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TAPSA: Letter writing is the mingling of souls not the drawing near of dust: Scholarly epistolography as companionship in eighteenth-century North India

Daniel Morgan, PhD Candidate in SALC, University of Chicago

Scholars of Persianate intellectual practices in early-modern South Asia generally argue that authoritative knowledge was “located primarily in persons not books” and that texts were thus transmitted in the context of oral recitals. Such transmission required the student to engage in companionship (ṣuḥbat) with a teacher to ensure correct comprehension of texts, as well as for the cultivation of suitable ethical comportment (ādāb). What such accounts disregard, however, is that letters – between scholars of equal standing, or between teachers and students – were themselves often considered to be a form of “companionship” (iṣṭiḥāb, dūstī) and could serve, therefore, as a medium for the remote transmission of authoritative knowledge and the cultivation of right action. Indeed, some letter writers refer to the superiority of the letter over physical companionship because it allowed for a meeting of souls without the intrusion of the material body.
This paper examines eighteenth-century letter-writing manuals, as well as Persian and Arabic letter collections by scholars of North India, to consider the ways in which epistolary communications served, in Deena Goodman’s memorable phrase, as “an absence made present”. The paper considers both the self-statement of eighteenth-century letter writers as well as their practices (the request and receipt of remote “authorisations” for certain textual genres, the circulation of unfinished manuscripts, and collaboration on long-distance book projects). The paper also considers the transmission of huṅdīs (financial promissory notes) within these networks, to think about how financial and scholarly “credit” was a key feature in the persistence of remote exchanges. The paper thus aims to nuance our understanding of the modalities of scholarly companionship in eighteenth century North India and thus to contribute to wider discussions of the role of epistolography and companionship in early-modern Persianate societies.

Dates: 
Thursday, February 27, 2020 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

Everyday Evasions: Space and Strategy in Sex Markets in Colonial India

Lecture by Zoya Sameen, doctoral student of History at University of Chicago, hosted by The Nicholson Center for British Studies and The Newberry Library’s British History Seminar

The historiography of prostitution in colonial India has often sidelined the routine life of sexual commerce in favor of approaching it as a site of wider transformations having to do with race, governance, and scientific discourse. This paper shifts attention toward historicizing prostitution as a set of practices and activities, and aims to present an ‘everyday’ history of prostitution in colonial India from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century (c. 1860-1911). Situated against the historical context of prostitution regulation in empire, this paper examines how various participants in sex markets (soldiers, civilian men, and prostitutes) strategized their approaches to sex-exchanges in order to evade official surveillance, police action, and compulsory registration. This paper further considers how local geographies, transport technologies, and environmental conditions altered configurations of prostitution across Indian towns and cities. Drawing on colonial records, missionary collections, and vernacular newspaper reports, this paper aims to present a history of prostitution in colonial India not as a concept or in terms of a discourse, but as an everyday practice that traces the contest between what is prescribed and what is practiced in relation to mobility, negotiation, and tactics of resistance.

Newberry Scholarly Seminars papers are pre-circulated. For a copy of the paper, email scholarlyseminars@newberry.org. Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.

Dates: 
Friday, February 28, 2020 - 3:00pm
Towners Fellows' Lounge, The Newberry Library, 60 West Walton Street

Worlds of Pleasure: Making Sense Between Place, Painting, Poetry, and Performance

Lecture by Dipti Khera, Assistant Professor of Art History, New York University, hosted by COSAS

The idea of pleasure as a pivotal tenet of ideal kingship and the practice of pleasure by courtly communities to formulate and deepen personal and political bonds gains momentum in eighteenth-century South Asia. Paintings, palaces, poetry, and performance create images of pleasures that are easily read as portraits of decadence and triviality of Indian rajas. An inquiry into the dynamic communities formed around associated spaces, images, and texts that sought to create jagvilās, a “world of pleasure,” in the renowned Jagnivas lake-palace at the Rajput court of Udaipur opens our minds to new interpretations and neglected vantage points and archives. The intertwining of pleasure and power, and of the joys of Gods and the delights of Men entices us to ask how we might constitute an art history of pleasure in South Asia. The painted worlds of complete satiation and sensorial excess—friends and frenemies bonding in peculiarly affective ways over the enjoyment of architecture, gardens, music, and food—create images of convivial parties, while shaping in subtle and direct ways courtly connoisseurs, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.

Dates: 
Wednesday, March 4, 2020 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

17th Annual South Asia Graduate Student Conference: “Reception, Tradition, and Canonization: Pasts and Presents in South Asia”

Keynote Speakers:

Rosalind O’Hanlon (University of Oxford)

Akshaya Mukul (Independent researcher and journalist)

This conference aims to examine traditions in premodern and modern South Asia and seeks to interrogate formations of knowledge about traditions through processes of transmission and canonization. A focus on canon formation – literary, religious, philosophical, and political – reveals underlying modes of thinking that inform the consolidation of traditions, and allows for a deconstruction of what comes to be understood as normative knowledge. The conference will bring together graduate students who are interested in the different life-stages of traditions and canons, and in the work of agents who participate in shaping, carrying, maintaining, and expanding them. Thus, it will participate in ongoing scholarship on the construction of South Asian traditions, identities, and communities.

Organizing Committee:
Ayelet Kotler, South Asian Languages and Civilizations
Akshara Ravishankar, South Asian Languages and Civilizations
Itamar Ramot, South Asian Languages and Civilizations
Faculty Advisor: Anand Venkatkrishnan

The full schedule can be found here.

Dates: 
Thursday, March 5, 2020 - 10:00am to Friday, March 6, 2020 - 6:00pm
Swift Common Room

In the Mood for Art and On the Margins of History in India’s Eighteenth Century

Lecture by Dipti Khera, Assistant Professor of Art History, New York University
Presented by the Department of Art History and COSAS, as part of the 2019/20 Smart Lecture series supported by the Smart Family Foundation.

The art of sensing moods mattered in precolonial South Asia. The eighteenth-century painters of Udaipur, a city of lakes in northwestern India, suggest that the moods of pleasure and prosperity mattered even more. The moods of grand-scale paintings, larger in size than manuscripts and portraits, which could be held in a single hand, emerged in the enchanting depictions of lime-washed palaces, reservoirs, temples, bazaars, and durbars. The painterly unfolding of stormy monsoons and scented springs, populated by the collectives of urbane men and women, enticed audiences to forge bonds of belonging to real locales in the present and of longing for ideal futures. These pioneering pictures sought to stir such emotions as love, awe, abundance, and wonder, emphasizing the senses, spaces, seasons, and sociability essential to the efficacy of objects and expressions of territoriality. In iterating exuberant and ephemeral atmospheres, painters viewed the moods of places as open to adaptation, admiration, and assimilation. Their memorialized moods confront the ways colonial histories have recounted Oriental decadence, shaping how a culture, art, and time are perceived.

Dates: 
Thursday, March 5, 2020 - 5:00pm
CWAC 157

The Study of Southern Asia at the University of Chicago

The University of Chicago is one of the leading centers for the study of Southern Asia. Countries in which we have scholarly expertise include in South Asia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; and in Southeast Asia, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Tibet (as an autonomous region), and Vietnam.

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