Kristin Bloomer (Chicago): Talking in Tongues and in Tamil: Alternate Voices in the Study of Religion
At least since Max Muller addressed the Royal Institution in London in 1870, the study of religion as an academic discipline in America and in Europe – including scholarship within the History of Religions School in which I have been trained – has inherited and productively deployed a self- describedly scientific approach to its subject. That is, using the term “scientific” broadly to describe the various discursive and analytical approaches through which the academic study of religion has attempted to set itself off from the religious worlds it depicts, the discipline has generally attempted to privilege neutrality, distance and reasoned argument, on the one hand, over subjectivity, proximity, and affective narrative, on the other. Approaches suspected of not being objective enough – ethnographic field accounts, feminist experimental ethnographies, and works that, using the words of their critics, indulge in “confessionalism” – are often criticized for being unacademic, or at least not academic enough. Indeed, many feminist ethnographers, historians of religion, and theologians seek authority by employing decidedly academic genres and voices. This approach bears certain fruits, to be sure.
At the same time, post-colonial, post-structural, feminist and queer theories have opened up new spaces for polyphony, subjectivity, and personal standpoint in academic writing. At least since Said’s Orientalism and a growing anxiety about the politics of ethnography in post-colonial conditions, feminist anthropologists in particular (but not exclusively) have attempted radical shifts in the way they “tell their story.” Some confine personal stories and confessional standpoints to introductions; others weave self- reflexive narrative throughout entire manuscripts. Some writers try to depict their relationships to local “informants” in great detail; others collaborate with them on the final mansucript, going so far as to share by- lines.
I would like to use this session to explore the “problem of subjectivity,” objectification, and authority in my own work in Tamil Nadu. I will “come clean” here about my own background: I was raised in Westport, Connecticut – the land of Martha Stewart, Paul Newman, and Metro-North commuters to Manhattan – in a middle-class Roman Catholic charismatic family in which praying in tongues (glossolalia), prophesyzing and ritual healing were regular practices. To me, these practices meant home. To many of my friends and neighbors, they were as foreign as a Martha-Stewart-baked- cookie to a south Indian idli. In this session, I will explore the relationship between my “academic work” of investigating Marian possession and exorcism rituals in Tamil Nadu and my background as a white, western woman who grew up in a Catholic charismatic home. Through the use of creative non-fiction, short scene, and possibly recorded sound, I will mix and engage voices from at least three worlds – the world of my childhood, the world(s) of contemporary Tamil devotional communities, and the world of the study of religion as an academic discipline.
This will be a strictly experimental session to which I particularly welcome feedback.
Elaine Fisher (Chicago): A Book with No Author: Does Mimamsa Escape the Intentional Fallacy?
After the Death of God, has scripture lost its position of authority in the postmodern world? Has the epistemic capacity of a sacred text to convey privileged information been fundamentally compromised? With these questions in mind, Francis Clooney addresses the theory of language expounded by the Mimamsa school of Indian philosophy and its role in upholding the veridicality of the Vedas as privileged textual artifacts. Clooney maintains that the Mimamsakas have developed a model of scripture that is immune to the âdeath of the authorâ because: 1) given that the Vedas have no author, the problem of reconstructing an intention prior to the text becomes irrelevant, and 2) the Vedas provide pragmatic guidelines for correct ritual performance rather than propositional knowledge about the world.
Prospects for comparative theology notwithstanding, I will contend that Mimamsa philosophy of language is not consonant with the theoretical agenda of post-structuralist literary criticism, nor does it circumvent the intentional fallacy. I suggest instead that the intentional fallacy need not apply only to the subjective mental states of a communicative agent but necessarily concerns any exegetical enterprise that situates some a priori âmeaningâ or âpurposeâ within a text. In this paper, I intend to explore how early Mimamsa generates veridical knowledge from the Vedas by presupposing some unifying intent, according to which constitutive rules of ritual practice can be differentially applied to any number of subsidiary rites within the text. On this point, Mimamsa philosophy of language contrasts sharply with post-structuralist theories of textuality, according to which meaning is continuously reshaped by discursive practice.
Xi He (Chicago): Remarks on the Linguistic Peculiarities of the Chinese versions of the Lalitavistara in Light of the Sanskrit and Tibetan Versions
This article continues the scholarship on the early transmission of Buddhist texts from India to China by analyzing philologically the two Chinese translations (dated ca.308 C.E. by Dharmaraka and 683 C.E. by Devakara respectively) of the Lalitavistara (generally dated between the first and the second century) in the light of other versions written in Sanskrit and Tibetan. The Chinese translation of Indian Buddhist texts which lasted around one thousand years starting from the first century is probably one of the most amazing examples of cross-cultural exchange considering the heterogeneous nature of the original language and the targeted language and the massiveness of the translated texts. These translated texts, especially the earlier ones, are of considerable importance for both Sinologists and Indologists on philology in both early Chinese and Indic languages and Buddhism. However, before the problems and doubts imbued with Chinese translations are scrutinized and solved any use of these texts as data for the history of philology and religion has to be cautious.
Following the method and insights of the brilliant Japanese scholar Seishi Karashima in his research on the SaddharmapuÂºÂ¹arika, I compare the readings of the Chinese translation of the Lalitavistara by DharmarakÂ¿a with its Sanskrit equivalent and the later Chinese translation of it by DevÂ¤kara with its corresponding reading of the Sanskrit version of the Lalitavistara, and therefore hope that these instances and analysis can contribute to a better understanding of characteristics of the underlying language of the Chinese translations and the transmission process of Buddhist texts from India and Middle East to China in the ancient time.
Sonam Kachru (Chicago): Till the cows come home: critics on words and their worlds in the Nirukta
This paper presents the ‘mythographic pluralism’ evident in YÄska’s Nirukta (ca. 600-500 B.C.E), a text which arguably preserves approaches to Vedic literature current from approximately 800 B.C.E. Mythographic pluralism is manifest in the Nirukta in two ways: (1) the text considers a plurality of methods used in analyzing the referentiality of content in Vedic myth and ritual, (2) YÄska does not exclusively endorse one interpretive method, despite privileging a form of analysis destined to become canonical in later ÅÄstric hermeneutic praxis. Despite groundbreaking work by Eivind Kahrs, Sheldon Pollock, Fritz Staal and Ashok Aklujkar, the fact and consequences of both types of pluralism (and its subsequent attrition) remain underappreciated.
A historically sensitive but analytically robust recognition of ‘mythographic pluralism’ holds out provocative questions for how one ought to thematize one’s approach to texts, granted two presuppositions: that ‘ways in which one understands reference to be fixed’ between word and world can constitute orientations productive of ‘cultural outlook'; that understanding the contingency of a chosen vehicle of analyzing word-world relations allows one to take responsibility for ‘cultural outlooks’ so produced. These are presuppositions to which the Nirukta is alive. Between the Vedic texts and our earliest evidence for debates as to the nature of its meaningfulness, the background presuppositions of what constitutes the shared life-world of text and critic is put into question.
Prashant Keshavmurthy (Columbia): Authorship and the Project of Literature: a Reading of Mir Hasan’s Sihr-ul Bayaan
What is literature’s mode of reference to the world? While this question appears amenable to a variety of answers, our reading practices in literature departments today, particularly in the post-colonial world, would seem to suggest a tacit consensus that historicism- the idea that thought is only ever of its world, that it can be reduced to the references to makes to its empirical origin- supplies the only responsible answer. Not that the recentness of this disciplinary privilege accorded to historicism in its many forms invalidates it but that its taken-for-grantedness keeps us from recognizing the contingency of our own reading methods; that is, it ironically keeps us from historicizing our own historicism.
That a work of literature bears and projects a world as much as it arises from one is a recognition that we first receive in Plato’s distinction between diegesis and mimesis; and receive again in the distinction that frames Gerard Gennette’s ‘Narrative Discourse’, the distinction between story and narrative; between what happened and the telling of what happened. And yet we seem to have lost sight of this recognition in our haste to identify a literary text with the world of its empirical origin.
My paper will present a reading of the masnavi Sihr-al bayaan by Mir Hasan from the 1780s. My reading of Sihr-ul bayaan will attend to disjunctures between its story and narrative in order to foreground the system of assumptions that a poet writing a masnavi made. Specifically, I will attend to the non-realist aesthetic ambitions upheld by such a work, ambitions that it shared with the masnavi in general, thus using this long narrative poem as a window on others of its genre. It’s non-realism becomes apparent in the ways in which the narrator calls attention to the space-time matrix of his act of narrating in passages that detail a conception of authorship very different from and thus lost to the post-Romantic conception of the author as sovereign subject that Maulana Shibli Numani and Muhammad Hussain Azad canonized in Urdu in the early 20th century. These passages thus correspondingly explicate an understanding of ‘fiction’ that was also lost to the Urdu literary world since its 19th century discrediting of artifice (hence “project” in my title, a term indicating deliberation or planning). However, in doing so, I will also try to understand why such a set of relations between text and world, mediated as these are by a particular logic of authorship, would be foreign to us today; why, in other words, a masnavi cannot be written today even if several of elements of its aesthetic remain current.
Dipti Khera (Columbia): Spectacle’s Nostalgia: Betwixt space and history in Udaipur
This paper engages with the question of how complex narratives of nostalgia map architecture by examining an all too familiar image of the city of Udaipur, the 16th century capital of Mewar Court. Udaipur is projected as an icon of Rajput tradition and struggle against the Mughals, as well as a picturesque and idyllic space. This urban imaginary participates and is produced by contentious assertions of history in the narratives of James Tod, progenitor of Rajasthan’s romanticized identity since the 19th century as well as in the discourse of modern architects, historians, and the contemporary heritage industry. This insistence on tradition in the city’s representation, and the modernist architect’s insistence of a spatial thematic form in Udaipur’s architecture provide a dialectical point of entry into the Mewar artist’s World in the 18th century, when the artist decisively makes the urban as the representative frame of the State’s history. Tod’s narratives of Udaipur as his preferred domestic space intersect the mapping of Udaipur as a spectacular urban space in the 18th century topographical paintings in curious ways. By a cross chronological analysis of these two tropes of urban miniaturization by Mewar artists and Tod, I suggest performing an archaeology of the image of Udaipur in order to map complex narratives of nostalgia which have rendered the city as an icon of stability.
Bertie Kibreah (Chicago): Dueling Fakirs and Phantom Shrines in Bangladesh
Boyati-s are a collective of Bangladeshi musicians who are bound by certain elements of Sufi etiquette, but also contracted performers that engage in a stylized debate competition. Known as bichar gan, these ticketed performances take place at the obscure shrines of saints whose mausoleums also serve as safe house venues unvisited by hardline Muslim groups. As a genre, bichar gan involves two performers who alternatively duel in a round of question and rebuttal sessions through song and recitative, incorporating sundry topics ranging from scriptural exegesis to quotidian wisdom. Curiously, bichar gan is thematically influenced by divergent Islamic rhetoric – from speculative medieval treatises to recent revivalist literature. In addition, the boyati and his art maintain an ambiguous relationship with the sacred space of the shrine, disconnected from pilgrimage experience or ritual, yet strongly tied to the sponsoring shrine committees who oversee program revenue. Further, though boyati-s are spiritually governed by a Sufi master, their skills in debate are developed through a special self-engagement with spiritual knowledge, through personal research involving eclectic collections of popular and obscure literature, and their own idiosyncratic interpretations of such texts. Crucial to the dramatic propulsion of the event, bichar gan debates are critiqued by an amateur audience of passers-by, emphasizing that the aesthetic charm of the musical battle is less concerned with didactic purpose, focusing instead on the flair and persuasiveness of the argument. The artistic domain of the boyati is thus shaped by the unusual structure of Sufi institutionalization and discourse in contemporary Bangladesh.
Priti Mishra (Minnesota): In search of a proper name: Naming Orissa in the early twentieth century
This paper traces the process of naming Orissa in Oriya historiography in the early twentieth century. The movement for the unification of the Oriya speaking tracts (1866-1936) was accompanied by efforts among the Oriya intelligentsia to produce a ‘historical Orissa’ that would justify their claims for amalgamation. Organizations such as the history wings of the Utkal Sahitya Samaj and the Prachi Samiti worked to produce an Oriya historical tradition that would illustrate the antiquity of Orissa.
The newly emergent practice of historiography wanted to set itself apart from alternative traditions of narrating the past—sthala purana, mahatmya, and charita literature available both in Sanskrit and Oriya. It aimed at producing histories in keeping with modern disciplinary standards of evidence and sought to convince the colonial state of the legitimacy of the unification of the Oriya speaking territories.
I use the debate sparked by R.C.Majumdar’s 1926 argument that “ the history of Orissa begins where the history of Kalinga ends” as a point of departure to investigate the stakes in appropriating particular names of ancient places such as Odradesa, Utkala, Kalinga, or Tri-Kalinga in the project of naming and producing Orissa as a historical entity. Each of these names invoked a particular community. For instance, ancient Odradesa was inhabited by Odra community who historians claimed, were the aboriginal inhabitants of the Oriya speaking tract. Utkal, historians argued was the land of the Utkalas, high caste Aryan settlers. By choosing Utkal as the normative ancient name for Orissa, Oriya nationalist historians like Jagabandhu Singh (Prachin Utkal 1929) marginalized the historical tradition of Odradesa and consequently, the aboriginal inhabitants of Orissa . This paper explores the politics of the production of a normative understanding of the demography of ancient Orissa.
I advance my arguments through a reading of relevant histories of Orissa and proceedings of the Prachi Samiti and the Utkal Sahitya Samaj.
Manjusha Nair (Rutgers): The meaning of politics: peasant-workers and the postcolonial State in contemporary Chhattisgarh
Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Chhattisgarh Liberation Front) emerged in 1977 as a trade union of the manual workers employed in the State-owned iron-ore mines in central India. The participants were predominantly peasants from the neighboring villages who arrived in the mining town during the famines of the 1960s. The union widened into a regional political front representing the peasants in the region and the unorganized workers in the postcolonial industrial cities of Bhilai and Raipur. While the union has partly been successful in the mining town in securing the interests of the workers, it failed in the industrial cities where most of the participants were expelled from the jobs. Nevertheless, the trade union exists as a cohesive force, primarily engaged in legal battles with the State.
Using ethnographic evidence gathered recently, I examine the following question in the paper: what does trade union politics mean to the participants who are situated on the borders of rural and urban India? Narrowly interpreted, it offers a space where citizenship claims against the postcolonial State can legitimately be articulated. It is additionally a means of access to food and other precarious resources. It also makes sense on ideational and moral grounds where the protest repertoire is potent with symbols of martyrdom, sacrifice and revenge. Eventually, the practice of politics is an end in itself, a collective affirmation of the otherwise disregarded presence of the participants in the postcolonial nation. I intend to capture the complex meanings of politics that emerge at the conjuncture where the postcolonial State (perceivably) retreats and indigenous and global capital makes inroads.
Siddarth Puri (UCLA): Capturing the Third Gender: Rethinking Photographs of Mona Ahmed
There are no indications of the exotic sexual lifestyle of her community. No hints of the colorful saris they wear and the jewelry that adorns their bodies. There are only black and white images of an elderly woman in her salwaar kameez posing in a range of backgrounds. These series of photographs of Mona Ahmed, a well-known New Delhi hijra, by Dayanita Singh in her book Myself Mona Ahmed lay the foundation for an emergence of a new visual culture and representation of the hijra community of India. This paper claims that through this novel rendering and humanizing of hijras, these photographs question what it means to be a hijra in contemporary northern India and specifically in Mona Ahmed’s case, how her agency within the photographs reveals her own social agenda and identity as a hijra. Hijras, widely understood as the âthird genderâ of India, have been often exoticized as sexual subalterns through the mediums of cinema and photography as they consistently focus on their sexual differences, lifestyles and rituals. While the explosion of academic work centered on this community in the last decade has shed light onto its marginality, there remains a lack of substantial amount of artistic work that does not portray the hijras as the âexoticâ sex worker or beggar on the periphery of society.
This presentation examines Singh’s photographs of Mona Ahmed through the spaces and positions she occupies in contemporary Indian society. Specifically locating the way in which the body is positioned and depicted in Singh’s photographs, the paper analyzes and deconstructs photographs of Mona Ahmed, in order to show how her body becomes a site of (re)invention and acts as a visual counterpart to the idea of the third gender or third space. Understanding these photographs in connection with the e-mail based texts written by Mona about her life helps contextualize how these photographs weave together a visual narration of her life struggles.
Sheena Raja (Columbia) and Nina Raja (Rutgers): ‘Ghosts in the Media': An Exploration of South Asians Stereotypes in American Entertainment Television
While the influence of South Asian culture is visible in the American consumer marketplace and as the diaspora continues to grow, it is unmistakable that the presence of South Asians themselves in mainstream entertainment media still remains hazy.
What the media decides to articulate is just as important as what it omits. For those who want to get to the very root of the issue, it may not be a simple and straight forward task. The media suffers from the chicken and egg syndrome. Does the mass media construct reality or does reality construct the media? In graphical video presentation (to be completed by April 2007), we will survey the overriding stereotypes of South Asians within popular television programming and study the manner in which such representation recodes cultural identity amongst the diasporic community.
Within a community controlled by dominant values, the South Asian minority subject is vulnerable to essentialism by the majority. Stereotypical images that have risen to the surface of entertainment television driven by popular demand are mainly the working-class immigrant, the exotic subject, the constitutive ‘Other’, and the model minority. Highlighting one of the most recognized South Asian figures in America, Apu Nahasapeemapetilion from âThe Simpsons,â we will analyze episodes where each of these rampant and indefatigable stereotypes is constructed. We intend to incorporate comments and observations from Dean Sreenath Sreenivasan, Dean of Students at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and founder of South Asian Journalists Association.
Finally, we will be critically examining the manner in which stereotypical media images directly influence the minority group’s identification within the cultural framework of American society. Incorporating perspectives from MTV World’s Senior Vice President, Nusrat Durrani, we will examine the images organically produced by South Asian Americans on MTV Network’s newborn channel MTV Desi. In particular, we hope to examine whether stereotypes are internalized when South Asian Americans are defining and expressing their ‘hyphenated identity’ on MTV Desi.
The video will be a combination of:
* Clips of television episodes enhanced by voice-over commentary
* Original interviews of relevant personalities in the field
* Original photography and video interstitials
Shweta Sachdeva (SOAS): Tawaif and the Ghazal: Poetry and the Writing of History
Popular memory of the tawaif is based on Mirza Ruswa’s novel, Umrao Jan, the story of the quintessential tawaif in nineteenth century Lucknow. The term ‘tawaif’ has been variously translated as a ‘dancing girl’, ‘prostitute’, ‘nautch girl’ and a ‘courtesan’. Apart from being an accomplished singer and dancer, she was known to excel in the poetic tradition of the Urdu ghazal (love lyric). Yet most contemporary studies either focus on the literary/cinematic representation of the tawaif or place her within the discourse of prostitution in colonial north India. A symbol of the nostalgic era of ‘nawabi’ etiquette, the tawaif survives in popular memory and academic discourse as a code for multiple yet romanticised images rather than as a historical being. How do we locate the tawaif as a performer and a poet? Can we trace her existence in the annals of poetry or history? Why hasn’t her poetry been part of Urdu literary histories or academic discourse? Can we use her poetry to listen to her voice in history?
Part of a wider research project on the social history of the tawaif in colonial North India, this paper attempts to answer some of these questions. Using Urdu diwans (collections of poems) and a set of tazkirahs (notebooks of poetry) found in the British Library, I try to piece together some of her literary creations. I also try to recreate the historical milieu of the Urdu poetic circles in late eighteenth and nineteenth century, wherein she performed. In this project to retrieve her identity as a historical being, I lay open the field for experts in Urdu literature to highlight the aesthetic aspect of her poetry. My attempt to glean her writings and to locate them within history is linked to the larger question of gendering literary canons. Defying chronology as a basis, the tawaif’s history seems to emerge as a ‘bricolage’ of her poetry and glimpses of her milieu as remembered by her contemporary male connoisseurs of Urdu poetry.
Benjamin Schonthal (Chicago): Symbolism and Separatism: The Case of Tamil Tiger Monuments
In recent years a number of scholars have emphasized the importance of religious ideology in motivating suicide attacks. Researchers such as Jessica Stern have argued that religion brain-washes potential suicide attackers with promises of paradise and prioritizes post-mortem rewards over this-worldly self-preservation. Yet, not all groups that carry out suicide attacks are religiously motivated. This is the dilemma the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) presents for many researchers. From its founding in 1977, the organization has maintained a âsecular, socialistâ creed. As a consequence, some scholars have described them as an exceptional case, one suggesting that in rare instances nationalism-alone can conjure religion-like sentiments necessary for producing suicide bombers.
But the LTTE are hardly a marginal case. Of the 315 suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003 that Robert Pape considers in his 2005 study, a full 76, or approximately 25%, were carried out by the LTTE. According to this calculus, the LTTE are the number one perpetrator of suicide attacks in the world. How is it, then, that contra what scholars like Stern might expect, a secular socialist group has been so devastatingly effective at motivating its soldiers to sacrifice their lives?
In this paper I argue that Instead of inducing self-sacrifice through a promise of spiritual gain, certain ‘altruistic motivators’ call suicide bombers to give their own lives by conjuring a sentiment of imminent (rather than transcendent) obligation to a political cause. In particular, I highlight one technique that the Tamil Tigers use to produce a culture of altruism and intense commitment: they have constructed, and meticulously maintained, a large network of public grave sites, war monuments and posters which aim to repeatedly foreground the prestige and heroism of the LTTE’s campaign for self-determination and to engender in viewers feelings of pride and duty .
Dwaipayan Sen (Chicago): Between ‘Hindu’ and ‘Refugee': Jogendranath Mandal and the ‘problem’ of caste in Partition-era Bengal
This paper traces a history of Jogendranath Mandal and Scheduled Caste politics during Partition-era Bengal in an effort to understand the relationship between the interstitial moment of Partition/Independence and the politics of caste. While studies on Partition/Independence have justifiably focused attention on communalism, historians have not been sensitive to articulations of caste politics and casteism with the incipient social formations (such as the nation-state and religious community) of the moment. Indeed, Jogendranath Mandal himself, the only Scheduled Caste politician to have served in governments both in pre-independent India and East Pakistan, has been ‘forgotten.’ This paper aims at filling this lacuna in South Asian historiography by contributing a history of Scheduled Caste politics in Bengal beginning at the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, through August 15, 1947, up until 1950 â the year Jogendranath Mandal resigned his position in the East Pakistan government. By tracing Mandal’s mature career, the paper also focuses attention on how the specifically minoritarian identification of Scheduled Castes was erased â by the conditions of possibility leading up to Partition/Independence, by the ‘anti-Hindu’ violence they suffered in East Pakistan (as unmarked ‘Hindus’), as well as the treatment they received at the hands of the West Bengal government upon their migration to India (as unmarked ‘refugees’). Between ‘Hindu’ and ‘refugee,’ their identification as Scheduled Caste was sublated under the weight of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Primarily archival-based, this paper draws from available government reports, legislative assembly proceedings, censuses, autobiographies, biographies, ethnographies, newspapers, novels and films on partition. It demonstrates how the Scheduled Castes of Bengal/East Pakistan/West Bengal/India were displaced from their homes in East Bengal, only to be displaced yet again by their putatively ‘own’ government to refugee camps in different states all over India. In doing so, the paper teases out the relationships between casteism, communalism, and nationalism during Partition/Independence in Bengal.
Yuthika Sharma (Columbia): Toward the Tabula Rasa: The imagination of the city and its hinterland in panoramas of Delhi
Visuals of Delhi produced between 1803-1858 highlight an emergent modality of topographical representation of the built city. Nowhere was the topographical eye more invested than in the construction of dialogue between the city and the ‘countryside’ at Delhi. Facilitated by the redistribution of muafi lands and jagirs, and the reoccupation of older Mughal and Sultanate architecture for residential and recreational use by European residents, Delhi’s hinterland gradually came to adopt a tenuous relationship to the commerce and mercantilism that thrived within its city walls. In the early decades of the 19th century these ‘environs’, denoting the stretch of land in the immediate periphery around the city walls all the way to Meerut in the northeast, came to be viewed in relationship to the urban heartland of Delhi city. These topographical imaginings of the city and its environs aspired to historical meaning obfuscating the empirical and creating a tabula rasa, from which to look at the city anew. It is this relationship between the city and the countryside that this paper wishes to explore through the medium of an emergent visuality of picturesque representation as it was manifested in literary and visual genres of the period. I argue for the instatement of the panoramic mode as a veritable architectural and topographical document and as an antithesis to the empirical surveys of Delhi’s architecture leading up to the political and urban transitions of 1857.
Anand Taneja (Columbia): Letters Copied to the Lord of the Djinns: the Texts and Contexts of Contemporary Religious Practice in a ‘Medieval’ Space
At Firoz Shah Kotla, the ruins of a fourteenth century palace complex located close to several intersections between ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Delhi, a remarkable set of practices exists. The most widespread among these is the deposition of letters, in Hindi and Urdu, addressed to the spirits known to the Islamicate world as jinns. These letters mirror the historical-legal form of the shikwa, or petition, and ask the jinn(s) to intercede with Allah on the writers’ behalf. Many of these letters, irrespective of the religious identity of the writer, have a standardized format and mode of address. Most of the letters are not handwritten, however, but photocopies of letters. Along with the letters, there are occasionally copies of photographs and missing person reports.
These modern texts deposited in the crevices of a medieval monument in the custody of the central government and addressed to invisible spirits form an alternative archive of the city. This paper will seek to closely read selected texts from this archive in the several contexts they open up. The form of the shikwa remembers alternative legal systems and remedies rendered irrelevant. The technology of the photocopy reminds us of how precious the ‘original’ document is in contemporary Delhi, where all forms of entitlement and claims are rendered fragile. The paper will seek to anchor the evolution of the specific forms and practice of these letters in the disruptive histories of violence and displacement that Delhi has undergone in the recent, and forgotten, past.
Bulbul Tiwari (Chicago): Who am I speaking with?: Reader, Audience and Others of Scholarship
Scholarly texts have a highly particular, every shrinking audience. Perhaps the least widely read work in a contemporary scholar’s life, is her dissertationâwhere in the worst case the author is the most attentive reader. I will be sharing a section from my multimedia, digital and creative dissertation and exploring issues of authorship and audience in relation to scholarly work. Is it possible to address, simultaneously and satisfactorily, both an academic and a non-academic reader? In the case of my dissertation, I have to address issues of cultural and linguistic peculiarities well. What are the pitfalls and advantages of such polyphony? Is it even possible?
This will be the first time I share my project with a public, wide audience and I look forward to the reaction, success and failure. I will introduce my project first, give a brief description of its overall structure and then screen a short of around ten minutes.