Past Conferences and Workshops

“Resounding Islam: Occluded Muslim Histories of Modern South Indian Rāga-Based Music”

Davesh Soneji, Associate Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania

This talk examines the inaudible yet polyphonic pasts of modern South Indian rāga-based music by exploring the long and complex history of Islamic musical production in Tamil-speaking South India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It follows three genres that populate the Tamil Islamic sonic landscape: the kīrttaṉa, the patam, and the Arabic-inflected muṉājāttu, and analyzes these in relation to highly localized Tamil Ṣufi devotional cultures on the one hand, as well as formal, canonical traditions of Tamil Islamic literary production on the other. It also locates this music in the deeply intermedial world of cultural production that predates the “classicization” of popular rāga-based music in the 1920s: a world in which lyrics and paratextual materials stand out in sharp relief for their aesthetic and theological uniqueness; in which intermedial exchanges between arts like dance, music, and drama are wholly natural; and in which no sonic borrowing or repurposing is considered irreverent or uncreative. The modern Tamil theatre (known today as icai natakam), Islamic and Catholic musical forms, courtesan music, and the music of the wider para-Tamil Indian Ocean world all constituted the soundscapes of what I call “popular rāga-based music” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The focus on Tamil Islamic music in this paper also raises significant questions about the social organization of rāga-based music in South India, and also about its relationship to larger questions of religious and aesthetic pluralism in the cultural life of modern Tamilnadu. Perhaps most significantly, it forces us to reconsider the basic premises of the supercultural force represented by “classical” music in modern South India, which was molded by the politics and aesthetics of upper-caste cultural nationalism, and certainly today, thrives as the very aesthetic heart of the politics of communal majoritarianism in this region.

Dates: 
Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 5:00pm to 6:30pm
Foster 103

“Buddhists’ Contribution to South Asian Lexicography: Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan”

A talk by Lata Mahesh Deokar

Lexicography is one of the oldest traditions of language analysis in South Asia, beginning with the compilation of nighaṇṭus or “word-lists” that focused on “rare, unexplained, vague, or otherwise difficult terms” that occurred in the sacred Vedic literature. Buddhists came to play an important role in shaping traditions of lexicography throughout South Asia.

In this talk, Lata Mahesh Deokar will examine the motivation behind lexicography in India, Sri Lanka and Tibet, the relationship between lexicography and literature, and the role of religious affiliation in the lexicographical project. She will discuss a number of lexicons of Sanskrit, whose authors belonged to the three major religious traditions of India — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism — as well as lexicons of Pali and Tibetan.

This event is sponsored by the Śāstram project at the Neubauer Collegium.

Dates: 
Monday, November 4, 2019 - 5:00pm to 6:30pm
Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society

“Reconstitutions: Women’s Performance and Aestheticized Caste Politics in Urban South India”

Theater and Performance Studies Workshop by Davesh Soneji, Associate Professor, Chair of Graduate Studies, Department of South Asia Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Davesh Soneji is Associate Professor in the Department of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at the intersections of social and cultural history, religion, and anthropology. For the past two decades, he has produced research that focuses primarily on religion and the performing arts in South India, but also includes work on gender, class, caste, and colonialism. He is best known for his work on the social history of professional female artists in Tamil and Telugu-speaking South India and is author of Unfinished Gestures: Devadāsīs, Memory, and Modernity in South India (University of Chicago Press, 2012), which was awarded the 2013 Bernard S. Cohn Book Prize from The Association for Asian Studies (AAS). He is also editor of Bharatanāṭyam: A Reader (Oxford University Press, 2010; 2012) and co-editor, with Indira Viswanathan Peterson, of Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India (Oxford University Press, 2008). He is presently co-editing another volume entitled Dance and the Early South Indian Cinema (forthcoming). He is currently working a new book on the social history of “classical” (Karṇāṭak) music and musical production in South India from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.

Excerpts from Davesh’s book, Unfinished Gestures, to be read prior to the workshop are available here.

Password: unfinished

This event is free and open to the public. We are committed to making our workshop fully accessible to persons with disabilities. Please direct any questions and concerns to the workshop coordinators, Arianna Gass (ariannagass@uchicago.edu) and Eva Pensis (pensis@uchicago.edu).

Dates: 
Monday, November 4, 2019 - 5:00pm to 6:30pm
Logan 501

“Burmese Buddhist Identity, Gender and Colonial Secularism"

Alicia Turner, Associate Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies, York University

This talk charts a genealogy of Buddhist identity and religious difference in Burma and the ways it has created the preconditions of violence in the present. It seeks to bring together a practical and a theoretical problem. First, how do we understand the anti-Muslim discourse and genocide in Burma in relation to Buddhism? Second, if has Saba Mahmood has demonstrated, secularism entwines the construction of gender with the production of religious difference what happens when religion is taken not as the mechanism of women’s restriction, but as the source of their liberation? Rejecting the idea of Burmese Buddhist nationalism as irrational or excessive religiosity I interrogate the secular colonial origins of Burmese religious divisions in discourses of tolerance and freedom for women. Far from colonial secularism initiating a universal liberal framework for pluralism, such discourses instantiated religious difference as the conceptual ground for identity. My work tracks the secular construction of Buddhism as a World Religion imagined as an Asian reflection of European liberal values. Secularist colonial policies constructed Indian Muslims as the foil to the valorized liberalism of Burmese Buddhists. Burmese Buddhist and nationalist thought in the twentieth century then interwove the Indian religious other and the self-identification of Buddhism with religious tolerance and the freedom of Burmese women. It is this discourse has animated the contemporary Buddhist nationalist rhetoric arguing that because Buddhism is so tolerant it is at particular risk of being overrun by intolerant religious others. This history offers us a way of understanding the contemporary situation in Burma and suggests the equal need to consider how the same discourses shape North American popular ideas of Buddhism and scholarly research agendas.

Alicia Turner is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Humanities at York University in Toronto. An expert in Buddhism in Burma/Myanmar, she is interested in the intersections of colonialism, nationalism and secularism. Her first book Saving Buddhism: Moral Community and the Impermanence of Colonial religion explores concepts of sāsana, identity and religion through a study of Buddhist lay associations. She has co-authored The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire (Oxford 2020), which tells the story of an extraordinary Irish sailor who became a Buddhist monk and anti-colonial activist in early twentieth-century Asia in order to explore multi-ethnic plebian Asian networks at the heart Buddhist reform. She is currently working on a book, entitled Buddhism’s Plural Pasts: Religious Difference and Indifference in Colonial Burma, that explores the workings of colonial secularism through a genealogy of religious division.

Dates: 
Monday, November 4, 2019 - 4:30pm
Swift Hall Common Room

Magazines and World Literature Workshop

A workshop with Francesca Orsini (SOAS, UK), Paola Iovene (EALC), Hoyt Long (EALC) and Sascha Ebeling, of UChicago, on the theme of the magazine and world literature.
Much of the recent debate on world literature has revolved around either the curriculum and teaching of World Literature courses, anthologies, or publishers’ series (e.g. Teaching World Literature, Venkat Mani's Recoding World Literature). Yet arguably in many places and for many readers exposure to literatures from other parts of the world largely took place through magazines, and magazines were where foreign books and writers were discussed and reviewed. How is the medium part of the message in the case of the magazine: What kind of experience of world literature do magazines create? Which of the different versions of world literature - the world's classics; the best of X literature; the latest, the contemporary; of similar political affiliation - do particular magazines convey? Does their reliance on short forms (the review, the short note, occasionally the poem or the short story) and on fragmentary, serendipitous, sometimes token offerings produce a particular experience of world literature? How is such an experience different from the more systematic but abstracted ambition of the book series and the course?

In the early twentieth century, Indian periodicals presented world literature as a discovery of the plurality of the world beyond India and the British empire and a redressal of the asymmetric balance and exchange between East and West. For the 1950s and ‘60s, in the context of the Cold War, Andrew Rubin has suggested that “the accelerated transmission of essays and the short story meant that there were newly efficient ways of respatializing world literary time.” Along these lines, Elizabeth Holt has been argued that the “near-simultaneous publication of essays, interviews and sometimes stories and poems in multiple Congress [for Cultural Freedom] journals and affiliated publications engendered a global simultaneity of literary aesthetics and discourses of political freedom and commitment” (Holt). Something similar could also be said for Communist and Third world internationalist magazines like Lotus. This workshop seeks to expand our discussion on world literature to a consideration of the crucial role of magazines, and the particular configurations and experiences of world literature they produced.

Dates: 
Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 3:00pm
Foster 103

"Identity, Performance and Gender in Pakistan,” a lecture by Sheema Kermani

Through her own personal experience of creating, choreographing, and performing as a dancer and theatre practitioner on the Pakistani stage, and in the process of exploring and discovering a new Pakistani cultural identity, Sheema Kermani will try to lay out an alternate, creative narrative of seventy years of Pakistan.

As a Pakistani female, theatre practitioner, cultural activist and a practicing classical dancer, Kermani has often had to explain her choice of the form of dance that she practices. She has been accused of choosing to practice what are considered outright Hindu dance forms (Bharatanatyam and Odissi). She argues that it is impossible to compartmentalize an art form in terms of aesthetics, religious practice, physical technique, etc. This is an attempt to understand the political outcomes and constructions of national/cultural/religious belonging that are achieved through—and help produce – the construction of a new Pakistani cultural identity.

Lunch will be served.

Dates: 
Friday, October 11, 2019 - 12:30pm
Foster 103

The Committee for South Asian Foreign Language Area National Resource Center Studies, 1999-2019

A talk by Irving Birkner, former Associate Director of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies

Irving Birkner once sent a faculty member into the field with $10,000 in his sock. He offered a KitchenAid mixer as payment and figured out what to do when an alumnus was looking for a good home for their hurdy gurdy. Learned people called him "ugly Liz," "office monkey" and "the office pinata." There were tour boats full of hard drinking literature scholars, getting lost in the Pentagon parking lot, an attack by an actual monkey and lots and lots of paperwork. Also, two broken teeth. In this talk, he'll offer poorly thought out reflections about his 20 years at UChicago, the rise and durability of the administrative institution, and the place he began and ended his time at Chicago, the Committee on Southern Asian Studies. Early in his career, Birkner sought to be a diplomat, an intelligence officer or a teacher. Instead, he became a mid-level higher education bureaucrat and is very happy about that.

Dinner to be served after.

Dates: 
Monday, October 7, 2019 - 5:00pm
Classics 110

[A Talk with Ambai] Body in Living Spaces: Reading, Writing and Archiving Women

This talk will be about ways of viewing contemporary Tamil literature, the acts of reading, writing and translation and about the need to archive women's history, women's lives and women's expression. The talk will attempt to cover a wide range of experiences from the personal to the universal.

Dr. C.S. Lakshmi has been an independent researcher in Women's Studies for the last forty years. She has a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and has worked as a Research Officer in Indian Council of Historical Research and has also been a college lecturer in Delhi for two years. She received the Ford Foundation Fellowship to work on a project entitled Illustrated Social History of Women in Tamil Nadu in 1981, and in 1992 she received the Homi Bhabha Fellowship to do a project on women musicians, dancers and painters. This research work has been brought out in two volumes by Kali for Women as Singer and the Song and Mirrors and Gestures.

She writes fiction under the pseudonym Ambai in Tamil and is a well-known writer in Tamil. Her stories have been translated in five volumes entitled A Purple Sea, In a Forest, A Deer, Fish in a Dwindling Lake, A Night with a Black spider and A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge. The second book shared the Hutch-Crossword award for translated fiction in 2007. She received the Pudumaipiththan memorial lifetime achievement for her contribution to literature from the U S Tamil cultural organisation Vilakku in 2005. She was awarded the Lifetime Literary Achievement Award of Tamil Literary Garden, University of Toronto, Canada, for the year 2008. She was awarded the Kalaignyar Mu. Karunanidhi Porkizi award for fiction awarded by the Booksellers and Publishers’ Association of South India in the Chennai book fair, January 2011. The University of Madras awarded her for excellence in literature in the centenary celebrations of the International Women’s Day in March 2011.

Her non-fictional works in English include The Face Behind the Mask: Women in Tamil Literature (Vikas, New Delhi, 1984), An Idiom of Silence: An Oral History And Pictorial Study of Art, Consciousness and Women in a Series entitled Seven Seas and Seven Mountains. First volume: The Singer and the Song published by Kali for women, New Delhi, 2000, Second Volume: Mirrors and Gestures published by Kali for women, New Delhi, 2002, The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai (Ed) published by Penguin Books, 2004, Walking Erect with An Unfaltering Gaze – Autobiographical book written for the When I Was Young series of National Book Trust, 2013, Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell: Caste As Lived Experience – a collection of essays in Tamil on personal experience of caste edited by Perumal Murugan translated from Tamil published by Sage/Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2018.

She is currently the Director of SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women). She lives in Mumbai with her filmmaker friend Vishnu Mathur, who also happens to be her husband, in a small third-floor flat with a view of the sea, along with her twenty-three year old foster daughter Khintu Saud and her two brothers Krishna and Sonu who brighten up her life.

Ambai’s select short stories have been translated into Swedish (Flod, Karavan,2008)) and in French by Zulma (De haute lute, 2015)

She regularly translates poems from English and Hindi to Tamil and from Tamil to English. She has translated into English a book of more than thirty personal-experience essays on caste edited by Perumal Murugan in Tamil into English as Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell (Sage/Yoda Press, 2018). A book of poems, Fragrance of Peace by Irom Sharmila, the activist from North East, has been translated into Tamil by her and published by Kalachuvadu in 2012.

Dates: 
Monday, October 7, 2019 - 12:30pm
Foster 103

Discussion of Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times

Discussion with author Dr. Rajmohan Gandhi

Author of more than a dozen books, Rajmohan Gandhi is a historian and biographer involved also in efforts of trust-building and reconciliation.

Professor until end-2012 with the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he continues to teach as visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, and at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

From 1990 to 1992 he was a member of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian Parliament). Earlier in 1990, he led the Indian delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

In the Indian Parliament, he was convener of the all-party joint committee of both houses addressing the condition of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Associated from 1956 with Initiatives of Change (formerly known as Moral Re-Armament), Rajmohan Gandhi served as president of Initiatives of Change International for a two-year term, 2009-10.

Through writing, speaking, public interventions and dialogues he has been engaged for sixty years in efforts for reconciliation and democratic rights.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, he played a leading role in establishing Asia Plateau, the 68-acre centre of Initiatives of Change in the mountains of western India, which fosters dialogue, reconciliation and ethical governance, and is recognized on the Indian subcontinent for its ecological contribution.

During the 1975-77 Emergency in India, he was active for democratic rights personally and through his weekly journal Himmat, published in Bombay from 1964 to 1981.

India-Pakistan and Hindu-Muslim reconciliation have remained his goals. Since 9/11, he has also tried to address the divide between the West and the world of Islam.

Recent books by him include

Understanding the Founding Fathers: An Enquiry into the Indian Republic’s Beginnings (New Delhi: Aleph, 2016)
Prince of Gujarat: The Extraordinary Story of Prince Gopaldas Desai, 1887-1951 (New Delhi: Aleph, 2014); and
Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten, 1707-1947 (New Delhi: Aleph, 2013).
An earlier study, A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 & the American Civil War (published in 2009) looked at two 19th-century wars occurring in opposite parts of the world at almost the same time. A previous book by him, Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire, published in India, England, France and the USA, received the Barpujari Biennial Award from the Indian History Congress in 2007.

An earlier book, The Good Boatman: A Portrait of Gandhi, was published in 2009 in a Chinese translation in Beijing.

In 2002 he received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his Rajaji: A Life, a biography of Chakravarti Rajagopalachari.

Other books by him include Patel: A Life, a biography of Sardar Vallabhbai Patel; Revenge & Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History; Understanding the Muslim Mind; and Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns.

Before teaching at the University of Illinois, he served as Research Professor with the New Delhi think-tank, Centre for Policy Research. From 1985 to 1987, he edited the daily Indian Express in Madras (now Chennai), India.

Dates: 
Friday, May 10, 2019 - 2:00pm
Classics 110

The Modern Spirit of Asia: Comparing Indian and Chinese Spiritual Nationalism

Annual Vivekananda Lecture by Professor Peter van der Veer, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity

Peter van der Veer is Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity at Göttingen and is currently a Visiting Professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. He served as Dean of the Social Science Faculty and as Dean of the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research at Amsterdam, and as Director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam and Chairman of the Board of the International Institute for Asian Studies, both in Leiden. Van der Veer works on religion and nationalism in Asia and Europe. He published a monograph on the comparative study of religion and nationalism in India and China, entitled The Modern Spirit of Asia. The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India (Princeton University Press, 2013) Among his other major publications are Gods on Earth (LSE Monographs, 1988), Religious Nationalism (University of California Press, 1994), and Imperial Encounters (Princeton University Press, 2001). Most recently he edited the Handbook of Religion and the Asian City. Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century (University of California Press) Professor van der Veer serves on the Advisory Board of China in Comparative Perspective, Political Theology, and the Journal of Religious and Political Practice. He has just started a new journal: Cultural Diversity in China.

Dates: 
Tuesday, May 7, 2019 - 6:30pm
Social Sciences 122

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