SAS in Australia

Established in 1971

The South Asian Studies Association of Australia (SASAA) and its journal South Asia were both formally established in 1971. They were the outcomes of the growth in teaching and research on South Asia that had developed over the previous 15 years.

Though Sydney University had a Department of Oriental Studies from 1918, it was not before the 1950s that substantial teaching about India became part of the History program at Sydney and the University of Tasmania.


The South Asian Studies Association (SASA) and its journal South Asia were both formally established in 1971. They were the outcomes of the growth in teaching and research on South Asia that had developed over the previous 15 years. Though Sydney University had a Department of Oriental Studies from 1918, it was not before the 1950s that substantial teaching about India became part of the History program at Sydney and the University of Tasmania.

Marjorie Jacobs, the second woman to be appointed to a chair at Sydney University, had a special interest in India, partly as a result of having been in Mumbai on her way home from the UK after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948. In Tasmania, George Wilson, who spent time in India on a research fellowship of the Australian National University (ANU) in 1949-50, taught widely about Asia and the Pacific, with a special focus on India. Both Jacobs and Wilson influenced the study of Asia and India for thirty years.

A growing interest in India in the 1950s resulted from events in Asia. A communist revolution in China, wars in Korea and Vietnam and decolonization elsewhere made Australians look nervously for more recognisable friends. Jawaharlal Nehru was at the peak of his international fame, and R. G. Casey, Australia’s foreign minister from 1951-60, and governor of Bengal from 1944-6, had an uncommon interest in India.

The geographer O. H. K. Spate became the foundation Professor of Geography at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1951 and published India and Pakistan:

(Marjorie Jacobs)

(Anthony Low)

(Hugh Owen (left) with Richard Bingle of the India Office Library and Records. Photo: Jim Masselos)

A General and Regional Geography in 1954. When Sir Keith Hancock became director of the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS) at ANU in 1957, he persuaded Anthony Low, a historian of Africa whom Hancock had met in Uganda, to join RSSS to work, not on Africa, but India.

Low’s early doctoral students were Peter Reeves, a former student of George Wilson in Tasmania, John Broomfield from New Zealand, Hugh Owen, Piet van den Dungen and Ravinder Kumar, later a legendary director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, from India.

Reeves and Kumar both pioneered the teaching of Indian history, Kumar at the University of New South Wales (as it became) (UNSW) and Reeves at the University of Western Australia. They had been preceded by Hugh Owen who had lectured at the University of Western Australia and UNSW before them. Part of Low’s group was Dietmar Rothermund who added to the critical mass of South Asian scholarship at the ANU

Growing: 1960s

The study of India and South Asia grew in the 1960s along with the Australian university system. The University of Melbourne established a Department of Indian Studies in 1961, first under J. T. F. Jordens, a Belgian, and later under Sibnarayan Ray, a distinguished Bengali scholar and radical humanist. (The University of Melbourne abolished the department twenty years later). In the same year, Jim Masselos, a student of Marjorie Jacobs, began an exploration of India that earned a PhD from the University of Bombay in 1965 and began a 50-year career. A. L. Basham, author of The Wonder That Was India, came to ANU in 1965 along with J. W. de Jong, a scholar of Buddhism and classical languages, and, later, S. A. A. Rizvi, a distinguished scholar of Islam.

Mahatma Gandhi’s birth centenary in 1969 was celebrated with an international collection of essays in Melbourne that produced a landmark essay collection edited by Sibnarayan Ray, Gandhi, India and the World (Melbourne: Hawthorn Press, 1970). There was another celebration at this time also – but it was at the ANU under the aegis of Ravinder Kumar who did bring a group of scholars together for a discussion on Gandhi’s Rowlatt Satyagraha.

Peaking: 1970s – early 1980s

(from Left: Peter Reeves, Howard Brasted, Dennis Wright, and Jim Masselos at Queen Victoria Park, Sydney, Congress Centenary Conference in 1985. Photo: Sinnapah Arasaratnam)

By the mid-1970s, more than a dozen of Australia’s 18 or 19 universities (the system was growing) offered undergraduate subjects focused on South Asia. Anthony Low, vice-chancellor of ANU from 1975, helped to persuade Ranajit Guha to come to Canberra. The “subaltern studies” collective, which was Guha’s inspiration, held a trailblazing conference at ANU in 1982 and used ANU as an administrative base for the next eight years.

Contraction and Revival: late 1980s-21st century

From the late 1980s, as Australian governments reorganised institutions to deal with globalisation, the university system rapidly expanded, but often at the expense of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Trade and international competition were cornerstones of policies that called on universities to find fee-paying students. “Asian studies,” when they received attention, were promoted as a means to improve Australia’s capacity to do business with countries of Asia, including South Asia.

Bilateral councils were established, and modest support was offered to set up centres dedicated to research and two-way exchange. The Australia-India Council, a body within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was established in 1993. At the same time, a National Centre for South Asian Studies was established under Marika Vicziany, initially with support from the Commonwealth government and seven universities. Changes in the national government played a part in the termination of Commonwealth funding a few years later, and the National Centre eventually became a part of the Monash Asia Institute (now, the Monash Asia Initiative).

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, no more than six of Australia’s more than 40 universities offer semester-length subjects on India or South Asia in Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines – UNSW, ANU, Adelaide, Melbourne, New England and La Trobe. ANU and La Trobe offer three-year programs in Hindi.

(from left Denis Wright, Sanjay Srivastava, Howard Brasted, Philip Wood, Geoff Oddie at post-conference drinks at the ASAA Conference hosted by Murdoch University in 1992. Photo: Howard Brasted)

(Robin Jeffrey and Howard Brasted following a conference hosted at Curtin University in 2002. Photo: Howard Brasted)

(Standing: Richard Barz, Oliver Mendelsohn, Howard Brasted. Seated: Marika Vicziany, Purushottama Bilimoria and Salim Lakha. At the National Centre for South Asian Studies, Melbourne in 1993. Photo: Howard Brasted)

Written by Professor Robin Jeffrey

A rapidly changing international environment has once again led Australia to search for familiar friends. To facilitate greater links with India, the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund was created in 2006 to foster collaboration in science and technology and the Australia-India Institute (AII) was established in 2008. The AII has carried out various research projects to further the research and teaching of India and has created a New Generation Network of post-doctoral fellows. In response to the landmark report, India Economic Strategy to 2035, the Australian government has highlighted increasing links between Indian and Australian universities and improving India literacy as priorities. Scholars of South Asia hope that this portends a new era of growth.