Past Events

TAPSA: Mai Misra, Multivalence and Materiality in the Sidi (African-Indian) Sufi Tradition

Jazmin Graves, doctoral candidate in South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago

This presentation explores multivalent conceptions of the African Sufi saints honored in Gujarat and Maharashtra in order to analyze the veneration of Mai Misra in the Sidi Sufi tradition. While select rituals historically and contemporarily provide continuity between disjointed waves of the African diaspora in India, the material culture surrounding Mai Misra’s veneration highlights processes of accommodation by which displaced Africans - particularly women - assimilated into new locales in nineteenth century Gujarat.

Thursday, January 30, 2020 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

South Asia Seminar: “After the "Unthinkable": Cheran's Poetry”

South Asia Seminar: Anushiya Ramaswamy, Professor of English, Department of English Language and Literature, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

“After the "Unthinkable": Cheran's Poetry”

This is part of the introduction to the forthcoming translation of Cheran's poetry written in the aftermath of the May 18, 2009 massacre of Sri Lankan Tamils by the State's armed forces at Mullivaikal. Cheran's poems and other writings -- on grief, love, land and exile -- are made in the midst of unimaginable state-sponsored violence against minority bodies. I provide a historiographical background in terms of the various discourses that were coming into prominence in the 1960's and '70's as he came of age -- for instance, a narrowing post-independence nationalism , a thriving literary Saivism, and through it all, the steady rise of state power and its attendant resistances.

Thursday, January 23, 2020 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

South Asia Seminar: Making a World with a Word: Language, Intimacy, and Ethicality among Thirunangai Transgender Women in Chennai, India

Aniruddhan Vasudevan, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin

The Tamil word ‘Thirunangai’ is currently the most preferred and widely used identity label among transgender women in Chennai. Free of pejorative meanings, indexing linguistic and cultural specificity, eschewing religious connotations, and commanding juridical recognition, ‘Thirunangai’ has had a remarkable uptake as a label of collective self-representation over just the past decade. One of the many pejorative Tamil words that predates such positive linguistic assertion of Tamil trans women’s identity is ‘pottai.’ At once misogynist, transphobic, and homophobic in its wider social uses, the word ‘pottai’ figures in many trans and queer self-narratives as a term of abuse but also occasionally as one of endearment in intragroup contexts.

While several other earlier terms have fallen out of circulation, ‘pottai’ is still used by members of the thirunangai community in ways that rely heavily on contexts of use for its meaning and felicity. In addition to being a term of everyday mutual reference and endearment among thirunangais, the word ‘pottai’ also serves to include within its referential ambit a wider range of feminine comportments than the ones circumscribed by thirunangai identity. However, as I hope to demonstrate in this talk through a series of ethnographic encounters, ‘pottai’ does more than just the work of gendering. It indexes moral personhood; it says something about the kinds of good life one can aspire for; it hints at certain horizons of freedom vis-à-vis normative desires; and it carries the performative force to facilitate new intimacies, expanding the field of relationality and relatability beyond the boundaries of identity. Through a careful attention to the contextual and ethical valences of the word ‘pottai,’ this talk will explore forms of sociality and intimacy that are considered meaningful in the thirunangai lifeworld. The talk will also touch upon a figure that illuminates from the background the work the word ‘pottai’ does: saamippottai, the thirunangai who is devoted to a deity, usually a goddess.

Thursday, January 9, 2020 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

TAPSA talk: “Testing Satsang: Standardized Testing and Transnational Organizing in Swaminarayan Hinduism”

Andrew Kunze, doctoral candidate in Divinity School, University of Chicago

In recent decades, some guru-led bhakti movements have instituted standardized testing for their devotees, which recasts test-taking as a devotional exercise, regularizes theological knowledge across the transnational organization, and trains new volunteers to support their growing Hindu community (satsang). One Swaminarayan Hindu organization, known as BAPS (Bochasanwasi Sri Akshar-Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha), established its own standardized tests, called “Satsang Exams,” in 1972. Since then, Satsang Exams have become a massive annual event, and BAPS has become one of the largest Hindu organizations in the diaspora. The guru of BAPS, Mahant Swami Maharaj, encourages devotees to participate, famously saying “The fruit of Satsang Exams is Akshardham” [the abode of God]. And in 2017, for example, the BAPS Exam Department in Ahmedabad, Gujarat processed over 48,000 exam papers in Gujarati, Hindi, and English, submitted from 515 BAPS testing centers in India and 172 centers abroad. Drawing from historical and ethnographic research among Swaminarayan test-takers and administrators, this presentation will explore the devotional motivations and organizational benefits that make standardized testing so popular in transnational Hinduism.

Thursday, December 5, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

“The Hidden Histories of South Asian Chicago”

A fundraising event to support the South Asian American Digital Archive

Celebrating 140 years of South Asian American history and the hidden stories of South Asians in Chicago.

A fundraising event to support the South Asian American Digital Archive Thursday, November 21 @ 6:30pm at The Newberry Library in Chicago Featuring: • Welcome remarks by board members and notable community members • Presentation by Samip Mallick, SAADA's Executive Director • Storytelling by members of the South Asian American community • Performance by Boston-based song-maker, Anju • Hors d'oeuvres and wine & beer bar included in admission Made possible with support from our sponsors: Champions: Helix Hospitality Sustainers: South Asia Institute, SwagatUSA, Sheraton Grand Chicago Supporters: Single to Shaadi, Warrier Strategy

Learn about sponsorship opportunities by emailing us at

Buy tickets here:

Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 6:30pm
The Newberry Library in Chicago

South Asia Seminar: Brahmins Tryst With Brahminism

Suraj Yengde, Shorenstein Center Post-Doctoral Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School

Can Brahmins participate in the anti-caste struggle? Has there been any history of Brahmins taking upon the Brahmin community to fight bigotry and oppression? History is laden with such examples albeit miniscule.

Brahmins in the caste system enjoy unaccountable privilege and control over the 'lower' declared bodies. Due to their absolute command on power distribution and control, Brahmins become default power-brokers who negotiate unequal relations to their advantage. This can be seen with the overwhelming representation of Brahmins in all the positions of power in India. Be it politics, media, bureaucracy, judiciary and religious institutions, Brahmins continue to remain key players.

This definite control on the resources give the minority Brahmin community an added advantage to reproduce oppressions on each level of operation. In the gamut of anti-caste struggle, Dalit discourse is prominently targeted against Brahminical values of the Brahmin community. This remained a remarkable success of the Brahminical project in India. However, there were few notable exceptions among Brahmins who defied the regularity of Brahminness and instead took intellectual arms against fellow orthodox Brahmins who wanted to reproduce caste oppressions. In this talk we will deal with the questions of right to agency among the oppressors to engage with unequal sociological relations of oppression by looking at Brahmins participation in the anti-caste struggle.

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

South Asia Seminar: 'We Were Always Buddhist:’ Dalit Historiography and the Temporality of Caste

Lucinda Ramberg, Professor in Anthropology, Cornell University

In 1956 anti-caste philosopher and statesman Dr. B.R. Ambedkar called upon his followers to convert to Buddhism as the equalitarian religion of the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. Drawing on ethnographic research, I reflect on the relationship present day Ambedkarites have to the history of ancient Buddhism. I elaborate the implications of statements by Ambedkarite Buddhists such as “we are remembering who we are” and we are reclaiming “our forbidden history” for the temporality of caste in relation to the politics of archaeology, gender, and history.

Thursday, November 7, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

“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.

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.

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 ( and Eva Pensis (

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