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India: National Identity and the Arts

India: National Identity and the Arts

Explore the social and political dynamics in the arts and architecture of the world’s largest democracy.

This program engages students in the complex questions of who has access to voices of artistic expression and what historical circumstances (including contemporary ones) shape that expression in India. Students examine India’s visual and performing arts — its architecture, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, film, dance, music, and theatre — in historic and contemporary contexts. Site visits, excursions, lectures, and discussions with a wide range of arts professionals challenge students to consider the relationship between religion and art in the restructuring of cultural and national identity in India today.

Major topics of study include: 

  • Political and cultural dynamics of interpretation and development in the arts and architecture of contemporary India
  • India’s history and the ways in which the artistic and architectural present has been shaped by the complexities of the past
  • Critical theory, aesthetic theory, research ethics, and the methodology of how we study the arts
  • Historical preservation and conservation of India’s great temples and urban spaces in the context of tourism, climate change, and funding challenges
  • The language of rituals, signs, and symbols

India presents an unparalleled diversity of religions, languages, and cultures. Its art, architecture, music, theater, and dance offer a dramatic reflection of the nation’s intricate cultural mosaic. 

Student group in IndiaThe program utilizes the study of the arts to help students develop an appreciation of India — the world’s largest democracy and one of the most rapidly changing and historically rich countries on earth — as a fascinating and complex center of world civilization rather than a stereotypical nation beset by problems of the developing world.

Today and repeatedly throughout history, art, architecture, and artistic expression have played a critical role in the making of cultural and political identities. The arts and humanities are essential to human life, yet they are often co-opted and, as we see so often in the media, are critiqued, if not destroyed, in the name of a political mission or nation-building. The arts and architecture are at the forefront of cultural and political change and are critical assets for understanding and coming to terms with our rapidly changing world.

Exploring the cultural assets of New Delhi

New Delhi is vibrant with monuments, galleries, museums, music performances, dance recitals, theatre performances, film festivals, national and regional craft exhibitions, and national and regional fashion design exhibitions.

  • Students have access to art of all periods, including contemporary and traditional art from all over India.
  • All Indian states have representative houses and cultural centers in New Delhi, which are open to the public. These state houses offer varied lectures and performances that showcase their regional arts.
  • Students may visit the American Institute of Indian Studies, India Habitat Centre, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the India International Centre, and the National Academy of Art. These visits complement classroom and other program activities.
  • Students may visit galleries and studios of practicing artists, architects, and filmmakers and may meet students studying the arts and aesthetics.
  • Most lectures are held at the SIT program house on the south side of New Delhi.

Experiencing Indian art and architecture beyond New Delhi

Through both guided city walks and frequent visits to important historical sites, students experience the art, architecture, and cultural identities of India in a visceral, intense way.


For a period of one week, small groups of students engage in intensive workshops relevant to the program theme of national identity and the arts. The workshops may involve training in classical dance or music with a renowned artist, or studying the history and contemporary preservation challenges of South India’s great temples. Other examples may include theater, folk music, painting, photography, or art history workshops. The location and content of the workshops change depending on the semester and student interest. Typically, workshops are conducted in either South India (Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Thanjavur, and Madurai) or in the state of Rajasthan.

Practicums with local artists and experts

Students at folk music workshop

In addition to the week-long workshops, while in New Delhi students also have the opportunity to engage with local artists and experts through the study of a specific Indian craft or engagement with an organization. In the past, students have completed practicums focused on topics such as singing, Indian dance, heritage walks, cooking, and yoga.

Hindi language instruction

Beginning to advanced level language students study the Hindi language daily. These small group classes are determined by a placement test during orientation. Self-guided study with a tutor is arranged for students who pass out of advanced Hindi. Students at all levels are encouraged to continue working on their language skills as part of their daily routines, with homestay families, and during excursions.

Independent Study Project

In the final month of the program, students complete an Independent Study Project (ISP), which provides students with an opportunity to pursue original research on a selected topic of particular interest to them. Students choose research topics with consultation and support from the academic director and other in-country experts. Students conduct their ISP in New Delhi, northern India, or another approved location appropriate to the project.

Sample ISP topic areas include:

  • Challenges of historical preservation in a developing society
  • The expression of power in Mughal architecture
  • Photography, memory, and the nation
  • “Box Wallah” photography and the memorialization of the middle class
  • Pilgrimage and environmental degradation
  • The Creation of a “national” classical dance
  • Modern Indian cinema and regional identity
  • A painting survey of the Buddhist pilgrimage route
  • Preservation of the Kashmir shawl
  • Sufi music and poetry and the challenges of Wahabi Islam
  • Architecture, urbanization, and public space
  • Conservation of the tomb of Akbar
  • Culinary culture in New Delhi
  • Seventeenth-century water systems of the Agra Red Fort
  • Traditional dress and identity in fast-changing modern India
  • A survey of the arts of the eleventh-century Chandella dynasty


None, although previous coursework in anthropology, Asian history, Asian art history, or Asian religions, religious studies, or the visual and performing arts may enhance student experience and learning outcomes.

Access virtual library guide.

This program integrates critical theory, aesthetic theory, research ethics, and the methodology of how the arts in India are studied. Students are asked to consider how they educate themselves to look deeply and develop more sophisticated observational skills. The program’s coursework encourages students to engage in the arts and to question what it means to be creative and how they assess the creativity of a society. Students are asked to consider why it is important to understand the creative traditions and contemporary politics around both traditional and new forms of artistic expression in India today.

The program accomplishes this by examining a range of India’s visual and performing arts — including architecture, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, film, dance, music, and theatre — in historic and contemporary contexts, with particular emphasis on the intimate relationship between art and religion in the historical past and in the context of the twenty-first-century democratic nation-state.

Students are asked to analyze the meaning and theories of aesthetic response in one of the world’s founding civilizations. By using the rich and varied arts of India, students look into the fundamental human language of rituals, signs, and symbols.

Links to syllabi below are from current and forthcoming courses offered on this program. Because courses develop and change over time to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, actual course content will vary from term to term.

The syllabi can be useful for students, faculty, and study abroad offices in assessing credit transfer. Read more about credit transfer.

National Identity and the Arts Seminar – syllabus
(ASIA 3000 / 6 credits / 90 class hours)
The National Identity and the Arts Seminar offers a foundation in Indian arts, culture, and religion in the context of the ongoing formation of Indian national identity (in architecture, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, film, dance, music, and theatre). Throughout the seminar, students are challenged to engage with the political and social circumstances and implications of artistic expression, heritage preservation, and the restructuring of cultural identity through three broad themes: 1) aesthetic heritage and preservation; 2) cities and the arts; and 3) artistic production, tradition, and identity. These three themes will be interwoven throughout the seminar in every seminar activity — in the classroom, at archaeological sites, in museums, during workshops, and on heritage walks. Lecturers are drawn from institutions such as the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Benares Hindu University, and Delhi University.

Beginning Hindi – syllabus
(HIND 1000–1500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Intermediate Hindi – syllabus
(HIND 2000–2500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Advanced Hindi – syllabus
(HIND 3000–3500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Emphasis on speaking and comprehension skills through classroom and field instruction. Based on in-country evaluation, including oral proficiency testing, students are placed in beginning, intermediate, or advanced classes.

Field Methods and Ethics – syllabus
(ANTH 3500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
This course focuses on cross-cultural learning and developing field studies skills. It provides a framework for the Independent Study Project. Material includes cross-cultural adaptation and skills building; project selection and refinement; appropriate methodologies; field study ethics and the World Learning / SIT Human Subjects Review Policy; developing contacts and finding resources; developing skills in observation and interviewing; gathering, organizing, and communicating data; and maintaining a work journal.

Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR 3000 / 4 credits / 120 class hours)
Conducted in New Delhi or in another approved location appropriate to the project. Sample topic areas: challenges of historical preservation in a developing society; the expression of power in Mughal architecture; “Box Wallah” photography and the memorialization of the middle class; pilgrimage and environmental degradation; Kathak dancing; contemporary Indian cinema; a painting survey of the Buddhist pilgrimage route; preservation of the Kashmir shawl; photography, memory, and the nation; Sufi music and poetry and the challenges from Wahabi Islam; architecture and urban space; painting; conservation of the tomb of Akbar; culinary culture in New Delhi; seventeenth-century water systems of the Agra Red Fort; a survey of the arts of the eleventh-century Chandella dynasty. The project, developed and designed in the Field Methods and Ethic course, culminates in a 25- to 30-page research paper and formal presentation.

Browse this program's Independent Study Projects / undergraduate research.

Please note that in order to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, program excursions may occasionally vary.

temple in India

Students experience the vibrant cultural environment of New Delhi and other Indian states through the program’s many excursions. During excursions and workshops students study sites of major importance in the creation of Indian identity. The program visits cities considered centers of sacred geography, such as Varanasi, Sarnath, Amritsar, and Madurai, as well as cities that exemplify the shifting political identity of India, such as Thanjavur, Agra, Kolkata, and Delhi.

Visits in and around New Delhi include:

  • Historical and cultural sites
  • Museums and art galleries
  • Concerts and recitals
  • Dance and drama performances


On the first weekend after orientation, students travel to Amritsar, the home of the Golden Temple, which is the holiest site in Sikhism. Amritsar is famous not only for the beautiful Golden Temple, but also for delicious Punjabi cuisine.

Agra, Orchha, Khajuraho, Bandhavagarh, Varanasi, Sarnath, and Kolkata

Students in KolkataThe program’s major excursion takes students to Agra, Orccha, Khajuraho, Bandhavgarh, Varanasi, Sarnath, and Kolkata. Historical sites in these places represent a diversity of artistic expression and cultural identity in India:

  • Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal as well as many other important Muslim Mughal monuments.
  • Orccha is a quiet medieval village on the banks of Betwa River. It has two impressive palace-forts as well as many Hindu temples and medieval chhatris (funerary memorials).
  • The small town of Khajuraho has an astounding 25 eleventh-century Hindu temples. The temples are lavishly embellished with finely preserved sculpture.
  • Bandhavgarh is a tiger sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. It is one of the last places left on Earth to see the world’s top predator, the highly endangered Bengal tiger.
  • Varanasi is often referred to as the oldest city in the world; it is the most sacred city in Hinduism.
  • Sarnath is where Siddhartha Gautama gave his first sermon, outlining the beliefs and practices of Buddhism.
  • Kolkata was the capital of British India and it boasts a rich architectural heritage from that period.

Mary Storm, PhD, Academic Director

mary storm Mary Storm has a PhD in Indian art history from the University of California, Los Angeles, and an MA in East Asian studies and Japanese Buddhist art from Stanford University. In a previous life, she acquired a law degree. Dr. Storm has lived and worked in India for many years, roaming the back roads of India from West Bengal to Rajasthan and from Ladakh to Tamil Nadu in search of archaeological adventure. She has taught at various American institutions as well as at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in the School of Arts and Aesthetics. She was previously a Ford Foundation Visiting Fellow and associate professor of art history at that university.

When not teaching, researching, or working for SIT Study Abroad, she spends her time painting and writing. She loves to cook both Indian and French food and has a diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. She has published numerous articles on Indian art history and is proud to report her paintings are "exhibited" on many refrigerator doors. Her book Head and Heart: Valour and Self-Sacrifice in the Art of India was published in August 2013 by Routledge. Her present research focuses on the history of Indian food and the creation of national identity.

Read Oregon State University’s interview with Mary Storm.

ArjunArjun Singh Chauhan, Program Coordinator

Mr. Chauhan first joined SIT New Delhi in the fall of 2007. Mr. Chauhan is a graduate of the Delhi College of Vocational Training and is a recently certified Wilderness First Responder. He enjoys basketball, travel, music, and good food.He lives with his family in South Delhi and is the proud father of a baby boy and little girl. He loves animals and the quiet of nature.

Lecturers for this program typically include faculty from:

  • School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  • Jamia Millia Islamia
  • Delhi University
  • Benares Hindu University
  • School of Planning and Architecture

Ms. Harini Narayanan, Lecturer, Urban Geography

Harini Narayanan is completing her PhD at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research focuses on the history and geography of the textile mill culture in Bombay (Mumbai). She will be leading our section on walks and talks through New Delhi.

Ms. Maria Stallone, Lecturer, Indian Classical Music

Maria Stallone is a scholar of Indian classical music, and has a lifelong history of international experience. Maria earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She first traveled to Varanasi, India, where she began her study of Indian classical music, in 1993 with the prestigious Rotary Foundation Fellowship. She completed her graduate work at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, achieving an Award of Merit in ethnomusicology and Urdu. Her other academic distinctions include a diploma in Indian classical music and Hindi from Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi and, most recently, graduate work in Thai studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Maria speaks four languages and has been the recipient of several grants and scholarships promoting her interests and research.

Rameshwar P. Bahuguna, PhD, Lecturer, Indian History Overview and Islam in India

Rameshwar Bahuguna is a professor in the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. He teaches courses on the religious and cultural history of medieval India. His research focuses on medieval sants and sant-based panthic formations.

His publications include several articles in scholarly journals on the medieval sant movement. He is currently working on a monograph about the historical dimensions of medieval vaishnava and sant hagiographies.

Shukla Sawant, PhD, Lecturer, Modernism in Indian Art

Shukla Sawant is a visual artist and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research interests include contemporary art and art in colonial India. She has been a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of London and has studied at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts, Paris.

She recently contributed articles on Sultan Ali, Sanat Kar, and Chittoprasad, among others, to the Delhi Art Gallery catalogue “Manifestations.”

She has participated in artist residencies at Braziers College, Oxford, UK; Khoj Workshop, Modinagar, India; and Began Grond Residency, Utrecht, Netherlands, and has had solo art exhibitions in London, Amsterdam, Mumbai, and Delhi.

Mr. Tapan Chakravarty, Lecturer, Development of New Delhi

Tapan Chakravarty is an architect and urban planner, with an interest in historical conservation. He received his BA and MA in architecture and urban design from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

He has taught at the TVB School of Habitat Studies and the School of Planning at Architecture, and he currently holds a position as professor of interior architecture and design at the Pearl Academy of Fashion, New Delhi. He also freelances as a consultant for architecture and urban design projects, as well as architectural conservation projects.

Chakravarty worked closely with the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to help design the plan to develop Delhi as a World Heritage City.

Anjan Chakraverty, PhD, Lecturer, Benarasi Textiles and Wall Paintings of Benares

Anjan Chakraverty acquired his BA, MA, and PhD from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, and currently serves at the dean of the Arts and Aesthetics Department at the same university.

Chakraverty has published several essays and books on Indian painting and textile history including Sacred Buddhist Painting and Indian Miniature Painting.

Chakraverty is himself a painter and has organized five solo exhibitions in New Delhi, Kolkata, and Kathmandu, and has participated in about fifty group shows held in different countries.

Mr. Anjan Mitra, Lecturer, Heritage Walk in Old Calcutta

Anjan Mitra is an architect and city planner who has been involved with architecture and urban development as a researcher, practitioner, and activist. Throughout his career he has advocated sustainable design, and he is involved in various research studies involving urban development, urban economics, conservation, and cultural issues.

He has specialized in conservation, alternative technology, and tourism, and is a member of the heritage subcommittee of Kolkata Municipal Corporation. He is also secretary of the registered society Sustained Actions for Value and Environment and advises the local community on sustainable development.

Mr. Yousuf Saeed, Lecturer, Islamic Poster Art

Yousuf Saeed is an independent filmmaker and researcher based in Delhi. He started his career in educational television (with the Times of India) in 1990, co-directing the science series Turning Point for Doordarshan, and moved on to make documentaries on a variety of subjects. Some of his prominent films include Inside Ladakh, Basant, A Life in Science: Yashpal, and The Train to Heaven, which has been shown at numerous film festivals and academic venues and on TV. His most recent work is a feature-length film entitled Khayal Darpan about the state of classical music in Pakistan.

Besides film and television, Yousuf also worked for Encyclopedia Britannica (India) as the arts editor. He has been a Sarai Fellow (2004) and an Asia Fellow (2005). He has published many essays about the popular devotional art of Indian Muslims and is the author of the book Muslim Devotional Art in India.

Bishnupriya Dutt, PhD, Lecturer, Social Theatre

Bishnupriya Dutt is an Indian theatre practitioner-researcher. She has acted in forty plays and has directed five. At present, she is an associate professor in the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her areas of research include colonial and postcolonial theatre in India, feminist readings of Indian theatre, and performative practices and popular culture.

Her recent publications include the articles “Historicizing Actress Stories: English Actresses in India” and “Actress Stories: Binodini and Amal Allana” and the texts Engendering Performance: Indian Performer’s Journey in Search of an Identity and Actors from an Alternate Space.

She has completed research projects with the University Grant Commission project on professional and semiprofessional female performers in Indian popular performances.

Ms. Shikha Jhingan, MPhil, Lecturer, Bollywood Music

Shikha Jhingan is an assistant professor at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, New Delhi. She is currently completing her doctoral thesis in cinema studies from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Her published works include “The Singer, the Star, and the Chorus,” and a review of Ganesh Anantharaman’s Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song.

Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, PhD, Lecturer, Indian Classical Dance

Urmimala Sarkar Munsi is a social anthropologist and dancer/choreographer. She is currently visiting faculty at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her courses include Indian Dance: Theory and Practice; Living Traditions; Dance, Gender, Society; Therapeutic Use of Movement Systems; and Performance Documentation.

Urmimala has contributed to numerous journals and has edited Dance Transcending Borders. She is also co-editor of the book Traversing Tradition: Celebrating Dance in India, part of the Routledge Celebrating Dance in Asia and the Pacific series.

students in market in IndiaStudents live with Indian host families in New Delhi for approximately eight weeks. Most families live in relative close proximity to the SIT program center.

Homestay families are primarily from the middle and upper-middle class and are from a range of professional backgrounds. In living with a family, students have numerous opportunities to practice their new Hindi language skills and learn about everyday life and family expectations. They typically have the chance to visit the temple or mosque with their host family and learn how to cook Indian dishes. In the fall semester, lucky students may be invited to attend an Indian wedding.

Other accommodations during the program include ashrams, guest houses, hostels, or small hotels.

Program Dates: Fall 2015

Program Start Date:  Sep 7, 2015

Program End Date:    Dec 20, 2015

The dates listed above are subject to change. Please note that travel to and from the program site may span a period of more than one day.

Student applications to this program will be reviewed on a rolling basis between the opening date and the deadline.

Application Deadline:   Jun 1, 2015


SIT Pell Grant Match Award. SIT Study Abroad provides matching grants to all students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding; this award can be applied to any SIT semester program. View all SIT Study Abroad scholarships.

Tuition: $14,160

The tuition fee covers the following program components:

  • Cost of all lecturers who provide instruction to students in:
    • Indian arts
    • North Indian culture and society
  • Field Methods and Ethics on research methods and Human Subjects Review
  • All educational excursions to locations such as Amritsar, Gwalior, Datia, Khajuraho, Orchha, Bandhavgarh, and Orissa or Kolkata, including all related travel costs
  • Independent Study Project (including a stipend for accommodation and food)
  • Intensive language instruction in Hindi
  • Health insurance throughout the entire program period

Room & Board:$4,140

The room and board fee covers the following program components:

  • All accommodations during the entire program period. This includes during orientation, time in the program base (New Delhi), on all excursions, during the Independent Study Project, and during the final evaluation period. Accommodation is covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend provided to each student, or through the homestay.
  • Homestay (eight weeks in New Delhi)
  • All meals for the entire program period. Meals are covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend provided to each student, or through the homestay.

Estimated Additional Costs:

International Airfare to Program Launch Site

International airline pricing can vary greatly due to the volatility of airline industry pricing, flight availability, and specific flexibility/restrictions on the type of ticket purchased. Students may choose to take advantage of frequent flyer or other airline awards available to them, which could significantly lower their travel costs.

Visa Expenses: $211

Immunizations: Varies

Books & Supplies: $150

International Phone: Each student must have a phone in each country. Cost varies according to personal preferences, phone plans, data plans, etc.

Discretionary Expenses

Personal expenses during the program vary based on individual spending habits and budgets. While all meals and accommodations are covered in the room and board fee, incidentals and personal transportation costs differ depending on the non-program-related interests and pursuits of each student. To learn more about personal budgeting, we recommend speaking with alumni who participated in a program in your region. See a full list of our alumni contacts. Please note that free time to pursue non-program-related activities is limited.

Please Note: Fees and additional expenses are based on all known circumstances at the time of calculation. Due to the unique nature of our programs and the economics of host countries, SIT reserves the right to change its fees or additional expenses without notice.


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