Another 'gem' in the string of Maitra lectures

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Nirupama Menon Rao will speak Feb. 23 about "Diplomacy and the Feminist Voice."

When Nirupama Menon Rao comes to campus next week, she will speak about “Diplomacy and the Feminist Voice,” an approach she has refined over a career of four decades in diplomacy-as India’s foreign secretary, ambassador to the United States and to China, first woman to serve as high commissioner to Sri Lanka, and spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs.

The 16th Annual Sidhartha Maitra Memorial Lecture will begin at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Colleges Nine/Ten Multi-purpose Room. Admission is free, with registration. The university will host a post-lecture reception to provide an opportunity for the audience to engage with Rao.

The Maitra lecture series, established in 2001, seeks to enrich the intellectual life of UC Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz community. The program was established and endowed by Anuradha Luther Maitra, Ph.D., who taught economics here in the 1980s and was called back to service at the university in 2000 as trustee on the UC Santa Cruz Foundation Board and in 2013 as special adviser to the chancellor for international initiatives.

As Maitra explains it, the genesis of the lecture series was a shattering grief, an attempt to keep alive the memory of her late husband, Sidhartha Maitra, a distinguished scientist and visionary entrepreneur who died in a plane crash in 2000. The inaugural speaker was author Vikram Seth, a close friend of the Maitras, who spoke of “Friendship and Poetry” and recited verse in English, Chinese, and Urdu, sprinkling in vignettes of his friendship with Sid.

Over the years, the series has evolved into a signature university event, with lectures that have addressed a wide range of topics from global warming to the cosmos, nuclear weapons and terrorism to creativity in the arts and humanities in the time of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“On surface there seems to be no connection between the subjects,” Maitra said. “But all the speakers are linked by their commitment to a broadly humanist, rationalist, modernist tradition that Sid and I both subscribed to. They have all been gems, each with its own color, faceting, and sparkle but held together by the common thread of universalism. There is no need for a mission statement—the necklace speaks for itself.”

In 2006, Nobel Prize Laureate and Harvard Professor Amartya Sen, who taught Maitra when she was a graduate student in Delhi, delivered a powerful message about “The Tyranny of Identity,” making the point that if we all recognize and amplify the multiple identities we have in today’s modern world, the chances of finding something in common with one another get wondrously multiplied.

Five years after that, Abraham Verghese of Stanford University’s School of Medicine spoke about “The Art of Medicine in the Era of Homo Technologicus,” advocating for a renewed humanism in today’s healthcare system, one that all too often focuses on the e-patient rather than the person. A year later, UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist Sandra Faber dazzled the audience with a multimedia presentation on “Modern Genesis and the Limits of Cosmic Knowledge.”

This year’s speaker, Ambassador Rao, not only has a distinguished career as a diplomat, but she is a musician and poet with a love of literature and history.

“Nirupama comes from a different intellectual tradition than Sid; she belongs to the humanities,” Maitra said. “But she arrives at the same conclusion of the way our world should work—respectful of our common humanity.”

Like almost all the speakers in this series, Rao has a long prior connection to Maitra. Rao’s husband, Sudhakar Rao, was Maitra’s classmate at the Delhi School of Economics. Maitra is now married to Professor Thomas Kailath of Stanford University, and Rao also delivered the 2014 Sarah Kailath Memorial Lecture, “Women Who Lead: Pages From an Indian Story,” as part of a series endowed at UC Berkeley by Kailath in honor of his late wife.

More information on this year’s speaker can be found at nirupamamenonrao.net.