Earlier this year, Harvard literary scholar Homi K. Bhabha — director of the Mahindra Humanities Center — was taking his mother for an evening drive around their native Bombay. His cellphone rang: a call from a cousin famous in the family for his pranks. “Homi,” he said, “you’ve won a Padma Bhushan” — a prestigious civilian medal awarded by the Republic of India. Bhabha replied, “Go ahead. Pull the other one.”

But it was no prank. Bhabha received the medal today during a ceremony in New Delhi. He was cited for his global work in education and literature. Another awardee has connections to the University — film director (and Dudley House alumna) Mira Nair ’79. (Her films include “Monsoon Wedding,” “Vanity Fair,” and “Amelia.”)

Just over a thousand of the medals have been awarded since 1954, when the honor was instituted. “It’s such a big deal that I absolutely never — in my wildest imaginings — thought that this would come my way,” said Bhabha before making the trip, “partly since I have not even been an Indian citizen for 20 years.”

Awarding the medal to members of the Indian diaspora, “a global Indian constellation,” he said,  “shows the cosmopolitan mentality of the Indian state.”

In the rank just above the Padma Bhushan in civilian medals is the Padma Vibhushan. There have been fewer than 300 recipients in the past 58 years.

The highest civilian award in India is the Bharat Ratna, with fewer than 50 awarded in nearly six decades. Recipients include Mother Teresa (1980), Nelson Mandela (1990), and Harvard’s own Amartya Sen (1999). He is Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, professor of economics and philosophy, and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics.

For Bhabha — Harvard’s Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities — the Padma Bhushan was quite enough. “It was literally as if the ground had opened up,” he said of the surprise honor. “I didn’t have any such clue, aspiration, hope — nothing. Of course, I am deeply honored and very grateful.”

The work that earned Bhabha the medal, in part, is his passionate public defense of the humanities and liberal arts — mainstays of education that he said are increasingly under fire and underfunded all over the world. Emerging models for education relate principally to economic and technical issues, and push the humanities aside, Bhabha said. “This is very shortsighted.”

In 2010 he addressed Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research on the issue. Since December, he has delivered three keynote addresses on the imperiled humanities — two in Berlin and a third in London, to the British Council, the United Kingdom’s cultural arm. And last month Bhabha spoke about the same issue at a United Nations panel in New York.

Bhabha recapped his argument: Neglecting the humanities means losing the “humanistic sensibility” required for close reading. It means neglecting the means of judging knowledge on the basis of human values. And in an age of technologies that proliferate information, the humanities alone teach the art of interpreting that knowledge, said Bhabha — and interpretation is “the heart of humanistic thinking.”

Then comes most important point, he said: The humanities create communities — “communities of interpretation, communities of opinion, communities of thought. They are integrative. They pull things together.”

Bhabha offered an example of the integrating force of the humanities by pointing to programs at the Mahindra Center. It is “by any standard, a very modest Harvard institution,” he said, but has programs that integrate the humanities with law, medicine, ecology, and the creative arts. “The pressure of the humanities is always to move and to look outward,” said Bhabha. “They provide a matrix for thinking about civil society.”

Take that matrix away, or weaken it, and the potential of a new information age is suddenly without a means of interpreting all that information. Yes, you can call up the Encyclopaedia Britannica on your cellphone these days, said Bhabha. “But access to information is different from the intellectual labor of learning how to interpret it.”

Meanwhile, education cuts in Great Britain — where Bhabha did his graduate studies — are biting into humanities funding. And in his native India, he said, “the humanities are in real peril.” The government wants to build more than a dozen new technical universities, he said, “but technical universities are like one-crop cultivation in the colonial period. When the sugar trade fails, the entire trade goes down.”

Young students brought up with great technical skills may also end up being unemployable, he said. “They can’t even write a letter.”

In a world of speedy information retrieval, something more than data “must serve the past and the present,” said Bhabha. “It’s our obligation to the world.”

 

Wise negotiator