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The University Seminar on South Asia seeks to broaden and deepen understanding about the region of South Asia by providing a forum to discuss ongoing research as well as special topics related to the complex and multiple societies of South Asia both past and present. Drawing together scholars from many different disciplines, the seminar fosters cross-disciplinary discussion and perspectives on a broad range of questions and concerns. In recent years, the seminar has deliberated on such issues as: religion and politics, the political function of violence in South Asia, national integration, language and community, South Asian identities in pre-colonial times, religious iconography, and many other topics. The University Seminar on South Asia is a merger of the University Seminar on Tradition and Change in South and Southeast Asia (founded in 1964) and the University Seminar on Indology (founded in 1993).

Professor Carla Bellamy

Shagun Sethi

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.

Meeting Schedule

10/14/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Bhakti, Equity, and Strategic Ambiguity in Western India
Jon Keune, Michigan State University


Regional bhakti traditions are often understood to mark social change in precolonial South Asia, usually moving toward greater inclusivity. In the past century, some scholars and reformers have referred to this change as a movement toward "social equality." Critics such as B. R. Ambedkar ardently rejected this claim, arguing that bhakti traditions imagined only theological and not social equality that overcame caste, or if they did conceive of social equality, they failed to realize it in practice. But how did equality language become a standard benchmark for viewing bhakti traditions, and how well does it translate precolonial understandings of bhakti's social ethics? In this talk, Prof. Keune notes how the bhakti-caste question became formulated in Marathi-speaking western India, in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. This enables us to inquire more clearly into bhakti-caste discourse before the notion of social equality became normative. Using examples from hagiographic stories about transgressive commensality in the Varkari tradition -- especially how these changed through centuries of retellings -- he argues that the tradition's approach to the bhakti-caste question was strategically and intentionally ambiguous. Although hagiographers reveled in stories about saints transgressing caste boundaries, they relied on traditional caste markers and hierarchies to demonstrate for bhakti's radical inclusivity. Thus, the overriding principle that guided precolonial Varkaris' approach to bhakti and caste was not a vision of social equality but an ideology of inclusive differentiation. Modern language of social equality may be a constructive interpretation of the past, but historically speaking, it is substantially different than the worldviews of premodern saints and hagiographers.

11/18/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Marx in Maharashta? The Memoir of a Dalit Communist
Anupama Rao, Barnard College, Columbia University


Professor Rao’s presentation will focus on the soon to be published translation of the autobiography/biography of R.B. More (1903-1972), an important, if under-acknowledged Dalit trade unionist, labor organizer, and Ambedkarite. More’s narrative takes us back to conversations between Ambedkar and Marx, and between caste and class as these played out in Bombay’s working class neighborhoods. As well, R. B. More’s account suggests a crucial link between Dalit urbanity and Bombay’s distinctive public and political culture. My presentation takes up the question of political utopia and life writing by focusing on particular themes that emerge with particular force and vitality in More’s account: mass intellectuality; housing and homelessness; pleasure, performance and wayward lives; and finally, the figure of Ambedkar.

01/27/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
The Study of Sanskrit and the American Caste System
Anand Venkatkrishnan, University of Chicago


If caste and gender are the fundamental fractures in the sociology of Sanskrit, fractures of race and gender define its study in America. Is there a fault line that runs through this field, in both its philological and area studies guises, that we can trace historically? Is this a question of research method, or, also, a research imperative? This talk features Prof. Venkatkrishnan's research into the papers of Charles Rockwell Lanman and the early study of Sanskrit at Harvard and Radcliffe College. He draws particular attention to the number of women who populated the turn-of-the-century Sanskrit classroom, and attempts to follow the threads of their careers. He also briefly investigates the role that Sanskritists played in the construction of racialized hierarchies particular to the American experience. Ultimately, he suggests that we think of American Sanskritists not just as Orientalists but as Americans. In doing so, he proposes an alternative history of South Asian Studies, through attention to the field's unheralded acts of occlusion, forgotten but always present.

02/24/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
How to 'Pass' for a Brahmin: on the Profit and Peril of Caste Concealment
Joel Lee, Williams College

03/30/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Illicit Sex in Early Modern South Asia: Love, Rape, and Law
Divya Cherian, Princeton University

04/27/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Migration & Belonging in a Himalayan Hill Station
Joyce Burkhalter Fluekiger, Emory University