Interview with India Alumna Selected to Present Research at the NCUR

Nicole Petersen (Hamline University) studied on SIT’s India: National Identity and the Arts program in fall 2013. She has recently had an abstract of research she conducted while on that program selected by the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) and will be presenting at the 2014 conference in April. Below, we talk with Nicole about her research and her experiences in India.

The program's students and staff pose for a picture during their farewell banquet. Nicole is the third from the left in the back row.

The program’s students and staff pose for a picture during their farewell banquet. Nicole is the third from the left in the back row.

SIT: Why did you choose to study art in India?

Nicole Petersen: Traveling to India had been a dream of mine for many years before having the opportunity to travel there on the SIT National Identity and the Arts program in the fall of 2013. Yoga and meditation are both practices central to my life. Delving into the philosophy and history of the practices over the years naturally led to a growing desire to travel to the place in which they originated. My academic interests compounded this yearning. Within the global studies major at Hamline University, I have concentrated my studies on the religions of South Asia. India stood out to me as the birthplace of many of the religions I had been studying, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Thus, my desire to make a pilgrimage to India, a country with a history steeped in spirituality, was born.

Past travels have shaped my belief that art is a profound way to become familiarized with a foreign culture. Dance, music, and visual arts are all creative expressions which provide insights and understandings that, in many cases, cannot be accurately portrayed by text alone. Furthermore, the flexibility with which signs and symbols depicted in these art forms can be interpreted allows for each viewer to connect to them in a unique way, and to ultimately render a nuanced perspective that contributes to a greater understanding. By choosing to study art in India, I hoped to engage all of my senses as I immersed myself in this new culture.

SIT: Tell me a little about the research you did on the program.

NP: I came to the program with an interest in studying bhakti, or forms of devotion within the Hindu tradition, yet I was unsure where my focus would lie. My intention was to remain open, to allow myself to become inspired by something that I could delve into over the course of the semester.

The Hindu goddess, Kali, seemed to be a recurring image during my first few weeks in India. I saw images of the deity on the street, shrines devoted to her, and encountered books about the goddess in the library. Quickly, I became fascinated with Kali, particularly with the poems and images used in devotion to her.

For the Independent Study Project period I traveled to Kolkata, a city in West Bengal known for its prominence of goddess worship. It is here that I conducted my fieldwork, which consisted primarily of participant observation and the collection of images at a number of temples and shrines dedicated to Kali throughout the city. I also analyzed a series of works by 18th-century poet-saint, Ramprasad Sen, to supplement my research.

The result of my fieldwork and preliminary research was an analysis of Kali as a manifestation of Jung’s Great Mother archetype of the collective unconscious. I considered how, through songs and images, Kali’s apparently dualistic roles of the loving, nurturing “Good Mother” and the destructive, violent “Terrible Mother” are approached and articulated. Ultimately, I sought to uncover how devotion to the goddess through these art forms could be interpreted as a means by which to access the collective unconscious, from which archetypes arise, and to ultimately “re-enter the womb” of the Great Mother.

A view of Mussoorie at sunset from the foothills of the Himalayas

A view of Mussoorie at sunset from the foothills of the Himalayas

SIT: What was the most memorable experience you had on the program?

NP: While this past semester has been one of the most enlightening and beautiful experiences in my life, there is a particular moment which I regard as especially memorable. In October, the program took us on a ten-day excursion across northern India, during which we visited a number of India’s historical gems such as the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the temple complex in Khajuraho, among others. I was most excited, however, to travel to Varanasi, a sacred pilgrimage center on the banks of the river Ganges, which itself is considered holy by Hindus and is worshiped by many as a goddess, Ma Ganga.

At dusk, upon arriving in the city, I walked down the steps of Assi Ghat to place my feet in the water. I felt an intense connection to the soul of the city, my feet sinking into the sandy bottom of the Ganga, immersed in the holy water which millions bathe in daily to cleanse themselves of their sins. I felt rooted to this powerful place to which people travel from all over the world, in many cases to end their lives in hopes of eternal bliss. The aura of the city was overwhelming. This moment was in many ways symbolic of my personal pilgrimage to India, and one I’ll never forget.

Varanasi during a boat ride on the Ganges at dawn

Varanasi during a boat ride on the Ganges at dawn

SIT: What prompted you to submit your abstract to the NCUR?

NP: I was encouraged by my advisors at Hamline University, in addition to Mary Storm, the academic director of the program, to submit an abstract of my Independent Study Project to NCUR. Each year, Hamline funds a group of students to travel to the conference, which is a wonderful opportunity for undergraduate students to gain experience presenting research in a formal setting and to interact with students and faculty from other universities. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to share the work which I have become deeply interested in.

SIT: What excites you most about attending the NCUR?

NP: Being aware of how passionate I am about my own studies, I am most excited to listen and learn from other presenters who are equally as interested in their respective fields of study and who have immersed themselves in their own research over the past year. I look forward to innovative ideas and new perspectives, and imagine I’ll come away from the weekend feeling incredibly inspired, just as I had been after listening to the presentations of my classmates at the end of the Independent Study Project period in India.

Learn more about SIT’s India: National Identity and the Arts program.

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