Seminars

  • Founded
    1964
  • Seminar Number
    477

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).


Chair
Professor Carla Bellamy
carlabellamy@gmail.com

Rapporteur
Daniel McAbee
drm2181@columbia.edu

Meeting Schedule

09/19/2022 Zoom
6:00 PM
Levers of Power: Genetically modified crops, the bureaucracy and the political executive in India
Aniket Aga, Ashoka University
Abstract

Abstract

Studies of social movements, in so far as they consider questions of impact, analyse whether laws or policies change. This talk delineates the architecture of power that lies betwixt and between popular pressures from below and policy changes from above. I examine how the political executive interfaces with social movements on the one hand and its bureaucracies on the other, by analyzing the tenure of three successive federal environment ministers in India at the peak of the controversy over genetically modified (GM) food crops. I argue that state bureaucracy constitutes a complex field not only of power but also knowledge. There are plural, interacting sources of authority, of which the well-researched principle of seniority is just one. Unravelling the fissures between the executive and the bureaucracy is critical for understanding the working and limits of democratic politics, as well the changing sociology of the state in India.





10/17/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Cancelled
,




12/12/2022 Zoom
5:30 PM
Putting Your Foot Down: A New Look at Subalternity in Middle Vedic Texts
Caley Smith, Harvard University
Abstract

Abstract

This research is part of a project to understand the development of the varṇa system. While the Dharmasūtras (3rd-2nd centuries BCE) imagine a system of inherited social estates, complete with hygienic rituals to keep these social estates distinct from one another, there is no such program in the texts of the Vedic period themselves. This talk is a sequel to the 2021 Spalding Symposium lecture “What Kind of a Subject is the Vedic Śūdra?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmiTIGgVj1o). That talk closely examined the Saṁhitās, texts from the Early Vedic period (12th-10th centuries BCE) to discover exactly what the śūdra is and is not. In this talk, however, I will be looking at later texts of the Middle Vedic period (9th-7th centuries BCE) called the Brāhmaṇas. I will argue that varṇa is remains a ritually-performed taxonomy and with no trace of it as term of self-reference or personal identity. This taxonomy is enacted not by birth but by ritual action on the sacrificial grounds, and I will suggest this ritual rank can be read as an attempt to formally represent clout or influence within the Vedic political network. As such, varṇa in the Early and Middle Vedic period is not a caste system at all, but a performative act which attempts to establish a ritual homologue to socio-political interiority. In this light, we can see varṇa as participating in other Vedic systems of ritual homology. Further, its later universalization may parallel the universalization of other ritual phenomena like karma or rebirth.





01/23/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
TBD
Manan Ahmed, Columbia University




02/20/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
6:00 PM
Kanyasulkam: Modernity and the Lens of Caste
K. Satyanarayana, University of Hydrabad
Abstract

Abstract

Gurajada Apparao’s Kanyasulkam (1909) is considered the greatest play of modern Telugu literature. Telugu critics (mostly Left and liberal upper caste) were totally involved in the centenary celebrations of the first performance of Kanyasulkam in 1992. B.S. Ramulu, a Dalit Bahujan critic, asked in 1993 “how does one read Kanyasulkam today?” He contested the reading of Gurajada’a Kanyasulkam as a text representing ‘modernization.’ He reinterpreted the play as a text that portrayed the transformation of Brahmins from a feudal set-up to a family system, and then to capitalist development. This reading marked what has been described as a middle-class life in the liberal and Marxist literary criticism as a Brahmin life. This criticism and the subsequent debate in Telugu public sphere generated a searing controversy. Ramulu’s reading of the play was described as a reading through the lens of caste (‘Kulochanalu’). The notion of ‘Brahmin life’ is a new one in the discussions of Telugu modern literary culture. The widely employed expression is ‘middle-class life.’

The play was defended on many grounds. It was argued, for instance, that the play portrayed a society and its people in transition. The Brahmins changed themselves to ‘the modern needs of the society’. Some of them occupied positions of power in colonial institutions. This particular representation of ‘the changing character of the Brahmin community itself was/is a great achievement. The focus of the play therefore, was ‘a society in transition’ and not Brahmin characters. In this abstract concept of society, we do not find characters with specific caste, gender and class markers. The abstract human figure is at the core of this conceptualisation of society. In this theory of literature, the significance the arrival of new agents in literature is undermined. What is defended is not just Kanyasulkam but a framework of literature that actively undermines the value and political significance of Dalit and Feminist literatures. According to this framework, Kanyasulkam represents a society-in-conflict and a society-in-transition. Gurajada is on the side of the forces of modernity in Kanyasulkam. But the Dalit critics have argued that Kanyasulkam is not just a text but it represents a paradigm of literary representation. In this paradigm, the specific caste, gender and other identities are opaque and invisible. My presentation analyses some of the critical questions articulated in this debate.





03/27/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
TBD
Rachel McDermott, Columbia University




04/24/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
TBD
Radhika Govindarajan, University of Washington