Past Events

Sixteenth Annual South Asia Graduate Student Conference: “South Asia: The Political, the Public, the Popular”

South Asia Graduate Student Conference XVI: The Political, the Public, and the Popular
For more information on the conference, including its schedule, please visit:

Fri., Mar. 8 and Sat., Mar. 9

Friday, March 8
Keynote: Ayesha Jalal, “Past Presentism: History and the Recovery of Imagination” (Swift Lecture Hall)
6:30pm — FILM SCREENING: ‘Abu’ (2017), followed by discussion with director Arshad Khan (Logan Center for the Performing Arts, Screening Room 201). A reception with appetizers and drinks will be held preceding the screening outside of Room 201 (5:30pm-6:30pm)

Saturday, March 9
Keynote: Pamela Philipose, “South Asia: Borders on Maps and Minds” (Swift Lecture Hall)
7:00 — Dinner (Logan Center for the Performing Arts, Performance Penthouse 901)

Organizing Committee:
Andrew Halladay, South Asian Languages and Civilizations; History
Titas De Sarkar, South Asian Languages and Civilizations
Zoya Sameen, History
Faculty Advisor: Laura Letinsky, Professor, Department of Visual Arts

Friday, March 8, 2019 - 9:00am to Saturday, March 9, 2019 - 9:00pm
Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall, Logan Center for Performing Arts

"Gate of India:" Early Modern Qandahar

Talk by Dr. Neelam Khoja.

Qandahar was a borderland fort-city: the eastern most frontier for the Safavids, and western most frontier for the Mughals. As such, it was a site for contestation, and it volleyed back and forth between these two empires. Qandahar was a stra­tegic city, mostly for trade, but also because it was heavily fortified and penetrating its walls was no easy feat. It was one of the leading cities for money ex­change: it housed a mint and large sums of money. For most of secondary scholarship, these facts are uncontested: Qandahar was a peripheral fort-city known for trade and exchange, which meant flush with revenues. Most secondary scholarship privileges the Safavid and Mughal empires, when reconstructing early modern history. This presentation seeks to shift the perspective: it is interested in what Qandahar meant for the Ghilzai Afghans, Nadir Shah Afshar, and Abdali Af­ghans during the long eighteenth century. In doing so, it reveals how Qandahar was the point of departure to enter Hindustani territories for Nadir Shah. For the Afghans, Qandahar was not peripheral; rather it was at the center of their power.

Dr. Neelam Khoja received her doctorate from Harvard University and holds Master's degrees in Islamic Studies from Claremont Graduate University and Harvard Divinity School. Her research brings together connective history, literature, and religion in early modern Iran and Hindustan (present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India). Her first monograph (in-progress), Known Geographies: Afghan Sovereigns, Soldiers, and Society in Eighteenth Century Iran and Hindustan, addresses questions about 18th century Afghan identity, migration, space, and sovereignty. Khoja's research has been supported by numerous grants, including Fulbright, American Institute of Pakistan Studies, American Institute of Iranian Studies, and Harvard University's South Asia Institute and Asia Center.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

The Language Disciplines: A Figure for the South Asian Humanities

Talk by Andrew Ollett, Junior Fellow, Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, PhD, Columbia University (2015)
According to an origin story that the Jain monk Jinasēna told in the ninth century, the arts and sciences began when R̥ṣabha, who would later become the first enlightened being, “taught textuality” vāṅmayam upādiśat) to his two daughters. What does it mean to “teach textuality”? Can this question help us to think about the theoretical foundations of the South Asian humanities? This talk will develop one answer to this question. According to Jinasēna, a triad of “language disciplines” — grammar, metrics, and poetics — forms the necessary point of departure for any voyage into the textual past. They are “disciplines” because we do not simply leave them behind once we have acquired the requisite linguistic skills. They are present in every act of understanding. As the eleventh-century scholar Abhinavagupta shows us, the language disciplines also suggest certain theories of understanding, in that the phenomena they track, and the categories they use, require us to conceive the process of expression, and conversely the process of interpretation, in new ways. Jinasēna shows us that “teaching textuality” means teaching the disciplines that make an understanding of the textual past possible, and
Abhinavagupta shows us how to find the theory in these disciplines.

Thursday, February 21, 2019 - 5:15pm
Foster 103

On Literary Activism, or a Philosophy of Creativity

South Asia Seminar: Amit Chaudhuri, Writer, Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia

In the last four years, a series of symposiums on "literary activism" took place in Calcutta, Delhi, and Oxford, attempting to open up a fringe space to reconsider creativity in a way that would counter both the market and academic professionalisation. The word "activism" was used semi-ironically, given that part of these symposiums' brief was to enquire into whether creative work comprises an "action" as we ordinarily understand the term. If it doesn't, what kind of "activism" did one mean? This talk will discuss the repercussions of the symposiums so far, what direction they might take in the future, and whether it's possible to rethink the history of creativity and of critique.

Thursday, February 14, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

The Politics of Pleasure: The Case of Wajid ‘Ali Shah

Natalia Di Pietrantonio completed her PhD in History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell University in 2018 and her M.A. in South Asian Studies at Columbia University in 2011. Her current book project, Erotic Visions: Poetry, Literature, and Book Arts, critically examines the binaries of sacred/profane and Hindu/Muslim that have shaped the art historical scholarship on South Asian and Islamic Art. She reevaluates representations of copulation, female nudes, and amorous couples produced in and around the Shi’a Muslim court of north India (Avadh) from 1754 to 1857 to reveal a universe of affect and relationality. Her extensive two-year archival research in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Pakistan, and India was supported by fellowships from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Institute of Indian Studies, Historians of Islamic Art Association, Society for the Humanities Research Travel Grant, and the Institute of Historical Research-Mellon. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Fellow of Art History at Scripps College, member of the Claremont Colleges.

This talk examines the ‘Ishqnama manuscript, written by the last Avadhi ruler, Wajid ‘Ali Shah, in 1849. Containing 131 short stories and 103 accompanying miniatures, the ‘Ishqnama opens with Wajid ‘Ali Shah’s first love affair, which he commences at the age of eight. Historians and litterateurs, both past and present, have decontextualized these erotic passages; and therefore they saw and read the ‘Ishqnama as merely signifying sexual decadence and as a truthful sexual biography. And yet, a close visual and textual analysis of the ‘Ishqnama manuscript in its entirety reveals a more complex work that employs these erotic and textual devices to promote Wajid ‘Ali Shah’s political legitimacy. By re-suturing image and text, pleasure can be read as productive, such that Wajid ‘Ali Shah’s efforts created an “ishq” philosophy, one that places affective relations within a specific literary and political history.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

Manifest Anxiety: Managing Religious Conversion in Early 20th Century British Malaya

TAPSA Talk: Hanisah Binte Abdullah Saini, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago

In the early decades of the 20th century, the expanding colonial administration in British Malaya provided attentive reports on cases of conversion into Islam. This was despite a longstanding policy against intruding into matters of religion and customs, which were left entirely to indigenous elites. This paper asks: Why was the colonial administration concerned about conversions into Islam, and how did this reflect the state's evolving policy on religion and customs more generally? Examining administrative memos, newspaper reports, and personal correspondences, this paper situates the colonial state’s anxiety with religious conversion against compounding stresses faced by a rapidly expanding administration.

Thursday, February 7, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103 (1130 East 59th Street)

Building Hinduism in the Land of the Khmer: From Liṅga Mountain to Prosperous Lord

Public lecture by Elizabeth A. Cecil, Assistant Professor, Religions of South & Southeast Asia, Florida State University

Elizabeth A. Cecil is a historian of South and Southeast Asian religions with Sanskrit and Hindi as her primary research languages. Her forthcoming monograph—Mapping the Pāśupata Landscape: Narrative, Place, and the Śaiva Imaginary in Early North India (Brill, 2019) — examines the intersections of religion, politics, and place-making in Early Medieval India. Focusing on the geographic expansion of a religious community called the Pāśupatas, devotees of the Hindu deity Śiva, this project uses narratives, built landscapes, inscriptions, and icons to explore religion as spatial and material practice. With her new projects, she investigates the dynamics of transregional religious networks in early South and Southeast Asia and the use of material media—ranging from monumental temples and inscribed columns to votive sculptures and pocket-sized shrines— to communicate political aspirations and religious ideologies. Her materially grounded work is supported by field research in India, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019 - 4:30pm
Swift Hall Common Room

From Weber to Varāha: Toward an Astrological Hinduism

Public Lecture by Marko Geslani, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of South Carolina

Marko Geslani is a historian of religion specializing in ritual studies and medieval Hinduism. His first book, Rites of the God-King: Śānti and Ritual Change in Early Hinduism (OUP 2018), forms a historiographic critique of Hinduism through a history of omen-appeasement (śānti) rituals, from late Vedic ritual manuals to medieval Hindu purāṇas. His current research explores the role of the astrological tradition (jyotiḥśāstra) on the problems of personhood and state formation in early Hinduism. He is also researching the recent history of Hindu studies in the North American Academy from the perspective of Asian American studies.

Monday, January 28, 2019 - 4:30pm
Swift Hall Common Room

Surā in her Cups: Writing a History of Alcohol and Drugs in Pre-modern South Asia

South Asia Seminar: James McHugh, University of Southern California, Dornsife

James McHugh discusses his book project on the history of alcohol in South Asia from the Vedas through the early second millennium CE and beyond. He will give some examples of the ways intoxicating substances are described and theorized in texts, noting the challenges of these sources. Given the immensity of this topic, what sorts of things is it possible to say about alcohol and drugs in the region when working mainly with textual sources, primarily ones in Sanskrit?

Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

Imperial Infection: An Ecological History of the Third Plague Pandemic in Bombay, India, 1880-1920

TAPSA: Emily Webster, Department of History, University of Chicago

The third plague pandemic looms large in the historiography of colonial India. This attention is warranted, given the disproportionate effects of the pandemic: out of a total of 14 million deaths from plague worldwide during this time, a suspected 12 million occurred in India - more than its region of origin - beginning with the first epidemic in Bombay in 1896. While historians have analyzed the social, political, and intellectual implications of the plague epidemic in Bombay city and in India more broadly, the complexity of plague and its vectors as an epidemiological and ecological force have yet to be explored. This talk will introduce preliminary thoughts on the historical ecology of plague in Bombay, India, from its arrival in 1896 through its eventual decline in the late 1920s. It will examine the unique features of Bombay that may have allowed for the propagation of the disease – namely, mass migration into the city to support the burgeoning cotton industry; overcrowding and unsanitary conditions; social geography; and the many urban improvement projects that may have influenced vector migration and behavior. Drawing on traditional historical data and emerging practices in science and technology studies, this talk will examine the interaction of human and nonhuman actors that allowed Yersinia pestis to take hold in Bombay.

Thursday, January 17, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103 (1130 East 59th Street)