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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

Daniel McAbee

All seminars will continue to meet virtually through February 2022. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change.

Meeting Schedule

09/13/2021 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
Performing Precarity: caste domination, normative sexuality, and the politics of tamasha in modern India
Shailaja Paik, University of Cincinatti


Prof. Paik’s talk focuses on her second book, Performing Precarity: Caste domination, normative sexuality, and the politics of Tamasha in Modern India, which is the first social and intellectual history of tamasha (popular secular theatre) -- the traditional art form of Dalits. Performing Precarity is an account of how certain Dalits negotiated the violence, brutality, and exploitation in tamasha as they struggled to transform themselves from ashlil (vulgar) to asli (authentic) human beings in twentieth century Maharashtra. She argues that ashlil and sexuality, enacted through tamasha, remained central to the social upheaval of the modern period and entrenched differentiations of caste and distinctions of high over low that were fundamental in shaping regional/national identity. Drawing on hitherto unexamined and under-examined vernacular Marathi archival materials, ethnographies, popular writings, and films, she illuminates how India’s social and sexual arrangements of the ashlil and the claims and counterclaims of Marathi elites and subaltern Dalits, reveal both the possibilities and limits of attempts to contest the boundaries of caste, gender, and sexuality. Most significantly, she departs from the Ambedkar-centered historiography and movement-focused approaches to analyze the ordinary and everyday in Dalit lives and to illustrate how sexuality and ashlil emerged as a crucial modern conjuncture to frame the political recognition of the new asli Dalit political, humanity, and community in moments of historical flux. In so doing, she recreates the fugitive world of young urban Dalits who transformed the social and political landscape of twentieth century Maharashtra.

10/11/2021 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
Migration and Belonging in a Himalayan Hill Station
Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, Emory University


Mussoorie is often characterized as a “British hill station” and many narratives and heritage events focus on its early British residents and their physical domiciles. This project aims to bring the families of Indian shopkeepers who work and live in Landour Bazaar into the historical-cultural narratives of the hill station. Their ancestors from across the north Indian plains mountain interiors came to support the British cantonment and, later, educational institutions; others were refugees from Partition; families continue to immigrate to Mussoorie for employment and educational opportunities; brides continue marry into the community; many of the younger generation are moving off the hill to metropolitan centers in a kind of reverse migration.

The larger project asks: 1) how did shopkeepers’ families come to live in Landour (oral histories and mapping of migration); and 2) how have these families come to make it home--or is it home and for whom? Hindi-Urdu terms such as mul nivas, watan, gaon, ghar, maika, and sasural imagine and recognize home(s) as multiple, fluid, gendered, and intersecting categories. Home is, in part, identified by ancestry, residence, deities, ritual, landscapes, and familial and community relationships. This multiplicity and fluidity is, however, being lost in some contexts of contemporary India, a development that has implications for our writing and representation.

11/15/2021 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
meeting postponed

12/13/2021 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
The Kaveri as Goddess, Ornament & Resource: Imaginations of the River in Early Modern Purāṇic Literature from the Delta Region
Jay Ramesh, Claremont McKenna College


The Kaveri has long been venerated as the center of the Tamil Śaiva sacred landscape, with most of the sites eulogized in the medieval devotional poetry of that tradition located in the delta region of central Tamil Nadu. Celebrated in the past as a Goddess herself, this once perennial river is now subject to seasonal drying owing to a variety of factors, and has been the subject of an often violent dispute between the state governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for the last several decades. This paper begins by trying to understand this absence through the lens of religion; how can we understand the consequences of this loss for those who venerate the river as sacred and for those who depend on it for their livelihood? To begin to answer this question, I survey a variety of early modern Sanskrit and Tamil sthalapurāṇas and māhātmyas devoted to sites in the Kaveri river delta in order to understand how the river was imagined in four ways: as a Goddess, as the means and the object of ritual, as an ornament beautifying a sacred landscape, and as a natural resource that sustains the livelihoods of those who live in its vicinity. In doing so, I aim to historicize the shifting significance of the river in the Anthropocene.

01/24/2022 Online Meeting
8:00 PM
meeting cancelled