Past Events

“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.

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

Workshop with Professor Alicia Turner

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: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma explores concepts of sāsana, identity, and religion through a study of Buddhist lay associations. She has also 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 plebeian Asian networks at the heart Buddhist reform.

Lunch will be provided.

Please RSVP to Marielle at by 11/1 if you would like to attend.

Monday, November 4, 2019 - 12:00pm
Swift 400

TAPSA Talk: Representing and Reclaiming a Mother’s Authority in a Tibetan Female Buddhist Lineage

Peter Faggen, doctoral candidate in History of Religions, University of Chicago Divinity School

This presentation in conjunction with my current dissertation-in-progress analyzes motherhood (both the representation of and actuality) and the construction of authority for Kelzang Drolma (1936-2013) who was the sixth member of a rare Tibetan Buddhist female reincarnate lineage in the eastern Tibetan region of Amdo in Gansu, China. (There are two contiguous female lineages out of 2,000 Tibetan lineages in Tibetan history). Based on my recent fieldwork in Amdo and textual studies, I will compare representations of motherhood as a metaphor in a Buddhist and specifically Tibetan context and an actual mother’s experience to understand the high stakes of memorializing Kelzang’s life as a Buddhist exemplar in the Tibetan biographical genre of namtar. (A namtar chronicles the story of an exemplar’s enlightenment or liberation). Kelzang laicized in 1958 and became a mother of four children during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). She also married three times, endured divorce and domestic violence and a later challenge to her seat by another woman. Whereas this talk will show how an official namtar will attempt to depict Kelzang’s authority as an idealized and accepted Buddhist mother within the ruling patriarchy at Labrang Monastery in Gansu (and also within Kelzang’s family), it will focus more on how oral interviews reclaim an alternative and overlooked narrative about how Kelzang’s actual motherhood directly implicated her authority with others as a fascinating lay religious figure.

Thursday, October 31, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

TAPSA Talk: Neither ‘Slaves’ nor ‘Unfree Labor:’ The Hari Movement and the Failure of Language and Analogy

Mishal Khan, doctoral candidate in Department of Sociology, University of Chicago

How was the metaphor of “slavery” deployed by movements struggling against oppression in early twentieth-century India? In this presentation I explore this question by examining the hari movement, which emerged in the 1920s and 30s in pre-partition Sindh. The haris were a category of landless agricultural laborers who made up the majority of the agricultural work force in colonial Sindh. I first reconstruct the demands and grievances of the movement by examining pamphlets, activist writings, and official publications by leading members of the movement. Examining these sources enables us to determine how “freedom” was defined from the perspective of the haris themselves, against definitions of freedom/unfreedom imposed by colonial state actors, and landed elites. Looking at the imagery and arguments used to ground their claims, I examine several key reasons for the movement’s ultimate failure. I show why the analogy with “slavery” failed, how the haris struggled to even be considered “unfree”, and finally I demonstrate how their exploitation was denied as a labor issue at all.

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

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.

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.

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

TAPSA talk: “Indian Madrasas and Change: Evolution of the Educational System and Curriculum of the Arabic Program at Dar al-'Ulum Deoband, 1866 - the Present”

Aamir Bashir, doctoral candidate in Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago

Modern scholarship on Indian madrasas has often deemed them to be beholden to an outdated curriculum first devised in the 18th century. Despite the sweeping nature of the claim, most studies do not engage with the actual contents of the curricula, and those that do fall short of providing a historical analysis of the development of madrasa curricula in the modern period (19th century – the present). This paper seeks to fill this gap by looking at the history of education at Dār al-ʿUlūm Deoband, the oldest and the most prominent of Indian madrasas. More specifically, this article focuses on two things, the evolution of the overall educational system at Dār al-ʿUlūm Deoband, and of the curriculum of its Arabic program (darajāt-i ʿarabiyya) aka dars-i niẓāmī. Using primary sources, I describe how Dār al-ʿUlūm Deoband’s educational system has evolved over time to become a 14 – 17-year long system in which the Arabic program is now just one component. Using seven curricula dating from 1870 through 2015, I demonstrate that Deobandī madrasas have been updating their curricula regularly. However, the pace of change is much slower than what the reformers (both insiders and outsiders) call for and is limited to the ancillary sciences (ʿulūm āliya) and introductory levels of the religious sciences (ʿulūm sharʿiyya or ʿulūm ʿāliyya). Furthermore, there seems to be an almost non-existent engagement with modern knowledge. I conclude by offering some preliminary explanations for the way these curricula have evolved, mainly focusing on the colonial and post-colonial contexts of South Asia.

Thursday, October 10, 2019 - 5:00pm
Foster 103

Screening of Janani's Juliet, a film by Pankaj Rishi Kumar

Synopsis: Deeply disturbed by a spate of honor killings in India this documentary sees Indianostrum, a Pondicherry based theatre group, setting out to introspect the implications of caste, class and gender through an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What emerges in the process is a critical reflection and commentary on the contemporary world, where love struggles to survive.

About the filmmaker: After graduating from the FTII Pune, India, in 1992, with a specialization in Film Editing, Pankaj was assistant editor on Sekhar Kapur's ‘Bandit Queen.’ After editing numerous documentaries and TV serials, he made his first film, Kumar Talkies. Subsequently, Pankaj has become a one-man crew producing, directing, shooting and editing his own films under the banner of Kumar Talkies. His films have been screened at film festivals all over the world. He has won grants from Hubert Bals, IFA, Jan Vrijman, AND (Korea), Banff, Majlis, Sarai and Pankaj was awarded an Asia Society fellowship at Harvard Asia Centre (2003). He is an alumnus of Asian Film Academy (Pusan) and Berlin Talents (2016). Pankaj also curates and teaches. (

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 - 5:00pm
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.

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.

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