between different time periods, between what was happening historically there and what was happening historically in India.
  5. Typically the Fulbright Scholarship runs for how many years?

    For one year, but I got an extension for another year. If I had wanted to go on and do my PhD that would have happened. But there were already two things that were happening. One, I was teaching in India and I got a lien. My lien ran out, so I would have to resign from my teaching job in India to continue. Secondly, it was hugely personal — I wanted to come back to India. America was not my country, it wasn't my home, but it offered me a lot. There was some idealism involved in wanting to come back and live in India which finally brought me back. I ended up doing a PhD at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
  6. Would you describe the Fulbright as a generous scholarship?

    No, it wasn’t generous financially but what it did do was give me an opportunity to study different education systems. It challenged me academically. I was appointed as resident counselor in one of the dormitories of the university.
  7. What advice do you have for a person eyeing a career in academia?

    In today's India, professors are well paid. With the Sixth Pay Commission salaries have gone up substantially so being underpaid is no longer an issue when people weigh teaching careers. It's also very rewarding as it gives you an opportunity to interact with young people. There's nothing as satisfying as knowing that you can make a difference in a young person's life — that's what makes it all worthwhile.

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London.



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