The end of WWII and government occupation of Senate House

The morning of 3 September 1945, as pictured, was the day after the formal surrender of Japan and, consequently, the end of World War II. The turning in of the rubber stamp and defense regulation books by the press censors also marked the end of the government’s need to ‘massage’ the news and public perception.

An exemplary situation of the Senate House press team at work was during the battle of Dunkirk. Strategically, this was a military disaster as thousands of allied troops were trapped and surrounded by the German army on the northern beaches of France. The evacuation of Dunkirk was one of the biggest failures for allied troops during the war but the propaganda machine did not let that taint public British perception of the fight.

While the German Gazette (Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung) published headlines of ‘Dunkirk Taken’ and ‘40,000 allied troops drowned in the Channel’ the press censorship team were already working on a necessary myth for these events. From 26 May to 4 June 1940, the return of 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops was painted as a victory, rather than a crushing defeat. Churchill called it a miracle which became the root of his rousing speech claiming “…we shall never surrender.” The press team turned what was in fact a disastrous time for allied forces into a cause for celebration across the nation.

100 years of SOAS Women

Today, SOAS is currently one of only two UK universities where the top four management positions (President, Director, Registrar, Chair of the Board of Trustees) are held by women.

In 2012, renowned humanitarian and activist, Graça Machel, was appointed as the new President of SOAS and in 2015, Baroness Valerie Amos CH was appointed as the first female Director of SOAS.

President of SOAS Graça Machel

Our female alumni too have gone on to inspire people across the world. The first female Permanent Representative of United Arab Emirates to UN, H.E Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh graduated from SOAS, University of London in 2003. Renowned Indonesian national broadcaster Desi Anwar is a SOAS alumna as is her sister, Professor Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar, the Deputy for Government Policy Support to the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia.

Desi Anwar receiving her honorary degree at SOAS Graduation Ceremonies 2013

Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey with her children’s book Gbagba

SOAS alumna and Liberian academic, activist and author, Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey has written a children’s book exploring issues of integrity and accountability and functioning as an anti-corruption primer for children. Most recently, alumna Dr Rouba Mhaissen an economist, activist and development expert and Founder and Director of the Sawa Foundation, was featured in this year’s Forbes’ 30 under 30 list.

To mark International Women’s Day we’ve taken a trip through the SOAS archives to celebrate the women of SOAS who have inspired, innovated and educated the School community in our 100 years SOAS history.


Evangeline ‘Dora’ Edwards, Professor of Chinese, was one of the first female Professors at SOAS

The School opened in 1916 and one of the first female academics at SOAS, Alice Werner taught Swahili and Bantu languages, eventually becoming professor. One of the School’s first lecturers in Chinese literature was Dora Edwards former Principal of a teacher training college in Mukden, China, who pioneered the study of T’ang fiction. British explorer and archaeologist Freya Stark was a student at SOAS in the 1930s and went onto to travel extensively through the Middle East and Asia, documenting her travels.

The School’s female linguists also played an important role in the Second World War. Nancy Lambton, fresh from her PhD and yet to become the foremost Persian scholar of the 20th century, worked as a translator for the British Legation in Tehran. Alumna Carmen Blacker, who went on to be an influential scholar of Japanese religion and folklore, was bored by her work at Bletchley Park, catalogue filing cards containing ‘any words likely to turn up in a decoded message’ and returned to SOAS to teach Japanese.

Service women had also been trained at SOAS. A group of seven women serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) were recruited to study Japanese at SOAS in 1943, to be then sent to work in assistance of the war effort. They worked in hub of British code-breaking at Bletchley Park and their history as the ‘Bletchley Girls’ has recently been brought to light.

Bletchley Girls at SOAS

​After the war, female academics continued to make a huge impact at SOAS. In 1959 Edith Penrose published her seminal theory on the growth of the firm and as Professor of Economics she laid the foundations for SOAS research and teaching in economics, development studies, management and strategy. Historian Shula Marks challenged the liberal interpretation of South African history, serving as chair of the Journal of Southern African Studies and leading a very influential seminar series regularly attended by anti-apartheid activists Thabo Mbeke and Albie Sachs. And in the 1990s Elizabeth Moore’s research at NASA, analysing data collected by Space Shuttle Endeavour, radically changed the understanding of the development of the vast Cambodian temple complex at Angkor Wat.

Edith Penrose gives a lecture

Edith Penrose gives a lecture

Female leadership has also long been a crucial part of SOAS. In 2001 Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, barrister and broadcaster, was appointed the first female President of SOAS, a position she held until 2011.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and Baroness Valerie Amos CH

Sir Philip Hartog: Remembering SOAS’s forgotten founder

Sir Philip Joseph Hartog (1864 – 1947) has now become the largely forgotten founder of SOAS after he campaigned for the parliamentary committee to consider starting an Oriental school in London. Even in the face of cynicism from Oxbridge wigs and crippling underfunding Hartog still managed to see the future of the school beyond being a post-war language training arm of the University of London. While the government was only concerned with instructing foreign officials in the language and cultures of the place they would be working, Hartog was planning for a legacy much wider than anyone had anticipated.

by Bassano, vintage print, 24 July 1930

Philip Joseph Hartog was born in London in 1864 and educated at UCL and Owens College Manchester. He was an assistant lecturer in chemistry in Manchester until 1903 when he left to become registrar at the University of London.

He published a string of books in the 1930s which revealed an obsession for school administration: A Conspectus of Examinations in Great Britain and Northern Ireland (1938), The Purpose of Examinations (1938), The Marking of English Essays (1942) and a sure fire favourite, An Examination of Examinations (1935). Although Hartog was a keen Chemist, science was not where his future lay.

As his wife recalls in P.J. Hartog: A memoir, his dedication to the establishment of an oriental school outstripped his “personal comfort and ease”. After hearing about the opportunity to put forward a proposal he cut short his holiday, returned to London and worked around the clock for days on end to submit a report on the post-war need for trained linguists.

Cambridge was particularly opposed to establishing a school in London and deemed “the whole thing a waste of public money”. It was obvious that they believed the existence of a language training centre in the capital would jeopardise their own security and draw talent, funding and students away from them. But ever the optimist, Hartog said these comments were born of a “subterranean jealousy which the authors will be somewhat ashamed to display openly.” And he was correct. There were never any formal interventions, just the tittle-tattle of naysayers and the whispers of pessimists.

‘Sir P J Hartog International Hall’ houses 36 international students at Dhaka University

He was the only permanent member of the governing body who seen the School through from inception to opening, with many academics working part-time because funds initially did not stretch to hire all staff on full-time contracts.

It is commonly acknowledged that he declined the role to be SOAS’ first Director, advising that a scholar must take the position before him – which led to the election of Sir Edward Denison Ross.

Although his time in London was beneficial to the new languages school in Finsbury Circus, all this was merely a forward to the next chapter in his life. Hartog went on to become the first vice-chancellor of Dhaka University in 1920. He was heavily involved in the colonial education system in India and got into a public furrow with Gandhi over Britain’s meddling in Indian schools.

Hartog was appointed to the Auxiliary Committee on Education and published a report on the quality and progress of Indian education. His contemporaries congratulated him on demolishing the prejudices his predecessors had for the local education system, but many Indians saw it as a scathing criticism.

Emerging from the tyranny of colonialism, history paints education as being a positive legacy of the British Raj. In 1931, however, Gandhi said “today, India is more illiterate than it was fifty of a hundred years ago” since the British took the seat of power.

To someone like Hartog, who had made the development of education his life’s work, he was outraged at Gandhi’s remarks. Hartog attempted to keep up correspondence with Gandhi even during his imprisonment the following year, but obvious circumstances prevented Gandhi from engaging in proper scholarly debate. Now with little public opposition, Hartog gave lectures in India and London expounding the improvements the British government had made to indigenous education. So perhaps a myth was sown.**

Sir Philip Hartog was an educationalist, a reformer, a visionary and dedicated worker.  He died age 84 in London with an obituary describing him as having “long-sighted shrewdness and almost missionary enthusiasm”.
**The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley, page 220

Who was SOAS’s first graduate?

K A Subranamia Iyer was one of the SOAS’s first students, enrolling on the Sanskrit and Pali programme in 1917 at the then School of Oriental Studies. Born in 1896, he matriculated in 1912 and by the time he came to the School had already studied in Paris and London. He was the School’s first graduate, receiving in 1920 the Diploma in Sanskrit for ‘research in Indology.’

He returned to India and founded the Department of Sanskrit and Prakrit Languages at Lucknow University, according to the university’s website:

‘The department has been working since 17 July 1921 and Dr. K. A. Subramania Iyer was the first Head of the department. He was a well-known Sanskrit scholar and also an able administrator…He had introduced numerous courses related to Vedic literature and classical Sanskrit literature, the courses in Prakrit, Pali and Tibetan languages. On several occasions, Sanskrit dramas were staged during his tenure.’

These stagings obviously had a great impact, as they are referred to in Professor Iyer’s Felicitation Volume, published in 1976 by the Journal of the Akhila Bharatiya Sanskrit Parishad*:

‘Professor Iyer fully realised the importance of extra-curricular activities in the making of a student and with this object in view he established the Jnanavardhini Sabha which conducted such activities as debates and dramas. I still remember how the enactment of the law court scene from the Mrechakatika by the students and staff of the Sanskrit Department, including Professor Iyer, in 1930 was hailed by the audience.’

In the same 1976 volume, Shri Radha Krishna wrote: ‘Prof K A S Iyer has shed lustre and dignity on the cultural and academic life of Lucknow for about half a century now by his erudition, devotion, wide range of study and simplicity of character. When the old Govt. Sanskrit College, Varanasi was raised to the status of the University, it was Prof. Iyer who was mainly responsible for effecting the smooth change over and for selecting the Faculty with his wide contacts and with the influence and respect that he commanded among the scholars all over the country.’

Professor Iyer later became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lucknow, but resigned before his term was over. He was persuaded by Shri Sampernanand to take charge of the old seat of learning, the Varanasi Sanskrit Vishva-Vidyalaya and, as its Vice-Chancellor, ‘soon after assumption of office, gave it a new orientation and instilled sense of purpose and mission in the Faculty and amongst the students.’

Radha Krishna goes on to write: ‘While talking of Prof Iyer one cannot miss Dr (Mrs) T S Iyer, his life partner, the noble Ardnangini. A more devoted couple can hardly be imagined. She is a lady of great attainments and equally great charm. Coming from distant Poland, she made India her home by choice and imbibed its culture and traditions with such ease that it is hard to believe she was born and bred under an altogether different environment.’

A medical practitioner, his wife Teresa Jadwiga Subramania Iyer, MRCS (Eng) LRCP (Lond), BS (Lond), received an MBE in the King’s Birthday Honours of 1938 in recognition of her work as Director of the Maternity and Child Welfare Section of the United Provinces Branch of the Indian Red Cross Society.

He was obviously a greatly respected teacher. ‘Professor Iyer has always been the friend, philosopher and guide of his students and has never grudged them any help which they deserved. His love of learning is so great that even after his retirement he has been busy enriching Sanskrit literature by his monumental work on Bhartrhari and his contribution to Sanskrit grammar.  Fortunately, he has got a very worthy life-partner and that is one of the secrets of his active life at this age.’

Dr Navjivan Rastogi, who studied for his doctoral thesis on the Krama System of Kashmir at Lucknow University when Professor Iyer was Vice Chancellor, wrote:

‘It was an experience and an opportunity to have a glimpse of his intensive knowledge and vast command over the subject (Kashmire Saivism). It was again a rare privilege when he passed his several research papers on to me for my use.

‘But my real story beings with not knowing him as a teacher, but as a teacher in the midst of tumultuous and chaotic administrative-cum-academic situations. It was here that I saw his perfect calm, poise of mind, serenity of purpose and regard for human values.  I do not remember the exact time but it was long after the student movement, that I led as President of the Lucknow University Students’ Union, had subsided and I was released from jail when I called on him. Though temperamentaly cool and physically active, I found him less exuberant and tired. My drawing his attention to it brought back the remark, ‘Navjivan, you have finished me.’ This sentence revealed in a flash of moment the amount of severe strain he had undergone due to the student movement. I could not speak a word and personally I shall never be able to forgive myself. It is altogether a different matter that the student movement, for the first time, addressed itself to the real problems and academic ills that confronted the Lucknow University. What is more important is to note how in the midst of tumultuous, fast and impersonal series of events the course of which was determined and dictated by historical dynamics of the forces that mattered a very personal feeling, a very personal attachment, howsoever feeble, could survive and under-run the whole gamut of events. It is this personal element that makes me feel guilty even today so far as Prof. Iyer is concerned.

‘Not that Prof. Iyer does not have week (sic) aspect of his personality; like all other human beings he has them and has them in abundance. He suffers from one great weakness – he is too good… I bow in respect. He is my teacher.’

Royal opening of the ‘School of Oriental Studies’

Pathé Film footage shot on the occasion of the opening of the School of Oriental Studies at the London Institute in Finsbury Circus. King George V was accompanied by Queen Alexandra and Princess Mary on 23 February 1917.

According to its Royal Charter, the School’s purpose was “to give instruction in the Languages of Eastern and African peoples, Ancient and Modern, and in the Literature, History, Religion, and Customs of those peoples, especially with a view to the needs of persons about to proceed to the East or to Africa for the pursuit of study and research, commerce or a profession..”.

1917 was a year of critical change for George V as he had rejected his Germanic surname and rebranded the royal family as ‘The Windsors’, after their  historic castle in Berkshire; and in the same year refused asylum to his first cousin and good friend, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who was subsequently assassinated by the Bolsheviks alongside his entire family.

Sir Denison Ross urges the BBC to stop offending Muslims and the Chinese

Sir Edward Denison Ross had a much decorated career before becoming the School of Oriental Studies’ first director in 1916. He famously spoke thirty languages from the then called ‘Far East’ and spent almost two decades travelling India and Central Asia. His obituary in the School’s bulletin read “he contributed more than any Englishman of his generation to the encouragement of Oriental studies in this country.”

Ross was well regarded as being able to inspire the best from his peers – he was a great motivator and managed to gather first-rate academic staff through a united idea that it was their duty to promote learning of their areas. His letter to The Times demonstrates his scholarly zeal in accurate representation of cultures around the world.

Ross’ contemporaries described him as a “bon viveur, social climber, name dropper and enfant terrible” – he was flamboyant and a larger-than-life character who was much loved by his faculty. Although justified in his correction, this letter to The Times might be seen as a not-so-humble attempt to show off his uncommon knowledge of languages and cultures.

A link with the past

Earlier this month, SOAS buried a time capsule to celebrate its Centenary, which will be opened in 2116. But what’s it like to be on the other side and open a time capsule?

Christine Wise, Assistant Director (Research Library Services) at SOAS, shares her memories of discovering a time capsule buried at The Women’s Library at LSE and  the excitement of finding a link to the past.

SOAS's Centenary time capsule, buried in August 2016.

SOAS’s Centenary time capsule, buried in August 2016.

Some months ago, Centenary Project Manager Shoshanna Goodman and I were discussing plans to celebrate SOAS’ Centenary.  Shoshanna mentioned that a time capsule would be buried so that in one hundred years’ time our successors would have a direct, tangible link with SOAS in 2016.  I immediately remembered the time at The Women’s Library when my desk telephone rang and I was told that a time capsule had been found….  Prompted by this conversation, I visited the LSE Library, where the papers of The Women’s Library are now held, to recollect for myself this remarkable event.  The report I wrote at the time immediately brought the occasion back to life, to share today.

The time capsule was found in Old Castle Street, E1, on the site of the former Whitechapel Public Baths.  Contemporary records noted the laying of the foundation stone on Tuesday 16 December 1845, confirmed by the contents once the capsule was opened.  During preparatory work on 15 September 1999, the site engineer noted two very large regular-shaped stones, which had once been braced together.  The lower stone of the two had a hollowed-out cylindrical shape containing a glass bottle.  Excavation work immediately ceased so that building colleagues and Library staff could look at the location.  Within the hour, the glass bottle was being inspected by Curators from the Museum of London.

After careful examination, conservators from the Museum of London opened the glass bottle on 7 October 1999.  Even now, I remember the excitement as our group clustered in the studio, and I remember craning my neck to see the contents as they were extracted with great dexterity.  Removing the items was a delicate and painstaking operation, and revealed:

  • a copy of the Times, dated Tuesday 16 December 1845
  • two lists of subscribers to the Wash Houses, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
  • a paper outlining the purpose of Baths and Wash-Houses for the Labouring Classes
  • a set of seven coins – Maundy Money from 1845, with a red seal from one of the documents

These objects were a remarkable link with the mid-nineteenth century and a reminder of the social and housing conditions of the time.

I’m glad that this conversation with Shoshanna brought back these wonderful memories, and hope that the SOAS time capsule will one day elicit the same excitement.

The Elephants have come out of the Room and on to the Piccadilly Line

Imtiaz Dharker accepting award from SOAS President Graça Machel

Imtiaz Dharker accepting award from SOAS President Graça Machel

Award-winning poet, artist and documentary film-maker Imtiaz Dharker, renowned for her work centring on freedom, cultural intolerance and gender politics, was this year awarded an Honorary Doctorate at SOAS University of London.

In SOAS’ 100th year she delighted the audience at the 2016 graduation ceremony with her poem ‘The Elephants have come out of the Room and on to the Piccadilly Line’ that was in praise of SOAS.


The Elephants have come out of the Room
and on to the Piccadilly Line

                                           in praise of SOAS

The elephants are travelling underground,
tilting gently as the train careens.
No-one sees them, all the heads bent down
to worship information on small screens.

Perhaps the elephants wonder at how still
they sit or how the light shines blue through
human eyelashes, or admire their digital skill
on keyboards, too tiny for elephant toes, too

small for trunks. Google cannot contain
the wisdom of elephants. The whole of the internet
cannot trigger one spark in the elephant brain.
So they come swaying through Russell Square, to set

foot here, where knowledge lives. It will not fail
them. They arrive like aliens or like gods, tail
to trunk, trunk to tail, a script that will tell
its own tale of wonder
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . that will not fail,
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . that will not fail.

An interview with Professor Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar


Prof. Dr. Dewi Anwar is a renowned  Indonesian academic and policy maker. She is a SOAS alumna and holds her BA Hons and MA from SOAS. Currently the Deputy for Government Policy Support to the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia, Dewi is also a Research Professor and held the position of the Deputy Chairman for Social Sciences and Humanities at The Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) from 2001-2010. She is the current Chair of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at The Habibie Center, a member of the Governing Board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Community of Democracies.

“SOAS was more than just a place to study to me, it was more like a second home.” Dewi Anwar tells us about her time at SOAS.

Although both of Dewi’s parents worked at SOAS, at first she wasn’t keen to study at the School.

“I was very interested in studying history and literature at school. I studied English and European History as well as English Literature, so at first I did not even put SOAS down in my university application form.  Moreover, I wanted to study away from London so that I would not have to live at home.

“Both of my parents, however, convinced me to include SOAS in my application form, arguing that since so many people from all over the world come to study at SOAS it would be foolish of me not to do so.  In the end, I put SOAS fifth and last in my application form to do a B.A. in Oriental and African History.

“When I was called to do the interview I decided that I really wanted to study at SOAS after all.  Then I received an offer from SOAS before my A-Level exams and I decided to accept it without a second thought.  I have never regretted my choice.”

When recalling her time at SOAS, the friendly community feel was a highlight for Dewi.

“I was at SOAS for four years, first doing a B.A. and then an M.A.  I often travelled together with my parents by train from Mill Hill in North London to St. Pancras Station and back.  Many of my lecturers were friends and colleagues of my parents, so SOAS was both a very comfortable place as well as a rather constrictive one for me given its fairly small size.  It became like a small village where everyone knew what everyone else was doing.

Dewi Anwar at SOAS in the Summer of 1981. Left to right: Dewi's mother Mrs. Wahidar Anwar, Dewi's sisters Danti, Desi and Dewi in the pink jump suit.

Dewi Anwar at SOAS in the Summer of 1981. Left to right: Dewi’s mother Mrs. Wahidar Anwar, Dewi’s sisters Danti, Desi and Dewi in the pink jump suit.

SOAS’ famous library features amongst Dewi’s best memories of her time at SOAS.

“I enjoyed all of my courses and the Library was simply marvellous.  When not busy reading for my essay assignments, I used to browse the book shelves and read wonderful folk tales from different countries.

“During the holiday I used to work in the Library doing various odd jobs, including working in the Cloak Room, cleaning book shelves or manning the check-out counters.  In this way I also made a lot of friends besides those with whom I shared classes. One of my most memorable experiences was when working to sort out the archive collection of old letters.  I spent many enjoyable hours reading letters written by missionaries from various exotic places around the world.”

A renowned research professor and policy advisor, Dewi studied for a BA Honours in Oriental and African History and an MA in South East Asian Area Studies at SOAS, majoring in Politics with minors in Social Anthropology and Economic Development. Her studies, she reflects, helped contribute to her long and successful career in academia and government.

“My study at SOAS gave me a strong grounding when I applied to become a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).  Because of my South East Asian studies background I was able to become involved in both the research on Indonesian politics as well as on ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) regional political and security issues.  The courses I took on Islamic and Middle Eastern history also gave me a better understanding of the emerging issues relating to Islam and global politics. At LIPI I have reached the rank of Research Professor and served as Deputy Chairman for Social Sciences and Humanities from 2001to 2010.

“My academic works as well as my activities as a political analyst brought me public recognition and opened the door for me to work in the government, first as Assistant for Global Affairs to Vice President B.J. Habibie and later as Assistant State Secretary for Foreign Affairs as well as a Spokesperson to President. B.J. Habibie (1998-1999).  For the past five years I have served first as Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs to Vice President Boediono (2010-2014) and since then as Deputy for Government Policy Support to Vice President M. Jusuf Kalla.”

For current students aspiring to work in academia, Dewi advises that it is more a vocation than a career.

“A career in academia requires dedication and passion.  One does not become an academic to become wealthy or famous, but because one is genuinely interested in the pursuit of knowledge.

“In developing countries, however, it is often seen as a luxury to dedicate oneself to knowledge for knowledge sake when highly educated human resources are still limited.  In Indonesia a researcher is expected to provide solutions to current social, political and economic problems and at times can be invited to assist directly in designing and implementing policies. “

Dewi’s final advice is relevant for all students: “Whatever career paths one chooses to follow one can be successful as long as one is fully committed to do the best, remain professional and maintain one’s integrity.”

After reflecting on her time at the School, Dewi offers SOAS her congratulations on its Centenary and looks to SOAS’s role in the future.

“For the next 100 years I hope that SOAS will continue to be a centre of excellence that can attract students from all over the world to learn in-depth knowledge about the regions and countries in Africa and Asia with their different civilisations, religions and cultures.

“In an increasingly globalised world the movement of large numbers of people from one part of the globe to another has not only improved mutual understanding and respect but has also increased intolerance and xenophobia.

“SOAS can play an important role in educating current and future leaders about cultural diversity, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism.”

Five bicycles and one watch

Professor Adrian Mayer, 93, a major figure in the development of Indian social anthropology, shares his memories of rural India in the 1950s.  Speaking to Professor Edward Simpson, he reveals how studying a language at SOAS started a remarkable career, leading him to the South Pacific and to rural India.

When Professor Adrian Mayer joined SOAS in 1947 to study Hindi he had already spent two years in India, working in an NGO on famine relief and rehabilitation. ‘I worked in three main areas – in Bengal for six months, Kerala for six months and in several districts of the Madras presidency for a year.  So there wasn’t time to learn any language properly and I thought I’d start with the national one.’  The teaching was thorough, but it was based on somewhat old fashioned grammar books, which contained as examples such phrases as ‘get me some hay for my horse’.

He went to Fiji in 1950 on his first major project of anthropological fieldwork and found that his language ability was much admired. He said the Fiji Indians had come from north and south India as indentured labourers and they had adopted a sort of Hindi as lingua franca. ‘The language was very basic. They didn’t conjugate verbs, nothing like that.  Everything was expressed in imperatives. So they were both aghast and impressed at my grammatical purity’.

Adrian on a bullock cart.

Pic: Professor Adrian Mayer on a bullock cart

Later he did research in Madhya Pradesh, central India.  In 1954 villages of that region were very isolated.  ‘People knew little of the wide world.  They only went outside for an occasional visit to the market town or for weddings and funerals in other villages.  So I was treated like a man from the moon. “Is there grass in your country?  Are there cows in your country?”  I incautiously let slip that London time was different from village time and this was a brain-teaser because some people still believed that the earth was flat.  But others said that it was round, so I found that I could explain with the aid of an orange how the sun made time differences. In fact, most people were illiterate at that time.  But illiterate people read your face very carefully.  I found quite often they knew what I was thinking or what I was going to say before I said it.  It’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the greatest of the Indian emperors, Akbar, was illiterate.  He could have learned to read and write, he had no shortage of possible tutors, but I think he must have said to himself “No, I will read their faces while they’re talking and that will be far more rewarding.”’

Professor Mayer came to the SOAS department of anthropology in 1956, joining fellow anthropologists Frederick Bailey and Colin Rosser under the headship of Professor Christoph Fürer-Haimendorf.  ‘The department consisted of us four Indianists and one Africanist at that time.  We used to have a seminar each Monday afternoon, for which we three prepared ourselves at a friendly pub off Russell Square.  Each of us stood a round so we were fortified with at least a pint and a half when we gained the seminar table. We were young at the time and participated in the usual way, but I don’t recommend it as an academic technique.’

Adrian and Mrs Mayer in village procession

Pic: Professor Adrian Mayer and Mrs Mayer in village procession

At that time the department was in one of the Woburn Square buildings in rather makeshift surroundings. ‘I remember that we had only one telephone, on the ground floor. Catherine Brown who was the departmental sectary would shout up to us on the third floor and we would come thundering down to take our phone calls.’

Over the years the School added other departments in the social sciences and in 1965 it was decided to institute regional Centres to facilitate inter-disciplinary cooperation.  Professor Mayer was the first chair of the South Asia Centre.  ‘Wondering how to promote inter-disciplinarity I hit on the idea of a seminar which would discuss books which overlapped disciplines.  I got together a dozen of these, persuaded speakers to introduce them, and announced a weekly programme.  Attendance was at first modest. But through some administrative quirk I had managed to provide a glass of wine during and another one after the seminar.  The grapevine did its work and thereafter we had a very satisfactory attendance and some excellent discussions.  I forget how long we continued like this, but eventually the powers that be relegated us to a cup of tea. But the going was good whilst it lasted, and it was an excellent way to get the Centre started.’

Over the decades Professor Mayer made several visits to his village of study, noting the changes taking place.  ‘In 1954 people had few personal belongings which one could call “modern”.  No radio, only five bicycles, and a single person had a watch.  He was rather proud of it and perhaps felt that it should be thought better than mine.  So when we met he always asked me the time, and if mine differed from his by a minute or two he would say ‘Your watch is wrong’. Over the years I watched as electricity came to the village, followed by transistor radios and then tvs, bottled gas stoves, and then of course mobile phones, motor cycles and cars, the lot.’

Professor Mayer retired in 1985, but he kept in contact with the village and planned a full re-study.  ‘I thought that I would return and make a proper study of what had happened, and “50 years later” seemed to me to be a good round figure.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go to India at that time, so I wrote to SOAS and asked if anyone was prepared to take this over.  Luckily Edward Simpson took the ball I had tossed him and ran with it.  He organised a project and we appointed an excellent person to do the restudy. He and I have worked closely together – he read all my diaries and field notes before going out, though it took some time for him to decipher my handwriting. The villagers considered him at first to be my son, though when I went out and spent a few days with him they re-named him my disciple!’

With a legacy spanning over half a century of research and teaching, Professor Mayer ends the interview not wanting to speculate on what he has contributed to the field of social anthropology (‘that’s for others to do’), but knowing that his career has given him not just an interesting life but a rewarding one.

Professor Mayer’s work was recently featured in ‘The future of the rural world? Indian villages 1950-2015’ exhibition at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery.  The exhibition, curated by Professor Edward Simpson, displayed for the first time the long-term study of three Indian villages and encouraged visitors to think more broadly about the possible future of the rural world, giving an extraordinary insight into rural development in India.