Local Hero M.C. Madhavan Shines Light on India’s Culture & Traditions
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2014 Honoree
Many of us have never been to India and chances are we never will. But it’s a country worth learning about, particularly when you consider that according to the World Economic Forum, India is expected to surpass Japan as the world’s third largest economy by 2015. What’s more, by 2030, it will supplant China as the country with the largest population.
Professor Emeritus of Economics and Asian Studies, M.C. Madhavan (pronounced MAH-dah-vahn) has spent much of his career promoting India’s culture, traditions and vibrant history. As the founding chairman of the Asian and Pacific Studies department at San Diego State University (SDSU), he is honored this month as a 2014 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero.
Madhavan—or “Madhu,” as he is also known—appears younger than his 81 years. A thoughtful man, he has a deep, robust laugh that charms, even while ticking off some facts about his native country and its connection to the United States.
“The relationship between India and the United States goes way, way back to 1791 when George Washington realized the importance of India and became the first to appoint an American Consul to Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta),” Madhavan states. “It was the only appointment made to any Asian country. Today, the Indian population in the U.S. is about 3.5 million. Out of these, approximately 20,000 live in San Diego. Most of them are highly technical, scientific people. Two thirds have a bachelor’s degree and 49% have an advanced degree. That’s astounding, is it not?”
Madhavan, who arrived in the United States in 1960, has had a career spanning over five decades. In 1963, he became the first from India to join the Young Professional program of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. The accolades bestowed upon him since have been numerous. Chief among them are an astounding five Fulbright Awards. He’s also been awarded the GKI Community Builder’s Prize, the Honored American Award from Americans By Choice, and he was selected as SDSU's most influential professor of Economics and Asian Studies. His accomplishments are just as impressive—from chairing the United Nations Development Program’s mission to India to serving as a member of the World Bank missions to Greece and Iraq.
“For almost 60 years of my professional life,” he notes, “I have had the pleasure and privilege of helping students achieve their educational objectives in many Asian countries and the United States, and in the process, I have been able to contribute to a greater understanding of Indian culture, arts and society, while increasing harmonious development of communities.”
In 2009, now retired, Madhavan launched an India Study Abroad program.
“I wanted to do something that could help SDSU students understand and appreciate India better,” he explains. “As director of the Center for Asian Studies for nearly 10 years and the first chair of the Asian Studies department, I was aware of multiple courses on India offered at the university, but when those faculty members retired, there was no course available. Since I had already retired the only option available to me was to offer an India Study Abroad program through the College of Extended Studies.”
With plans already underway for 2015, Madhavan says the study abroad program has proven a success. A testament to this is the response he’s received from students who’ve been through the program.
“Almost all the students have had memorable, fruitful experiences,” he says. “Ryan Fowler, a Quest for the Best Award recipient in 2011, honored me as the person who made a significant contribution towards his achievement as an SDSU student. Another, Lashane Johnson, has received a Fulbright teaching award to go to India this year.”
In 1984, Madhavan created the Mahatma Gandhi scholarship program for high school students, offered through the San Diego Indian American Society (SDIAS), an organization he founded in order to implement health and education projects both in India and San Diego.
“The scholarship program provides an opportunity to San Diego area high school seniors to explore Gandhi’s contribution to humankind and the effectiveness of non-violence in settling disputes,” explains Madhavan. “We have recognized over 500 people with Mahatma Gandhi scholar awards and another 70 through AVID scholarship awards. We also organize lectures and symposia on U.S-India relations, Indian society and entrepreneurship.” l
Madhavan also convenes an annual Mahatma Gandhi Memorial lecture he started over 25 years ago, when he called on his good friend, Dr. Jonas Salk to deliver the first lecture. One of the highlights he says was having two of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandsons, Arun Gandhi and Raj Mohan Gandhi, participate in the Silver Jubiliee celebration of the lectures.
“When Gandhi’s grandsons came, it was the first time the two had ever appeared on the same stage, and it was indeed a sight for many of us to see," he recalls.
“One of the objectives of SDIAS is to share India’s culture and traditions with our brothers and sisters in San Diego, through events such as Unity in Diversity, in partnership with the Poway Performing Arts Center, and Diwali, Festival of Lights, held in Balboa Park every October. The next Diwali, Festival of Lights will be held on October 18, 2014. What makes it unique is the exhibition of replicas of ancient lamps representing different regions and eras. We light 1,008 small lamps that are displayed in a procession. It is a beautiful sight to see!”
Madhavan, married to wife, Nacha, with two sons and two grandchildren, was born in India, in the southern town of Kandaramanickam to a family in the banking profession. He credits his mother with his motivation to enlighten.
“My mother derived her happiness by helping others,” he says. “We also learn from Bhagavad Gita that one must do his or her duty as long as possible without expecting anything in return. My motto has always been to derive my happiness by seeing the joy in others through my actions. Helping, without expecting anything in return, is the best way to avoid disappointments in life and be happy.”