Past Events

“A Brief Look at the Linguistic, Cultural, and Strategic Significance of Nuristan”

Lecture by Richard Strand, a leading scholar on the languages and societies of Nuristan, having spent over nine years as a linguistic and ethnographic researcher in eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. He has worked variously in linguistic field research, directing NGO work in Afghanistan, and consulting on Afghanistan-related questions. Since 2013 he has been retired, but continues the ongoing publication of his linguistic research, much of which appears on his website at

The remote mountainous region of Nuristan in northeastern Afghanistan is home to fifteen tribal societies that speak the five languages of the Nuristani subgroup of the Indo-Iranian languages. Richard Strand will discuss some unique linguistic features of these languages, in their historical and cultural context, with further remarks on the role the Nuristanis have played in the on-going regional conflict.

This talk is of potential interest to linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists.

Thursday, April 12, 2018 - 3:30pm
Stuart 104

TAPSA: “The Politics of Catholic Conversion and Colonialism”

Aditi Shirodkar, doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science

Beginning in 1510, Portuguese colonialists led a brutal, sweeping Christianization program throughout Goa, the capital of Portugal’s empire in Asia. In time, almost all natives in the territory converted to Catholicism. However, many natives expressed devotion far in excess of what was mandated: some sought greater immersion in theological studies and accession to the clergy, going as far as Rome when these were denied in Goa. The paper asks, therefore: How were some natives moved to convert with manifest ardor to an imposed faith? Relying upon original archival research from Goa and Rome, this paper reflects upon these questions through the lives of two native converts to Catholicism who asserted their right to preach to their fellow Goans. The paper argues that conversion to Catholicism provided Goans with a spiritual and intellectual vocabulary that was, paradoxically, empowering: a set of governing rules and ethical ideals that allowed natives to claim moral authority for themselves and question the political authority by which they were governed. It also granted them access to the Roman Catholic Church; the same autonomous body that provided the legitimizing premise for Portuguese colonialism now also provided the basis for novel challenges from the colonized. Thus, the Goan case shows how universalizing religious norms can transcend the constraining power of a repressive political order.

Thursday, April 5, 2018 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

South Asia Seminar: “The Implied Donkey: Bhakti and the Fear of the Public in Premodern India”

Christian Novetzke, Professor at South Asia Program and Comparative Religion, College of Arts and Sciences Endowed Professor, University of Washington

Before there was Marathi literature, there was a Marathi public. Perhaps slightly earlier than the advent of Marathi literary vernacularization in the 13th century, inscriptions issued in Marathi during the reign of the Yadavas from 1187 CE onwards evinced an awareness of a Marathi-speaking public as well as a particular socio-political stance toward that public. This paper traces this recognition through two sets of inscriptional material. The first involves the ubiquitous “donkey curse,” a disturbing imprecation of sexual violence usually conveyed in Sanskrit, but in Maharashtra only ever rendered in Marathi and with regularity across the political territory of the Yadavas, and then well beyond. The second set involves bhakti or devotionalism in which explicit reference is made to “the people of bhakti,” the bhaktijana, in regard to the nascent worship of Vitthal in Pandharpur. The paper argues that these two sets of inscriptions point, in their own ways, toward a Marathi public constituted by the denizens of everyday life, the janata, who are recognized, addressed, and even feared through these inscriptions. This recognition by politically powerful elites suggests the public discursive space into which the first extant works of Marathi literature would emerge—the Lilacharitra (c. 1278 CE) and the Jnaneshwari (c. 1290 CE). These works, in turn, enlivened debates in colloquial Marathi about social equity in terms of caste and gender, providing one strand of the genealogy of a nascent public sphere in premodern India.

Thursday, March 29, 2018 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

TAPSA: "Historical Perspectives on Eighteenth Century India"

A wide ranging literature on the economic history of the eighteenth century in India has cast doubt on many of the conventional explanations for the rise of British power. What then is the status of the various conventional explanations for British ascendancy and how do we make sense of them given the historical scholarship? How do these explanations fare in a broader discussion of the "divergence" between East and West? And if divergence is no longer a credible paradigm within which to understand the colonial encounter, what are some new approaches suggested by the historical literature?

Presented by Anjali Anand, doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science

Thursday, March 8, 2018 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

South Asia Graduate Student Conference: "South Asia and the Limits of Humanistic Inquiry"

Keynote Speakers: Lorraine Daston (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, The University of Chicago); Mahesh Rangarajan (Ashoka University)
"South Asia and the Limits of Humanistic Inquiry"

Humanistic inquiry has played an important role in shaping South Asia, and South Asia has played an important role in shaping humanistic inquiry. But how far back into the past and how far into the future does this hold true? The fifteenth annual South Asia Graduate Student Conference at the University of Chicago invites papers that address the limits—whether temporal, institutional or conceptual—of humanistic inquiry. The question we pose is a simple one: Why should scholarship on South Asia lead academic discussions that invest new agency in the environment and other non-human entities?

Often unacknowledged in discussions of humanistic practices, South Asia has been the site of disciplinary regimes where distinctions of the human and non-human were instituted for the first time or at an unprecedented scale. The conference hopes to foreground South Asia as the site of a double exclusion: certain practices of knowledge were excluded from scholarly inquiry at the same time as animals, mountains, rivers and other non-human agents were written out of humanistic concerns. By bringing this double exclusion into view, we can see how the limiting of inquiry and the limitations of inquiry are distinct, yet related phenomena.

Practices such as philological close-reading, the collection of big data, and ethnographic fieldwork have determined the scales and working objects of scholarship in subtle, yet powerful ways, and we solicit papers that explore the limits of such practices. How might we learn from different epistemologies of precolonial South Asia and how they divide the phenomena of the world? What can we gain by returning to moments when current divisions were not presumed to be inevitable or obvious? How have institutional changes in South Asia—whether enacted by political interests or techno-developmentalist visions—enforced disciplinary divisions and values?

These questions are urgent as South Asia today also serves as a reminder that we can no longer afford to leave the agency of nonhumans out from our analyses. Catastrophes that have been put off by massive investments in engineering projects in the Global North have a much more immediate presence in South Asia.

Organizing Committee:
Anna Lee White, Divinity School
Eric Gurevitch, South Asian Languages and Civilizations
Joya John, South Asian Languages and Civilizations
Faculty Advisor: Constantine V. Nakassis, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology

Thursday, March 1, 2018 (All day) to Friday, March 2, 2018 (All day)

South Asia Seminar: "When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics"

Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

In India, the world’s largest democracy, the symbiotic relationship between crime and politics raises complex questions. For instance, why do voters elect (and even reelect) them, to the point that a third of state and national legislators assume office with pending criminal charges? Political scientist Milan Vaishnav will discuss findings from a recent book which examines the marketplace for criminal politicians by drawing on fieldwork on the campaign trail, large surveys, and an original database on politicians’ backgrounds. The result is the first systematic study of an issue that has profound implications for democracy both with and beyond India’s borders.

Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

TAPSA: "Region, Indigeneity, Development: The Politics of Environment in the Hindi Novel"

The state of Jharkhand was constituted in 2000 after a long political struggle that highlighted regional underdevelopment and a distinct Jharkhandi culture. The political claim to statehood was also coupled with a long history of adivasi resistance to the colonial and postcolonial state. The paper looks at the Hindi fiction in the aftermath of state formation from the prism of new struggles over natural resources and infrastructural development. I discuss how contemporary Hindi writers from Jharkhand represent adivasi cosmologies and mythology as a response to widespread environmental degradation of the region.

Presented by Joya John, doctoral candidate in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations

Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

Winter Departmental Lecture Series in the Department of Comparative Literature: “Cartographies of Belonging: Embodiment and Gender in Contemporary Writing on Migration"

Nisha Kommattam, Visiting Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago

While in a sense literary texts have always been interested in questions of exile, migration and belonging, in many contemporary literary cultures writers are exploring these questions with renewed urgency. Examples reach from the ‘new migration literatures’ in Germany, France and other European countries to authors who attempt to recover forgotten histories of diversity and cross-cultural otherness in India. Drawing on the recent work of writers in English, German, Malayalam, and Spanish, in three distinct sites – India, Germany and the US – I examine how writers interrogate migration and movement through the lenses of embodiment and gender. On the basis of examples from diverse literary economies – texts such as Arundhati Roy’s new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), the provocative poetry installations of Anitha Thampi, or Yoko Tawada’s German poetry – I will argue for a critical perspective that views depictions of transgressive, gendered embodiments as rooted in the local and particular.

Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 4:30pm
Classics 110

South Asia Seminar: "Gaining a Name for Generosity: Ethics and Exemplarity in the Tales of Hatim Ta'i"

Pasha Khan, Chair in Urdu Language and Culture, Assistant Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies McGill University

The name of the pre-Islamic Arab Hātim Tā'ī has been a synonym for generosity in Islamicate texts from Andalusia to Southeast Asia, and from biographies of the Prophet Muhammad to Bollywood films. Hātim became the protagonist of tales of extreme generosity, including the 18th-century Indo-Persian Hātim-nāma, in which he gives his own flesh to creatures in need, in a manner reminiscent of the Boddhisatvas of the jātaka stories. This talk explores the economy of the "nām" (name and fame) that Hātim gains in exchange for his sometimes scarcely believable open-handedness, as articulated most strikingly by Sa'dī Shīrazī in 13th-century Iran, and echoed in the reflections on dāna (giving) in the 19th-century Hātim-nama in Braj Bhasha, written by the Sikh poet Saundhā for the ruler of Punjab, Ranjīt Singh. How has the counter-gift of the name worked to render effective the ethical exemplarity of Hātim, often in spite of his status as a non-Muslim? What might have been the limits placed upon, or the damage done to, Hātim's ethics on account of his gaining a name for his generosity?

Thursday, February 8, 2018 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

TAPSA: "Thinking about Rights in India: Life and/or Liberty"

This presentation deals with the centrality of the notion of right to life, derived from Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, in India's judicial and legislative discourse- the centrality of this proposition in thinking and doing things legally in India as evidenced by recent judgments from the triple talaq to the upholding of privacy as a fundamental right. This paper will try to explore two questions. Firstly, it will try to understand how right to life emerged as a thinkable proposition in Indian jurisprudence, how it emerged at a particular moment in post-emergency India. Secondly, it will try to understand how right to life has emerged as a more effective tool of legitimation in India and not liberty, given the fact that life and liberty are both protected under Article 21.

Presented by Sayantan Saha Roy, doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology

Thursday, February 1, 2018 - 5:00pm
Foster 103