- written by Courtney Shepard, Anthropology and South Asian Studies
When I entered UNC-Chapel Hill, I never imagined myself spending a summer in northeast India undertaking a research project. However, this unlikely possibility started to become a reality when I took courses such as Indian Colonialism and Anthropology of Development. These courses interested me to the point that I wanted to study these topics on my own time, and last year, I decided to attend UNC’s Summer in India program. My experience in India has challenged me intellectually and sparked a love for the diversity and complexity of South Asian culture.
With immense help from my academic advisor, I was able to develop a plan for my summer research. I was ecstatic to receive the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) as it allowed me to go to Shillong, India. Shillong is in the northeastern state of Meghalaya, and I quickly realized that this part of India is so different from the rest of the country. It is an area with great tribal and governmental conflict, a place that still has traces of British colonialism. The northeast is a geographically beautiful area with many waterfalls and root bridges, but is also unfortunately an area of unsafe migration and human trafficking. During my time in Shillong, I worked with an organization called Impulse Social Enterprises, which spun off from an anti-human trafficking NGO, and now aims to provide a sustainable livelihood to weavers across the northeastern states of India. My main goal was to assess the degree to which Impulse Social Enterprises creates a safe and sustainable livelihood for artisans in northeast India.
My experience was amazing in many different ways, but completely different than anything I could’ve imagined. To conduct my research, I volunteered as an intern in the main Impulse office in Shillong to learn about the background and history of the organization. I met artisans working with Impulse in the neighboring state of Assam. I stayed with a master artisan, Rekha, who taught me the basics of weaving and how to make a living off of it. I also had the privilege of meeting some local Khasi weavers in a village called Um Den who weave through a natural and environmentally sustainable process, using silk worms and natural dyes. I’ve tasted a fresh, local, and transparent food chain, and taken in the breathtaking natural wonders of northeast India. During my time in Shillong, I stayed with a host family, which was important in helping me pick up the culture and history in and around the city. I’ve befriended other volunteers and interns at the organization and made some great contacts.
This summer experience has been important as I now have some clarity on what I want to pursue in the future. The experience forced me to learn how to conduct interviews with management in an NGO setting, often with people who do not speak the same language as I do. With this research as a building block, I will continue documenting worldwide craft culture in its various forms. My ultimate aim is to capture more moments, stories, and techniques, and eventually present the beauty of environmentally compatible small-scale craft culture. The opportunity to do undergraduate research at Carolina is incredible because of the immense support the school offers to students, along with amazing opportunities for networking and chances to take on things you never thought were possible.
To read more about my experience in Shillong, please visit my personal blog at http://courtneymshepard.wordpress.com.