MacArthur Amrith-1

Sunil Amrith, an Indian American historian at Harvard University, was among 24 individuals honored as 2017 MacArthur "Genius" Fellows. (Infosys Science Foundation photo)

Sunil Amrith, an Indian American historian based in Cambridge, Mass., was among the latest individuals to be named MacArthur "Genius" Fellows, the foundation announced Oct. 10.

Amrith was chosen among 23 individuals across the country as well as one from Germany.

According to the foundation, Amrith was chosen for "illustrating the role of centuries of transnational migration in the present-day social and cultural dynamics of South and Southeast Asia."

"From transforming conditions for low-wage workers to identifying internet security vulnerabilities, from celebrating the African American string band tradition to designing resilient urban habitats, these new MacArthur Fellows bring their exceptional creativity to diverse people, places, and social challenges," Fellowship program managing director Cecilia Conrad said in a statement. "Their work gives us reason for optimism and inspires us all."

Amrith is a historian exploring migration in South and Southeast Asia and its role in shaping present-day social and cultural dynamics at Harvard University.

His focus on migration, rather than political forces such as colonial empires and the formation of modern nations, demonstrates that South Asia — primarily India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — and Southeast Asia — including Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore — are tied by centuries of movement of people and goods around and across the Bay of Bengal, the foundation said in his Fellowship bio.

In “Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia” and “Crossing the Bay of Bengal,” Amrith combines the theoretical frameworks of oceanic and environmental history with archival, ethnographic and visual research to chart how migration transformed individuals, families and communities, it said.

Using narratives and records left by coastal traders, merchants and migrants, he evokes the lives of ordinary Indians who made homes in new lands across the bay. Amrith's examination of the emergence of diverse, multiethnic coastal communities sheds new light on the social and political consequences of colonization, the foundation went on.

Amrith's analysis of the forces driving migration in Crossing the Bay of Bengal takes into account the ways in which climatic patterns around the bay defined the lives of migrants and coastal residents, the foundation said.

He will expand on this work in his current project on the history of environmental change in Asia, focusing particularly on the monsoon in the context of a changing climate, it added.

Amrith is leading a reorientation of South and Southeast Asian history and opening new avenues for understanding the region's place in global history.

A graduate who earned his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Cambridge, Amrith was a research fellow of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge and taught modern Asian history at Birkbeck College of the University of London prior to joining the faculty of Harvard University, where he is currently Mehra Family Professor of South Asian studies and a professor of history.

Additionally, Amrith is a director of the Harvard Center for History and Economics. His additional publications include “Decolonizing International Health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930–65” and “Sites of Asian Interaction: Ideas, Networks and Mobility.”

The Fellowship, which honors “exceptionally creative people,” comes with a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000, to be awarded over five years.

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