South Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
Feburary 26, 200

Abstracts of Papers

Manan Ahmed, Orientalism in the Local: The Case of Sindhi Nationalism.

This paper examines the role played by c. 19th Orientalist histories in creating the ideal past of a Sindhi people within the British Empire. The translations by Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779-1859) and H. M. Elliot (1808-1853) of regional Sindhi histories generated an interest in Sindhi authors like H. M. Daudpota to rewrite the history of Sindh separate from history of Muslims in India. Further, the romantic travelogues of Richard Burton idealized the history of a unique nation of people. The interest in regional histories fueled by translations into Sindhi, through the English, from Persian and Arabic gave rise to Sindhi nationalist calls soon after Partition by politicians such as G. M. Sayeed.

I look at key moments in this textual history by focusing on the works of Orientalists such as Elliot, Burton and Lambrick as well as Sindhi nationalists Daudpota and G.M. Sayeed. I argue that while the Orientalist historian's complicity with the British Empire has attracted deserved attention, the impact of their work on local, regional populations has been largely ignored. As the Oriental histories "recovered" local histories from Persian and Arabic; the regional histories used them to launch a counter-attack on the nationalist program.

Ovamir Anjum, Tradition and Modernity in the Interpretations of Islam:

Amidst the continuing debates between orientalists and anti-orientalists about how to conceptualize Islam as an object of scholarly enquiry, one proposal that stands out is Talal Asad idea of interpreting Islam as a ‘discursive tradition.’ Rather than tradition understood in opposition to modernity, Asad has argued that it is more accurately construed as a “historically extended argument.” In a fateful inversion, then, modernity itself becomes a tradition rather than a universal condition brought on by the ultimate triumph of reason. Some emerging scholars have enthusiastically greeted this idea and are beginning to pay close attention to the Islamic discourses in attempting to understand Muslim societies and their encounter with modernity.

No one however seems to have critically addressed the central concept of tradition itself and explored the possibilities and difficulties inherent in its use. Particularly in the context of studying contemporary Islamism, the concept of a discursive tradition can be a powerful tool that may allow us to understand and possibly resolve the heated debates about continuities and ruptures between contemporary Islamism and the ‘true Islam.’ The issues of multiplicity and transformations within traditions and translations of traditions (as in studying the Islamic tradition from the Western one) in relation to contemporary Islam can be explored only by looking more closely at the concept of discursive traditions.

Recognizing that Asad has built on and reworked Alasdair MacIntyre’s idea of tradition as a pre-requisite and necessity condition for rational moral enquiry, I seek to evoke MacIntyre’s formulations and rework his concepts such as translations and epistemological crisis in an Asadian fashion in the context of relationships between Islam, contemporary Islamism and the West. This may, I propose, help us ask and better understand the following set of related questions: Can Islamism be considered a legitimate continuation of the Islamic tradition? Is the Islamic tradition undergoing an epistemological crisis in MacIntyrian sense? May the various contemporary movements be seen and evaluated as responses? Can this concept of discursive tradition help us understand the problem of “Islam” versus “islams”?

Ben Baer, Peasant Machine: Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay and the Uncanny

Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay’s novel Hansuli Banker Upakatha (Tale of Hansuli Turn) was written and published between 1946 and 1951. It is one of the central works of modern Bengali literature. The novel is usually taken as an allegory of the transition from tradition to modernity, thematically articulated by the transformation undergone by a marginalized, untouchable, semi-aboriginal peasant community (the Kahars) in rural Bengal during the Second World War. It is thus the touch of imperialism -- the demands of the war economy -- that appears to necessitate the painful but inevitable move from rural isolation to urban assimilation. This thematic can also be related to the way in which the place of aboriginals and untouchables was negotiated in nationalist anti-colonial politics and during the construction of the Indian Constitution after independence. The tale of a move from rural isolation into an historical mainstream is articulated by several patterns of generalization in the novel, for example socialization into wage labor, a move from the fiction of folk-tale into the rational discourse of history, and a move from the singularity of rural dialect into the standard linguistic form of Bengali. These themes would stabilize a plausibly nationalist narrative. I argue that the logic of the language and figuration of the novel tells a different story, however. The Freudian concept of the uncanny, if detached from its normative typology, can help us to unravel this figuration. Taken more broadly as a way of describing the inhabitation of the familiar by the unfamiliar, the uncanny provides a way of reading a number of difficult figures and syntactic disruptions in the text. I propose to look at an instance of each of these: first the figure of transvestism (which extends much further than the obvious transvestite protagonist) and its relation to gendering and imperialism. Second, the doubling structure of transvestism as it extends to the language of the novel itself. My discussion does not aim to show that Hansuli Banker Upakatha simply provides us with examples of a Freudian concept. It is rather that these figural and linguistic dimensions are more useful from the point of view of discussions of subalternity and imperialism than are some recent interpretations that take the novel as providing cultural and anthropological information about the marginalized.

Rajeev Kinra, Meet the New Orientalism: Same as the Old Orientalism? :

This paper seeks to offer a scholarly response to several recent sources that normally might not receive much analytical attention: mainstream, non-scholarly attacks on academics who study South Asia, particularly those working on subjects dealing with Islamicate history and culture in India. These attacks often come in the raw form of hostile newspaper editorials or opinion pieces, and as such it is tempting to dismiss them simply as garden-variety anti-Muslim, anti-intellectual tirades unworthy of scholarly response, much less analysis.

But I would argue that the degree to which such mainstream anti-academic rhetoric has increasingly become conjoined to more conventional anti-Muslim rhetoric in fact reflects a curious, presumably unanticipated bifurcation of Edward Said’s legacy. On the one hand the virulent communal tenor of many of the articles analyzed here suggests that the post-Saidian critique of the colonial model of Indian history has not extended far beyond the ivory tower. Indeed, sadly, the colonial-era vision of the Muslim as Oriental Despot remains a prevalent, widely accepted Hindu view of India’s Sultanate and Mughal past…from dinner table, to parliament, to the pages of Tehelka and Outlook India.

And yet, simultaneously, the notion of the Western academic as an arm of what Said called "the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient" lingers, to such a degree that nearly any gesture from researchers with ties to American or European universities to question the presumably outmoded Orientalist model is always-already called into question. Such scholars are assumed to be at best meddling outsiders, or at worst to have ulterior, even quasi-imperialist motives. Recent academic attempts to provide a more nuanced, balanced version of Indian Islam and the legacy of Indian Muslim rulers can thus be foreclosed and dismissed in the Indian press as unreliable, tainted by the presumed geopolitical goals of the very “corporate institution” which, ironically enough, most post-Saidian academics see themselves as critiquing in their own work.

The goal of this paper, therefore, is to take these attacks seriously, not so much in order to defend academia by refuting them, as to analyze the ways in which they deploy post-Orientalist discourse against the very scholars who see themselves as carrying Said’s legacy forward. Of course, as a junior scholar specializing in Indo-Persian history and literary cultures, my academic research will certainly inform the substantive part of this analysis. But my primary aim is to try to assess the discursive high ground already seized by such anti-academic polemicists—to look just as carefully at the unnervingly effective ways in which their arguments succeed, as I do at the ways in which they are simply wrong-headed or misinformed—and in so doing to open up a space for fruitful discussion of the public challenge which these attacks continue to present to the entire scholarly community.

Jesse Knutson, The Birth of the Anthology and the Social Life of Sanskrit Kavya  :

The point of this paper will be to reflect on the social life of Sanskrit poetry, using the emergence of the anthology as a case study, and to critically evaluate some distortions established in the scholarship on Sanskrit poetry. The first Sanskrit anthologies emerged in what is now Bangladesh during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as the dynasties that sponsored them stood on their last legs. New trends emerged in the poetry of these anthologies and in the poetry generally of their time and place. A bawdy, rustic eroticism became prevalent, as did a general preoccupation with realistic details of rustic life. The figure of svabhavokti, 'simple, realistic documentation of a scene', is extremely prevalent in the anthology poetry. Verses on the misery of the poor and celebratory accounts of kingly aid draw us into a small and humble world at odds with the empyrean grandeur of much of the Sanskrit literary tradition. The 'despotism of form' account of the Sanskrit literary tradition, according to which Sanskrit bypassed any engagement with reality because of commitment to a morbid formal perfection, has been shared widely by Sanskrit scholars. I will trace a shared ideological motif in the work of the colonial British Keith, and the Marxist Indian Kosambi, showing that it is not some generalized aesthetic mysticism, but a distinctively Orientalist aporia informing their view of the tradition; infecting them beyond the confines of their particular subject positions.

Spencer Leonard, British Indian Antiquarianism and the Limitations of the Saidian Framework:

The late nineteenth century British India witnessed a marked expansion of Indological endeavors undertaken within the newly emergent modern disciplinary divisions of archaeology, anthropology, philology, numismatics, paleography, etc.  Not generally noted for its liberality when it came to scientific endeavors lacking immediate utility, the colonial state in the three decades following the Mutiny drew British and Indian scholars from the army and from the new Indian universities, from British academies, as well as from the newly re-organized universities of Germany in order to perform scholarly tasks such as the searching out of manuscripts and the deliberately comprehensive compilation of Sanskrit archives.  Monuments and indigenous tribes were likewise demarcated and preserved for scientific posterity through archaeological and ethnological preservationism In the process, the foundations of modern scholarly institutions were laid.

Through a deep archival investigation of the new institutional environments and intellectual currents characteristic of such developments, this paper seeks to identify overarching commonalities across disciplinary histories to bring into view an epochally-specific episteme of high colonial antiquarianism.  Having proceeded archivally thus far, the paper seeks then to raise three theoretical issues most closely associated with Edward Said’s 1978 landmark work Orientalism: First, What are the relationships between colonial antiquarianism and less rarefied dimensions of the colonial state?  Second, How does knowledge of the colonized compare with knowledge practices directed at the metropolitan populations? Third, how, if at all, can the British Indian state’s new-found commitment to Indological scholarship be said to constitute or enact a form of epistemological domination?  Differing strongly with Said not so much in his broad scholarly intentions as in his actual explanatory apparatus, I attempt to re-orient the post-Saidian debate in a direction that more successfully avoids the fruitless antagonism of anti-intellectual indigenism versus naïve scientism.

Bali Sahota, Notes on Identity and Authority in Readings of Iqbal:

Edward Said's Orientalism and the scholarly trends it inspired have given new prominence to the identity and assumed cultural background of the researcher-critic. As Western scholarship on the East lost legitimacy the more it was linked with imperial domination, the more the voice of the non-Western scholar could be invested with new authority. The areas of knowledge to which the Western scholar was supposedly impervious became the special domain of the non-Western scholar-intellectual. At the very moment in which sovereign subjectivity was coming under severe criticism in other realms of the human sciences, in the fields of the non-West such a subjectivity was given a new lease on life: the non-Western scholar would be required to claim a fully self-aware identity if his words were to be taken as those not of a native informant but of a bona fide scholar-intellectual.

My presentation will seek to explore the different strategies by which authority has been tied to identity in the reading of Muhammad Iqbal's literary oeuvre. As a product of Empire who passed away before the complete demise of imperialism in southern Asia, Iqbal's place has seemed to elude the categorizations and particular agendas of his most rigorous readers. As various notions of authoritative identity have taken shape in accord with social and political conditions that did not necessarily inform Iqbal's work, something of this work has always remained excessive with respect to such identities and their respective styles of reading. For this reason, it seems, Iqbal has lent himself to all kinds of visionary, and then revisionist, readings. My presentation will explore the varying ways in which Iqbal has been interpreted by socialist humanists such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz, nationalists such as Aziz Ahmad, orientalists such as Anne Marie Schimmel and civilizationists such as Al-e Ahmad Surur. The aim is to tease out the overlaps, antinomies and contradictions in terms of underlying assumptions and agendas, and to see what kind of role the identity of the reader plays in producing authoritative understandings or misunderstandings of a work as complicated as Iqbal's. Perhaps what makes for an authoritative reading of such a work, I will suggest, is not so much the command over one's present identity but rather the waning or abeyance of that very identity before such an oeuvre.

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