Mrinalini Sisodia Wadhwa

Student, Columbia University
  • Columbia University
  • People
  • United States of America

About Mrinalini Sisodia Wadhwa

I am a student at Columbia University majoring in History and Mathematics, originally from New Delhi, India, and New York City. My research interests lie at the intersection of women's rights activism and anti-colonial movements in 20th Century South Asia.

I am a/an:

Undergraduate Scholar

Area of Expertise

Humanities Law Mathematics Social Sciences

Research Topic

History Literature South Asian Studies

Laidlaw Cohort Year

2021

University

Columbia University

I am from:

India United States of America

I speak:

English Hindi Spanish

My hobbies/interests are:

Art Badminton Hiking/walking Meditation Politics & current events Reading Volunteering

I am open to participating in mentoring/buddy programmes

Yes

Intro Content

Poster Presentation Gender Studies History

"Truly, modern women are more alone": Mahadevi Varma and the 'Woman Question' in British India

Attached is a poster I presented at the 2021 Columbia Undergraduate Research Symposium, reflecting on my research for the first summer of the Laidlaw Scholars Program.

Influencer Of

Topics

Channels contributed to:

Arts & Humanities Social Sciences Research

Rooms participated in:

Columbia University

Recent Comments

This is so interesting, Suan! Congratulations on a wonderful project and poster. :)

Replying to Eleanor Campbell

I love this beautifully designed poster and your lovely artwork!

Thank you so much, Eleanor! And congratulations on your wonderful poster and project! :)

Replying to Cath Brislane

And I've reached your reflection! I forgot how ahead of the game Columbia were, sorry about that ­čśé

This is so cool Mrinalini. Honestly. As an English student, it is so hard to look over metaphor and look at literal meanings at face value, but that is exactly what we have to do. Because literal meanings transfer to literal life- there is often very little realism in the metaphor. 

Congratulations on finishing your first summer! I'm excited to see what the rest of the scholarship holds for you. 

Cath, I'm only just discovering your comment!! Thank you so much for your kind words and for taking the time out to look at the project—and it's also so interesting to hear about your perspective on this as an English student. All the best for your own research! I'm definitely looking forward to continuing this all and seeing what everyone does next summer. :)

Replying to Eva Brander Blackhawk

Just last week a report came out about a residential school in Canada and how the remains of 215 children were found at the school. It was devastating news especially considering how this was covered up and how this was also only at one school and there were probably a couple hundred just in Canada. I wasn't expecting something so relevant to my topic to come out during my research and it definitely hit me pretty hard. It just made me remember how tough the history is in terms of language loss. Also how truly genocidal these schools were and they only closed a couple decades ago. I guess it helped me remember just to stay kind on myself and others because it's easy to get discouraged in learning the language, especially with so few speakers. It also reminded me how necessary this work is and what a big part of healing it can be. Also by writing creative essays it's helped me process a lot of feelings and personal history on the topic and I think staying personal helps in terms of scale of the project. 

My top three resources have definitely been being able to talk to my grandfather, as well as two books on my topic. The first book is "talking Indian" and was everything I could have possibly wanted or imagined in terms of a reference book. Jenny Davis talks about her own experience, the history, and the very contemporary and economic shifts around language revitalization. Another book has been "walking the clouds" which is an anthology of Indigenous science fiction, especially short stories. I've been reading this as I write my own poems/prose and it's been helpful and inspiring. 

Eva, just wanted to say that your project is super inspiring to me. For one, that you are persisting in learning the language, amidst the tragic report that came out from Canada about these schools last week and all that it signified for the kind of work you are undertaking, as you mentioned, on top of of how challenging language-learning seems to be (while I have been working in a very different context this summer, the feeling of hitting a wall with a language barrier, especially when that barrier has been used to erase a particular group's ideas and contributions, is something that resonates a lot!). Beyond that, I find it really interesting how you've woven together so many different kinds of sources, and that you are working towards a creative written project to bring all of this together. Really looking forward to hearing more about your work in our upcoming Laidlaw sessions!

  • What new ideas, challenges, or other issues have you encountered with regard to your project (this might include data collection, information that contradicts your assumptions or the assertions of others, materials that have enriched your understanding of the topic or led you to change your project, etc.)? How have these ideas or challenges shaped the bigger picture of your research? Has the scope or focus of your topic changed since you began this project? If so, how?

The scope of my topic has narrowed significantly since I began this project! I began the Laidlaw program knowing I wanted to study the intersection of women's rights and anti-colonialism in India, through the lens of female Indian poet-activists. Since then, my project has narrowed significantly, now examining the writings of one such activist, Mahadevi Varma, on a specific women's rights/anti-colonial issue, the status of women in Hindu marriages. I think a number of the secondary texts I was reading prompted me to narrow the topic further, particularly Karine Schomer's Mahadevi Varma and The Chhayavad Age of Modern Hindi Poetry, Anita Anantharam's introduction to (and translations of) Mahadevi's essays on women's rights issues, and Mrinalini Sinha's Specters of Mother India. My initial focus had been to consider a topic that was specifically political in nature—such as the campaign for Indian women's suffrage—rather than a religious/cultural topic such as women's status in Hindu marriages. I remain incredibly interested these questions of Indian women's political rights (and hope to learn more about this through a future research project!), the secondary source readings I mentioned did expose me to the breadth and intensity of the many socio-cultural debates taking place during these final decades of British India, particularly those among Hindu society, and how viscerally these affected Indian women—as reflected in Mahadevi's own essays and poetry. These findings really spoke to me, and caused me to re-orient and narrow my project to where it is now.

  • What research resources have proven particularly useful to you as you continue your research?

I am incredibly thankful for the help of Columbia librarians throughout this process! Gary Hausman, the South Asia Librarian, was able to provide invaluable guidance to me both in January when I was originally trying to propose this research, and more recently, in trying to track down archives of Chand (a women's journal Mahadevi edited and wrote editorials for) and find other online archives and resources to delve into South Asia. I also just found that the workshops we had at the start of the program, delivered by librarians from so many different fields, were so enriching, and appreciated the chance to be able to follow-up with Michelle Williams and Madiha Choksi, who worked in the sphere of digital humanities, to explore how my project could later translate into something more public-facing.

I also think that the advice of faculty has been so helpful! My faculty mentor provided me with some very valuable direction throughout, especially when I was just beginning this project and trying to orient myself in Mahadevi's body of work; additionally, Professor Anantharam offered some very useful advice in which secondary sources to seek out, and how to approach some of the questions her translations had been raising for me about Mahadevi's nationalist and Western influences.

Replying to Alisha Arshad

My research will be contributing to a larger ongoing book project. With regard to the project itself, it is not the first phase, but what exactly I am researching is a relatively new segment of the project! I am researching national bills while most previous research has been done on specific states. As for expectations, I hope to finish most of my primary research within these six weeks, which I think I am on track to do. 

There are several questions the projects seek to answer, but one interesting one is looking at whether the litigation of social issues began at local, state, or national levels. As we all have seen now, laws for social issues can be seen in every level of government, but it is interesting to investigate how/when/where/why exactly this movement was created. It is definitely relevant to current times, seeing as partisan polarization is more prominent than ever. 

Hi Alisha! Your work in going through national bills sounds so interesting — and definitely feels incredibly relevant to our current political climate, as you're saying. I'm very intrigued at this idea of tracking how current contentious social/political issues evolved in the national legislature over the last few decades, to bring us to where things are now. Good luck with the last two weeks — I would really love to hear more at some point!

  • While all Laidlaw Scholars will be presenting their research at the Columbia Undergraduate Research Symposium in the fall, what are the more immediate expectations that you have for your research? Are you writing a paper you hope to get published? Will your research be part of a larger scientific study? Is your research now the first phase of a project you’ll continue to work on throughout the year, and/or next summer? Now that we are nearing the one month mark of the program, please write about your expectations for your research.

My immediate goal is to write a paper that expounds on the conclusions that I have been coming through during this research project, which I am hoping to be able to submit for publication. Based on my graduate student mentor's advice, I've been looking at submission guidelines at some undergraduate journals to get a sense for the length I could aim for, which has given me some structure to write, even though this of course is not for an actual class. My hope is to be able to finish this paper by the end of our six-week research period, though I am really keen to build on this work over the course of the next year, and eventually, I hope, move into the space of public humanities, to make Mahadevi's writings more accessible to broader audiences.

To pursue this, I realized I would like to be able to strengthen my own Hindi background, so that I am more comfortable engaging with her writings in their original form and with the Hindi scholarship on her literary contributions. For the second half of this summer (after getting advice from Professor Rakesh Ranjan, who runs the Hindi-Urdu Language Program in the Columbia MESAAS Department), I will be taking an intensive Hindi course at the American Institute for Indian Studies, housed at the University of Chicago (virtually, given the pandemic!); after that, I hope to take Professor Ranjan's Hindi seminar next year, which offers students a chance to bring their own Hindi-related research interests into the class and work on them with faculty guidance. I think this could offer me a chance to engage more closely with Mahadevi's poetry (since my work this summer has been more focused on her essays), and also on the connections between her poetry and that of the 16th Century Indian female poet-saint Mirabai, which was something that has intrigued me during my readings this summer, but that I haven't been able to fully explore as it fell outside of my current research question. I'm definitely hoping that spending this time focused on studying Hindi formally again (after many years of not being able to do so!) and engaging with Mahadevi's work will allow me to extend this project on her into the second summer of Laidlaw!

  • Why does your research matter? Explain the significance of the question you are investigating, and why you are interested in it.

I think my research offers a chance for us to reconcile two 'sides' to a rights debate that seem to be often pitted against one another by present-day activists and scholars: the cause of anti-colonial or racial justice — i.e. dignifying a non-white, non-western community — and the cause of equal rights for marginalized communities, such as women. Mahadevi was an individual who was a staunch activist for both causes, the cause of Indian independence and of women's rights, and in her essays, both in her political work and in her personal life. I think her arguments are incredibly compelling, and demonstrate why voices like hers are needed to truly grant Indian women equal rights and dignity: she has pointed out that these two 'sides' that have been the most prominence — Westerners advocating for colonialism to 'protect Indian women' and orthodox nationalists opposing any reform to 'undermine colonialism' — reduced Indian women to 'objects' and 'symbols' within Hindu marriages, when instead they should have been allowed to develop individuals with agency. As a result, I think she has powerful ideas to offer to us in the present-day (this point about treating those at the intersection of two marginalized identities as individuals, not symbols, I think can certainly apply outside women in Hindu marriages in early 20th C. British India), and that these should not be overlooked solely because the majority of her writing was in Hindi, or because she was one of the few Indian women of her time who was able to claim a place in the public sphere.

Replying to Jeffrey Xiong
  • What are some of the ethical issues that you are grappling with in your research? What are some of the ways in which you are responding to these questions?

Since I'm conducting research on a vulnerable community, one key ethical issue is the exploitative relationship between academia and the population. In particular, one of the more prominent fears is the use of a community as a tool of personal professional advancement, a sort of study from a privileged position without fundamentally relating to or identifying with the community. A way I try to avoid this exploitation is by contacting people within my own community and reaching out to personal networks so there is less of an external academic study and more of a resource for uplifting within an in-group.

  • As you continue your research, have you considered alternative viewpoints in your investigation? If so, how have these alternative viewpoints enriched or changed your project?

Unfortunately, the literature base is quite small to the point where the capacity for "alternative viewpoints" is quite limited -- there's very limited space for alternative viewpoints if the original viewpoint is not well established. Still, I try to keep an open mind during oral history interviews, especially since some go in a different way than I expect.

Hi Jeffrey!

While we're in somewhat different fields/using different methodologies, your answer to that first question has really resonated with me. It definitely feels like there are some tricky dynamics that emerge in conducting research on some part of a community you identify with—especially when that community has been marginalized or left out, and with the prestige/privilege that seems to come with "success" in academia that can so quickly make things exploitative, as you pointed out so well here. Your attempt to reconcile this with a goal of uplifting the community you are doing research about, by building and reaching out to personal networks, is thoughtful and inspiring to read. I hope research this next week goes well for you—and would love to hear more about how your work is evolving, especially through this approach!

-Mrinalini