On an unusually cold and inclement November evening, a steady crowd of people began to trickle into the U-M Museum of Art’s Helmut Stern Auditorium. The below-freezing temperatures couldn’t dissuade them from attending a talk by Prof. Sudipta Kaviraj of Columbia University. Among the people who filled the front seats of the hall were the Datla family—parents, brothers and other relatives. Their daughter, Kavita Datla, wasn’t in attendance, but everyone felt her presence. Datla received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan in 1997 and then pursued her master’s degree at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. She completed her doctorate at the University of California, Berkley and soon began teaching at Mount Holyoke as an assistant professor in the department of history.
The Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS) organized a lecture series to honor Kavita’s work and her passion for research in India, enabled by a generous donation from the Datla family and friends. On asking Vishnu Datla what it means to have a lecture series in the memory of his sister, he said, “Our family and friends are deeply honored to endow this lecture in Kavita’s name. We are very much a Michigan family. My parents have lived in the state for nearly 40 years and Kavita, my brother Bobby, and I all attended U-M as undergrads.”
Professor Sudipta Kaviraj, a professor of Indian Politics and Intellectual History, gave an enlightening talk on Dr. B.R.Ambedkar – a social reformer who campaigned against discrimination towards the untouchables in India – and his struggles with history. It was a fitting presentation to honor Kavita Datla, who was passionate about examining the communalization of language politics in India.
Datla, born in 1975, passed away in July, 2017, after a hard-fought battle with a rare form of cancer. She was an associate professor at Mount Holyoke College at the time of her death and was promoted to full professor post-humously.
“Kavita’s life and career were tragically cut short by cancer, but she had an incredible passion for the study of history that began to take shape at U-M and lasted through her final days. We are very grateful to the CSAS for establishing this lecture because we can’t think of a better way to honor Kavita’s legacy. She would have been proud to support the study of South Asian History for future generations of scholars at U-M,” Vishnu Datla added.
Death need not be the end for scholars and intellectuals, as their work and research continue to live on in the minds and conversations of those who engage their ideas.