South Asia Seminar Series

South Asia Seminar: Plotting Malaiyaham: Life and Work among Northern Hill Country Tamils in Postwar Sri Lanka

Mythri Jegathesan, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Santa Clara University

This talk is based on exploratory research conducted in two districts in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province since July 2018 and is in conversation with ethnographic fieldwork conducted over eleven years in Sri Lanka’s South-Central tea plantation sector. Nearly eleven years after the end of Sri Lanka’s twenty-six year long civil war in May 2009, Northern Hill Country Tamils—who have a shared heritage with Hill Country Tamils on the plantations but live in Northern Province—have been resettled on plots of land to which they have no deeds postwar. Intergenerational relations of labor, caste, kinship, and exchange drive practices of home-building among Tamils in the North and East, but the Government of Sri Lanka and international development organizations measure and evaluate land use and attachments with different scales of investment, productivity, and replaceability. In this postwar, militarized development context, land attachment for Northern Hill Country Tamils involves labor and social relations that reach well beyond the temporalities and mechanisms of recognition put forth by transitional justice and economic development. Katherine McKittrick writes: "What is at stake in linking a plantation past to the present? What comes of positioning the plantation as a threshold to thinking through long-standing and contemporary practices of racial violence?" (2013:4). Thinking about how plantation scholars have envisioned interdisciplinary and transregional ways to track and investigate the afterlives of the plantation, I argue that the plantation plots of Northern Hill Country Tamils are puncturing and reinscribing the more dominant narratives of postwar resettlement, reconciliation, and transitional justice in postwar Sri Lanka.

Dates: 
Thursday, February 6, 2020 - 5:00pm
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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.

Dates: 
Thursday, January 23, 2020 - 5:00pm
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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.

Dates: 
Thursday, January 9, 2020 - 5:00pm
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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.

Dates: 
Thursday, November 14, 2019 - 5:00pm
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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.

Dates: 
Thursday, November 7, 2019 - 5:00pm
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South Asia Seminar: An Evening with Anand Venkatkrishnan and Sarah P. Taylor

Join us as we kick off this quarter's TAPSAs and South Asia Seminars with a discussion led by Dr. Anand Venkatkrishnan, Assistant Professor, History of Religions, and Sarah Pierce Taylor, Assistant Professor, Literature and Visual Culture, of University of Chicago Divinity School.

Dates: 
Thursday, October 3, 2019 - 5:00pm
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Chicago Tamil Forum Keynote: “The Language of Christians and Christian-Tamil – The Peculiar Journey of the 17th century Śaivite Poet Tāyumāṉavar”

South Asia Seminar and keynote speaker for Chicago Tamil Forum: Srilata Raman, Department of Study of Religion, University of Toronto

The 19th century saw intensive missionary activity in the Tamil region of South India. Particularly enduring proved to be the work of the Scudder family, evangelical Christians preachers from the Dutch Reformed Church of North America, who lived and preached in the North Arcot area of the Madras Presidency from the early 19th – 21st century. Prominent among this family was Henry Martyn Scudder (1822-1895), a fine Tamil scholar who wrote a compilation of preaching tracts called The Bazaar Book or the Vernacular Preacher’s Companion published in 1865. This work dealt extensively with the poetry of the Śaivite poet of the 17th century, Tāyumāṉavar, whose works endured and were immensely popular as part of the oral Tamil tradition in the 19th century. The Bazaar Book sees Tāyumāṉavar as a Crupto-Christian whose religious views are nothing other than Christian truths. This paper discusses the appropriation
of Tāyumāṉavar in the context of the emergence and consolidation of Christian-Tamil as a unique form of Tamil with its own conceptual vocabulary, thus also exploring what this language and the literature that it is embedded in might say about what is to be considered “Tamil” both linguistically and culturally in the second half of the second millennium.

Dates: 
Thursday, May 23, 2019 - 5:00pm
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The People Follow the Faith of the Ruler: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Late Mughal Delhi

South Asia Seminar: Abhishek Kaicker, Department of History, UC Berkeley

A long-held preconception in the study of premodern South Asia has been that ordinary people were the passive objects of imperial sovereignty. By contrast, this talk will make the case that by the late seventeenth century, a distinct politics of the people in relation to kingship had become manifest in the cities of the Mughal empire, and particularly its capital Shahjahanabad. Such a popular politics, however, cannot come into view until we both rethink our conceptions of both sovereignty and politics before colonialism.

Dates: 
Thursday, May 16, 2019 - 5:00pm
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The People Follow the Faith of the Ruler: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Late Mughal Delhi

South Asia Seminar: Abhishek Kaicker, Department of History, UC Berkeley

A long-held preconception in the study of premodern South Asia has been that ordinary people were the passive objects of imperial sovereignty. By contrast, this talk will make the case that by the late seventeenth century, a distinct politics of the people in relation to kingship had become manifest in the cities of the Mughal empire, and particularly its capital Shahjahanabad. Such a popular politics, however, cannot come into view until we both rethink our conceptions of both sovereignty and politics before colonialism.

Dates: 
Thursday, May 16, 2019 - 5:00pm
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Technologies of Sexuality in Tibetan Buddhism

South Asia Seminar: Sarah Jacoby, Department of Religious Studies, Northwestern University

In the past year, sex abuse allegations have scandalized some of the most prominent global Tibetan Buddhist communities, raising pressing questions about the role of sexuality in Tibetan Buddhist practice. As a way of shedding light on this too often secretive subject, this talk will examine key Tibetan autobiographical narratives as lenses for better understanding how historical Tibetan figures, namely Sera Khandro Dewé Dorjé (1892-1940) and Lelung Zhedpai Dorjé (1697-1740), negotiated between the at times competing religious dictums of celibacy and ritualized forms of sexuality in Tibetan Buddhism.

Dates: 
Thursday, May 2, 2019 - 5:00pm
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