Imagining Empire: Visions of a Unified Polity in South Asia from Antiquity to the Present
Third Annual South Asia Graduate Student Conference
South Asian Languages and Civilizations
Committee on Southern Asian Studies
University of Chicago
February 24-25, 2006
Location: Swift Hall Common Room
From the ancient concept of samrajya to the Mughal notion of a Delhi-based Caliphate, to the British Raj, South Asia has been the crucible for perhaps the world’s most varied set of imperial formations. Each of these empires, in turn, has “always had some vision of the distinctly political goals of a unified polity” (to borrow Eisenstadt’s deceptively simple formulation; see his The Political System of Empires).
But what, actually, has constituted such imperial “visions” in South Asia, whether past or present? The concept of imperial vision can be conceived broadly to include myriad strategies for projecting power and unity—discursive, socio-political, architectural, cosmological, bureaucratic, symbolic, literary, aesthetic, linguistic, historiographical, or even erotic. We therefore strongly encourage students working in such fields to consider how their work might be applicable to a conversation on such expressions of the South Asian imperial imagination.
But beyond such strategies for envisioning empire, there is the related problem of what exactly the relationship is between expressions of those visions and the concrete phenomena of lived experience under the “unified polities” which they have sought to construct. How, in other words, have various South Asian empires defined themselves at various points in history, and deployed those self-definitions in an effort to unify diverse regional, religious, and linguistic constituencies within the ambit of a centrally organized, transcultural, or cosmopolitan political order? How have they re-ordered the processes of state formation along the way? How have they realigned social relations, gender relations, educational ideals, aesthetic sensibilities, and so on? And how have various groups acquiesced, thwarted, resisted, ignored, or otherwise responded to such imperial realignments?
Equally important, how have imperial agendas defined the other, the backward, the recalcitrant—i.e., the non-empire? Whether as part of military operations, political propaganda, sectarian proselytizing, or the mission civilatrice, imperial designs have always required a process of appropriating the cultural or political sovereignty of the other when possible, and demonizing the other when such appropriation proves unfeasible. All South Asian empires have responded to this challenge after their own fashion. But how, in turn, have regional powers or tribal groups responded with their own, anti- or counter-imperial visions? Where are the slippages between the poetics of imperial imaginations and the messy disorder of political realities? Are such slippages merely revealing examples of resistance, or do they actually point to the radical disintegration of any viable notion of “unified polity”?
Given the recent revival of British Empire studies, and the currency of the empire concept as a way to describe American foreign policy of late, one might also productively ask: what exactly is the relationship between earlier, imperial visions of unified polity, and that of the (post)modern, presumably secular nation-state, and the attendant liberal/financial institutions which bear up the international system of such nation-states? Is there an imperial ghost in the democratic machine, and if so, where do we locate it? Are India’s recent impulses toward religious homogeny and regional hegemony, for instance, evidence of such traces? Even if not, are there nevertheless ways in which the contemporary situation can be illumined by studies of premodern empires, and vice versa?
With these questions in mind, the goal of this conference is to initiate a dialogue across disciplines, historical periods, and language specializations, in order to extend our understanding of the South Asian imperial imagination to contexts other than the most obvious ones (such as the British, or even Mughal empires). We hope to bring together graduate students and scholars from all academic specializations in order to consider the many varied historical and cultural discourses about empire in South Asia—from Gupta inscriptions to Bollywood epics. Indeed, we are especially enthusiastic about submissions that use historical or philological insights to illuminate both the British colonial period, and the contemporary concerns of South Asia and the world community. And, while we hope to enlist the expertise of as many colleagues as possible who work on neglected time periods such as antiquity or the medieval period, or topics such as gender, sexuality, and family life (especially in premodern times) we invite graduate students working on all subjects and time periods to bring their expertise and imagination to bear on the topic of empire.
The Committee on Southern Asian Studies (COSAS)
The Norman Wait Harris Memorial Fund (Center for Int’l Studies, University of Chicago)
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