This spring Sheri Lyles’ art was showcased at the UH Mānoa Art Gallery in the final step to receiving her MFA in May. An emeritus professor who helped her achieve this goal will not be able to attend her graduation ceremony in person although many suspect he will be there in spirit.
Dr. Jagdish Prasad Sharma
“Professor Jagdish Sharma assisted countless graduate students in his time at the UH, and his legacy lives on in the assistance the scholarship provides to new generations of graduate students in South Asian studies.
Ned Bertz, Assistant Professor of History
No doubt Jagdish Prasad Sharma had a sparkle in his eyes even growing up in a mud hut in the village of Kota in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in the 1930s. For a person from humble beginnings -- his mother was illiterate and his father was a farmer – he had unusual ideas. Ignoring the caste system, he would visit in the “untouchable quarters” to teach. His intelligence and love of learning and teaching eventually carried him from India to London to the U.S. mainland and finally Hawai‘i in 1964 where he taught at UH Mānoa for 39 years.
Early in his career as a professor of South Asian history, he was one of only three historians in the nation specializing in ancient India. He played a major role in establishing the South Asian studies program at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He chaired or sat on the committees for more than 150 students who received either a master’s or doctorate degree.
He and his wife Mimi, who is a UH Professor of Asian Studies, raised two children. When Sharma wasn’t with his family or teaching, he would often be found at a coffee shop in Mānoa “holding court,” remembers his wife. “He’d come home with stories of people he met, ranging from students to the homeless. He cared about everyone and everyone loved him.”
The Jagdish P. Sharma Memorial Scholarship
Professor Sharma continues to touch the lives of students through a scholarship that his family established with the help of many friends. Dr. Mimi Sharma says it’s a fitting tribute to her husband and a wonderful way to give back to the University that has given them so much. “He loved U of H and he LOVED to teach.”
The family wanted the scholarship to support the broad study of South Asia and its diaspora, so it is awarded to UH Mānoa graduate students who are pursuing studies about the South Asia region and its people. In the scholarship’s first three years, $30,000 has been awarded to seven graduate students in a variety of fields – dance, art, English, urban and regional planning, history, and geography.
“In addition to the large populations, growing economies, and critical strategic importance of nations in South Asia, the people of the region have contributed important ideas, philosophies, languages, and arts to the world,” said Dr. Ned Bertz. “It’s an understudied and underappreciated region in many respects, and this only heightens the importance of the Sharma scholarship.”
Q & A with Sheri Lyles: Recipient of the Jagdish P. Sharma Memorial Scholarship
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I grew up in the Midwest, raised primarily by my grandfather in St. Louis, Missouri. I had children as a teenager and left Missouri as a single mom for San Diego, California, where I did a four-year program in ultrasound. I have always been an artist but also have an interest in health and sciences and chose to work in the cardiovascular field because of my exposure to my grandfather’s cardio vascular and diabetic problems. This type of work is more reliable than the arts for a single mother.
After graduation, I moved to Arizona for employment and eventually moved to Hawaii 10 years ago because I fell in love with the land and the people here. After raising my sons I decided it was time to fulfill my dream of going to art school, so I enrolled in a watercolor class at Linekona. I loved it so much I enrolled at UH Mānoa and here I am. I’ve made a full circle from watercolor painting to oils, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, installation, performance and finally returning to water-based work for my MFA thesis work.
Can you tell us about your interest and work in South Asia?
My interest and love for India came from my studies of textiles, specifically the cotton industry and the impact of genetically engineered seeds and their accompanying chemicals on farming and farmer suicides in India. On my first journey to India I spent time working on an organic farm in the north, Dr. Vandana Shiva's conservation farm. I wanted to see what it was like and if it really works - and it does! I also learned about textiles, industrial and traditional weaving, traditional indigo dying and the effects that chemical dying has had on the health of people and natural environment in India. It has been quite profound.
When I came back to Hawaii I wondered, “Is there another way?” I returned in the summer to learn about Ayurvedic plant medicine, wanting to utilize them in textiles as healing dyes. My artwork began to refocus from pain and disconnection to healing and reconnection -- focusing on desire and a point of departure and using the discipline of painting as a method of research. My materials: turmeric, ash, India ink, castor and coconut oils, sulfur salt, and silver are inspired by Ayurvedic and Hindu concepts such as the five elements and binaries qualities that work together to re-balance what is out of balance.
How has the Sharma Scholarship helped you?
The Sharma Scholarship helped cover my tuition and expenses for my thesis work. Without it I'm not certain I would have managed to complete my thesis exhibition. One of the requirements for an MFA in the studio arts is to have a solo exhibition, which gets quite expensive. Our final year of graduate school consists of our regular class schedule, research, a thesis paper, and the creation of an entire body of artwork that expresses the concept of our thesis research. Financial assistance such as the Sharma Scholarship is a huge help that makes this all possible.
What are your future plans?
Later this year I plan to return to India to continue the projects I've begun as a graduate student. In November, I will be collaborating on a body of work with an Indian artist at a gallery in Calcutta. I will continue to build on my knowledge of Indian art and culture and share with others about the beautiful traditions and people I learn from on the two blogs that I have made at www.enlightenmeindia.blogspot.com and www.tablaproject.blogspot.com. I also want to learn the Hindi language so that I can communicate with more people while in India.
If Jagdish Sharma was still alive and you were able to meet him, what would you like to say to him or ask him?
I wish I'd had the chance to meet him. I am certain that he has blessed many lives. If I had the chance, I would love to hear his stories of India and what inspired him most in his work.
Visit www.sherilyles.com to see more of Sheri Lyles’ work.