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Graduate awarded first-ever Merage Fellowship

June 16, 2004

Photo of Nandini ChattopadhyayNandini Chattopadhyay, who received her B.A. in anthropology from SFSU in May, is one of only fifteen 2004 graduates throughout the United States selected as the first recipients of a Merage Institute Fellowship. The $10,000 award, dedicated to "inspire new Americans to greater achievement," was established by Paul and Lilly Merage, immigrants themselves, who achieved their "American Dream."

The fellowship is the first-ever scholastic award for Chattopadhyay, the 24-year-old daughter of a software developer who was born in India but lived in Singapore and Montreal before immigrating to the U.S. almost five years ago.

"I suppose I've been an anthropologist my whole life," Chattopadhyay says. "Every time my family moved to a new country, I not only had to learn another language, I had to figure out the culture." Though her mother language is Bengali, she was schooled in English and speaks Hindi, Spanish and French. It is Portuguese, however, that figures most prominently in Chattopadhyay's future.

"Right now I know only a few words," Chattopadhyay readily admits. "The word 'samba' means 'rubbing bellies together.'" An amusing bit of trivia to most people, it is a solid starting point for Chattopadhyay. Samba originated in the "Favelas" the shanty-like towns occupied by the Afro-Brazilian people who came to Brazil as slaves in the mid-19th century. The Merage funding will allow Chattopadhyay to study the music and dance traditions of this disenfranchised community in the town of Salvador in Bahia, Brazil.

Chattopadhyay embraced the Afro-Brazilian beat when she took a Brazilian dance class in San Francisco. A dancer who has studied many traditions, Chattopadhyay has a passion for studying the "role of music and dance as a tool for empowerment." One of her first self-directed field studies was the music of the Bauls, a rejected caste in India.

Chattopadhyay plans to involve the Afro-Brazilians in Salvador in a theater/dance/music installation in their home town. Having visited the Favelas of Salvador previously she says she was inspired by how community members expressed themselves through their music and dance. While her own perspective on the culture may be evident in the piece, Chattopadhyay says she is determined to present it "through their eyes."

One of the ways she plans to approach the project is to give disposable cameras to everyone in the community, hoping that the resulting photographs portray what is important and meaningful to the participants. Adding the sound of Afro-Brazilian music to a display of the photos Chattopadhyay hopes will demonstrate the long standing traditions of this culture while showing the impact of the arts on individual lives. After a year in Bahia, Nandini hopes that her installation will remain permanent so that visitors to the region will share her discovery of the value and beauty in the Afro-Brazilian culture.

Chattopadhyay plans to apply a portion of the Merage funding to her master's degree studies. Her "American dream" is to pursue a Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology and continue to use it as a tool to empower others through their own culture and arts.

Beverly Voloshin, professor of English and faculty coordinator of academic honors and scholarships, received several excellent applications for Merage fellowships from SFSU students. She eventually submitted only three nominations. Chattopadhyay stood out throughout the process for her self-directed fieldwork among the Bauls and her ideas about the cultural distinctions and commonalities in the area of music and dance between cultures, said Voloshin.

"Although this was only the first year for applications to the Merage Fellowships," says Voloshin, "it was very competitive."

Students from Harvard/MIT, Princeton, Stanford, University of Miami, University of Chicago, University of Washington, Hunter College and the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Irvine and Los Angeles also received awards.

-- Denize Springer


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