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Retirement of Job Thomas Leaves Legacy of Highly Touted South Asian Studies Program

by Davidson College
Job Thomas enjoying the temple in Tamil Nadu
An ebullient Professor Job Thomas at the site of an historic Indian temple in Tamil Nadu.

Though he retires as an eminent scholar of the art of India, the legacy of Professor Job Thomas at Davidson will be most vividly recognized as the broadened world view of members of the college family who have traveled to his native land.

Thomas has published three acclaimed books about the history of Indian art, primarily in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where he was born. But at Davidson he is most widely recognized as the creator of the Semester in India program.

The value of international studies is taken for granted today. But that wasn't the case until the 1960s when President D. Grier Martin convinced the faculty that Davidson should establish a non-Western studies program. In 1968 a Blue Sky curriculum subcommittee recommended South Asia as the area of concentration because English was a predominant language there, and several professors had some expertise in the area.

Davidson's fortuitous acquaintance with Job Thomas began when the college sent a faculty group to India to help plan the program. Thomas, who grew up in Tamil Nadu with six brothers and sisters, was working as assistant curator of the National Art Gallery in Madras when the Davidson group employed him as a tour guide for their exploration.

It was just a short-term assignment, but Thomas maintained contact with his Davidson friends. He enrolled at the University of Michigan to work on his Ph.D., and Davidson invited him to spend the 1972 fall term as a visiting Fulbright professor here.

In 1979 he earned his doctorate, writing his dissertation on "Paintings in Tamil Nadu 1350-1650." Davidson offered him a position that same year as tenure-track faculty member in the history department and director of the South Asia Studies Program, and he accepted.

Thomas went right to work creating the Semester in India program, and in 1981 took the first group of students abroad. Since then the program has accommodated more than 250 students and 60 faculty and staff members.

Within a few years Thomas had established a comfortable home and point of departure in India for the program at his alma mater, Madras Christian College (MCC). Each student group now spends several weeks living on the secure 400-acre MCC campus, studying Indian culture, history and public health in a serene setting before beginning a wide-ranging tour of major cities and touristic destinations that exposes them to the colorful, raw hustle and bustle of the country.

His association with first class Indian scholars and tour guides ensures students have an academically rich and personally comfortable experience. But Thomas defers the credit, and claims that the success of the program is based on the eagerness with which students embrace India's culture. He said, "I have decided there is nothing quite as idealistic and energetic as American youth abroad. The intellectual curiosity, inner strength, physical endurance, resiliency, and the ability of these students to adjust quickly to strange environments must be seen to be believed.... They represent the best qualities of America: spirit of adventure, courage, intellectual curiosity, faith in themselves and empathy for others."

Professor Thomas enlightening the Davidson group
Professor Thomas offers insights to members of a faculty and staff group he led to India in 2005.

To strengthen South Asian Studies on campus and assure that the Semester in India continues beyond his tenure, Thomas has from the beginning recruited and trained other Davidson faculty members to lead the program. Of the 17 sessions conducted so far, he has led just five. In recent years, the program has evolved to focus study and travels on specific academic disciplines, including environment, economics and political science.

Thomas's dedication and leadership were recognized in 2007, when he received Davidson's Thomas Jefferson Award. The award citation stressed his life-long dedication to bringing two worlds and two peoples together, and building Davidson's South Asian Studies program into one of the foremost in the nation.

He has lectured about Indian politics and culture to groups in the Charlotte region, arranged for artistic troupes to dance and give concerts at Davidson, helped professors obtain Fulbright Fellowships for studies in India, and in 1987 co-organized a major "India: A Festival of Science" exhibition at Discovery Place in Charlotte.

He has also worked to the benefit of Madras Christian College. He has hosted many MCC scholars and administrators on Davidson's campus to learn about American liberal arts education. He received a Rotary grant to teach at MCC in 1997, and helped the college build its art history slide collection and obtain audiovisual equipment. One faculty and staff group he led to India established a scholarship at MCC in his honor. When the tsunami of 2004 devastated fishing villages along the Tamil Nadu coast, he organized and led a fundraising campaign in Davidson to purchase two new boats for needy fishermen.

He has published almost two-dozen newspaper columns throughout his career about great Indian personalities like Gandhi, Nehru and Mother Teresa. But his writing also includes more personal reflections. He wrote a column titled" Roommates Are Not Made in Heaven" and another on "American Youth Abroad." He wrote an open letter to his son as he entered college, and wrote about the tragedy of a local fatal school bus wreck.

His scholarship has also brought honor to Davidson and enriched the world of art. In 1998-1999 The Ford Foundation selected Davidson as the training site for 15 South Asian studies scholars from all over the country. The National Endowment of Humanities, through the American Institute of India Studies, awarded him a fellowship in "Superior Scholars/Indologists in the Humanities."

His expertise in Indian art and architecture are so respected that he was invited to deliver the 2005 Ananda Coomaraswamy Lecture in Delhi-the country's highest recognition in the field of arts. He has also written a book about bronze statues at the temple of Tiruvenkadu, which were cast using a "lost wax" method still practiced today, and a seminal work last year on the 2000-year history of painting in his home state of Tamil Nadu.

He's now writing a third book about Mahatma Gandhi, a subject he has taught regularly in seminars. Questions from students in recent years led him to investigate Gandhi's relatively unexamined youthful years in South Africa. Thomas was surprised at what his research uncovered, and believes it might be controversial. "I may have to stay away for a while!" he grinned. "It will provide a different picture of Gandhi's years in South Africa."

In the style of many traditional Indians, Thomas has been content to lead an uncomplicated life. "Home... the gym... my office... That's about it," he noted. He makes the short commute from his home in Cornelius to the college in a 1992 Geo Metro that has clocked almost 300,000 miles. The tiny, tidy vehicle would look quite at home on the roads of India. Similarly, he cuts his grass with a mower at least as old as his car. "Nowadays the rich man is one who has simple tastes!" he affirmed.

The 73-year-old has concluded that thirty-plus years of teaching at Davidson is about enough for both him and the institution. He retires in peace, assured that he has both given good service to Davidson College and been respected for his work. "This is a good time to leave," he stated. "I belong to an old, traditional school of teaching and learning. There are big changes now in the curriculum and in approaches to knowledge. Everything is interdisciplinary, and we are structuring courses differently. The changes are so dramatic that a person can become outdated pretty quickly."

He plans to complete his Gandhi book next fall, and will teach a class in spring term 2013 while the college searches for his replacement. Davidson bids him adieu with accolades for contributions that stretch from the local classroom to the other side of the world. And for thought-provoking encounters in a strange and wondrous land that will forever shape the outlook of the Davidsonians fortunate enough to have experienced India through his leadership.