PhDs of India
5 min readJun 2, 2024


“There is a general perception in society that if you are good academically, you should pursue science. I defied this norm and chose to do a BA in English from Midnapore College, West Bengal, after completing my schooling in science. It shocked my well-wishers because they felt my life was ruined since arts had no job prospects, and being an engineer instead would have given me a chance to join premier institutes like IITs.

Coincidentally, I ended up doing my PhD at IIT Bombay after having pursued English Literature in Bachelor’s and Master’s. My interest in doing a PhD peaked when I went to BHU for my Master’s. Banaras also exposed me to its rich culture and gave me avenues to explore theater and other cultural activities. I often used to say that I did everything in Banaras except my Master’s; the degree just came as a byproduct of all the other things I was actively doing. Although I had a vibrant experience in the city throughout my Master’s, in the latter part, staying outside the campus and failing to qualify the NET exam on my first attempt posed challenges. But eventually, I did qualify the exam and applied to as many places as I could for a PhD position.

Surprisingly, I had offers from IIT Madras and IISER Bhopal and was pretty content with them. I didn’t even think I would make it to IIT Bombay and wasn’t very keen to travel from Chennai to Bombay for the entrance exam. My brother convinced me to go to Bombay by booking me a flight ticket, and to my utmost happiness, I also got selected there!

I accidentally came across the field of performance studies at IIT Bombay, which piqued my interest, and I thought of pursuing a PhD in that field. Despite being curious about festivals, performances, and folklore, I wasn’t initially sure if this area could be considered a PhD topic. However, during my visit to the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore, I came across a book on the Gajan/Charak or popularly known as the hook-swinging festival of Bengal, which readily grasped my attention and made me revisit the idea of pursuing a PhD around such a topic. It was a festival that I had seen closely in my childhood and in which my grandfather used to participate!

The starting phase was challenging because I needed to gain experience in performance ethnography or area studies. Moreover, I had to conduct my fieldwork during COVID. Initially, the locals thought I was from the media and hesitated to talk to me. Gajan, being a community festival, also had community-centric rituals like inflicting pain on the body as a part of the purification process. This brought questions about acceptability, circulation, and agency amongst the people celebrating it and the researcher working on it. However, over time, I started communicating better as a researcher, and they became more welcoming. I remember a local taking me on his bike to a pujari who handed me a box of old diaries full of handwritten poems and songs, which significantly helped my dissertation.

Fortunately, I was the first scholar of my supervisor to submit the pre-synopsis of a performance studies dissertation. After my presentation, one of the faculty members started applauding by saying, “Here comes the first dissertation on performance studies from IIT Bombay”. This was the best validation of all my hard work. More so, because it made my supervisor happy, and she was the only one that day who clicked my photo during the presentation, which was very unlikely of her. It made the whole experience more emotionally enriching and academically fulfilling.

IIT Bombay also gave me the platform to nurture my love for theater. I joined the institute dramatics club and eventually became its convener. I had a thrilling experience interacting with enthusiastic engineering students and talking to them about the theoretical aspects of theater. I never felt isolated as a humanities scholar in a predominantly technological institute. Instead, I learnt a lot from them. Under the dramatics club, we built a theater simulator app to ease out the theater lighting hazards. I don’t think such an innovation would have been possible without the active help of engineering students! I also got the opportunity to kindle my love for poetry and be associated with film projects with people from the Design Department of IIT Bombay, which further added to my learning experiences.

Now that I am about to defend my thesis in a few months, I realize we give too much importance to outcomes and associate them with the idea of success. First, we must change this societal perception that art is a mere source of entertainment and not a career prospect. The funding scenario, especially for the Humanities field, is also quite dire, which makes it even harder to convince society otherwise. For a brief time, though, during COVID, the world did realize the importance of art, but the thought has diluted since then. The onus is actually on us. Humanities students should make society aware of the opportunities that lie in this field. Teaching might be the safest option, but one can explore other areas like media, film studies, and the like, and we must keep ourselves open to such opportunities. Talking about the darker side, I am skeptical about the need for a set number of publications to get a PhD degree and the recent scopus fever! PhD is heavily romanticized in India for being the highest academic degree and a criterion for a teaching job. Why do we need to publish unless we have something meaningful or new to say? It only adds to the pressure of competition, degrades the quality of our research, and piles up knowledge that serves no purpose. Nevertheless, the narrative has slowly started changing for the better. Still, we have many miles to go before we stop comparing science to arts and learn to think more interdisciplinarily.

To conclude, doing a PhD is like falling in love. You should genuinely be ready to invest your life into it and do it only if you think you can’t live without it.”

-Subhankar Dutta, PhD in Performance Studies, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay

Interviewed and written by Payel Das



PhDs of India

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