Dr. Lalita du Perron Helps Connect Madison to India

Dr. Lalita du Perron is the associate director of the Center for South Asia and the faculty associate for the India Initiative, as well as a faculty liaison for the study abroad program in Varanasi, India. She has come to UW-Madison by way of London, with a background in South Asian Studies and Hindi. Du Perron recently traveled to India with her young son to check up on a clinic that will host UW-Madison students for a summer internship. She also met with undergrads on study abroad and co-hosted a UW-Madison alumni event in Delhi.


You recently took a trip to India. What spiked your initial interest in the country?

My initial interest in the country began with my interest in yoga. I began my training in Canada and did a follow-up trip to India. It was then that I decided to focus my Ph.D. on the lyrics of North Indian music.

You took this trip to India with your four-year-old son. What was it like traveling with a young child, to such a unique country, and what do you think will be the benefits to him being exposed to different cultures and travel at such a young age?


Son Lucas with boys in Gudiya


In Asia, most women are either seen as a second class citizen or revered as mothers. Having a child with me allowed me greater respect; I was hassled less and people were more accommodating. To have a child and be a mother, you not only gain respect, but … there is a common tie between myself and other women in the country. Also, in Asia, kids belong to everyone so there was a lot of touching. Random people on the streets and in the shops would pinch my son’s cheeks and pat his head. That is something different from the U.S., but we both respected the cultural differences.

For my son, because he’s only four, India is like Disneyland, but with cows walking in the streets, bright colors, and intense smells everywhere. It was very exciting for him.

While you were in India, who did you meet with and what did you learn from these interactions?

This semester we launched a course called “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Global Health and Disease.” Along with taking the course, the students have the opportunity to do a three week summer internship at a clinic in Bhopal. I visited a clinic to check out the facilities and say ‘hello’ to the children there.

I also attended an alumni event in Delhi. On my flight to Delhi from Varanasi, I met a man who was visiting his son, a UW-Madison graduate, so we invited them to the event. It’s great to make these serendipitous UW-Madison connections all around the world. Lastly, I am a faculty liaison for the study abroad program in Varanasi, so I stopped over there to check in with the students.

With children at sister-clinic in Bhopal


You specialize in lyrics of North Indian classical vocal music. How did you get involved with this specialty? Why do you think it is important for people to know about this type of music?

Two years after receiving my undergraduate degree and having lived all over India, I wanted to know about the music. I was searching for books on the lyrics on North Indian classical music, but couldn’t find the types that I was really interested in. I decided I’d go back to school and write my own! I did my research at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

To many Indians, Western pop and even symphonic music can sound noisy to their ears. In traditional Indian music, there is no harmony. In classical music there are just ragas, which are a series of five or more notes upon which a melody is formed. Indian music is very beautiful and the lyrics talk about culture and village life all over India.

Can you tell me about the India Initiative and what the university is doing to further its partnership with India?

The India Initiative is group of faculty who sponsor anything India- related on campus. We try to bring people together from as many disciplines as we can, who are interested in India. We want to stretch our reach to show people the opportunities that are possible working with India. Students from College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (CALS) who are interested in bacteria strains in cows are able to speak with students from the Department of Economics who are interested in the growing nominal GDP of the country. We also want to work toward getting more students to India, either on exchange or through jobs and internships.

Lalita with students in Varanasi

Also, you are a faculty liaison for the Varanasi exchange program. How did you get involved with the program?

I was asked to be a part of the program after I started work in Madison. Our students who are studying in Varanasi do an independent study with a local professor for twelve UW credits. Professor Joe Elder and I are the people a student would seek out when it came to academic matters and we review and approve their course work.

What are some unique benefits to studying abroad in India?

Studying in India will allow a student a big window into another culture. You can truly test yourself in India. It’s a manic place and takes adjusting to, but it’s such a unique country. The landscapes are always changing as you move around the country, much like the U.S., and its history goes back thousands of years and it is still completely cohesive. In India, you have a chance to learn Hindi, practice yoga, learn cricket, and eat fascinating foods. Studying abroad in India would be a transformative experience.

By Flannery Geoghegan, Division of International Studies