The Fulbright experience should have been one of unadulterated joy and achievement. To get to work with academics in US Universities and to get a taste of the American life is surely an experience of a lifetime.
Covid-19 has undeniably cast a cloud over this experience for the 2019-2020 batch of Fulbrighters.
I tried to remain optimistic and engaged to the extent possible and refused to allow myself to rue. Sympathy came in from every quarter – “Oh what a pity the last two months of your residency were washed away.” I don’t believe they were washed away. It was possible to be productive even then. I introduced students who would play Mozart and Bach on their Cellos and violas and double basses to the angular lines of Raga Durga and the sweeps of Raga Bihag. I tried to get them to see swaras not as points and pitches as a Western Musician is wont to but as small, rippling, pulsating aural spaces different points in which get lit up in different movements of the raga. Teaching over zoom was clearly fraught with challenges but it was better than nothing. I engaged a couple of classes miles away in a college in New York. I talked about raga and rasa, the cognitive dimensions of raga and the idea of the emergence of a raga in performance as its subtlest. Greg Menillo whose class I addressed found parallel ideas in the works of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. I recorded a video lecture on Raga and Rasa for a class on Asian Aesthetics at CU Boulder working for the first time with the applications Quicktime and Imovies, which was great fun and in itself an achievement for me.
But, above all, during this crisis, I got to see how Universities, faculty and students sought to overcome the challenges of suspending person to person classes. I got to see how the faculty poured in extra energies and hours to deliver. I saw how it affected students and faculty with anxiety and misgivings – about how to deliver and be perceived as delivering. One mail urged that photos of my lecture be shared with the administration since “they seem to think that we are doing nothing”. I saw how the faculty and students found online classes stressful while devising ways to circumvent it. I saw how direct interaction is irreplaceable and is felt to be so by faculty and students.
Among the lessons we can derive from Covid 19 is a sense of what we can safely move into the virtual realm and what we cannot. It has driven home the irreplaceability of human interaction as the best way to achieve certain ends.
The Fulbright vison too revolves around human interaction to achieve its agenda of cultural understanding. If Fulbright seeks to foster cultural exchange, it does so by presenting individuals, accomplished persons as the “ambassadors” of their culture. When successful, this cultural exchange sees the dismantling of culture as a monolith and puts forth persons: always persons. A person is no doubt perceived as a product and bearer of a culture, of a race, of the memories and stories of her land, but at the end of personal interactions during a few months of academic engagement through teaching and research, she comes across simply as a person. A human being with similar questions and aspirations as any other, with similar doubts and epiphanies, deriving the same joy through music and dance, struggling to come to terms with the similar ethical issues of inequitable distribution of wealth and resources in her land, the same love for the mountains and the rivers. Kant’s “starry skies above and the moral law within” shines in and tugs at the hearts of every person of every culture, filling her with “ever increasing awe and wonder”. The Fulbright experience makes it possible to see this light in every person representing her culture and in so doing, it dents the walls separating people and cultures.