South Asian Religions Distinguished Lectureship
The South Asian Religions Distinguished Lectureship was established in 2009 to complement the strong undergraduate and graduate programs on South Asia in the School of Religious Studies at McGill, and to encourage public understanding of South Asian religions. It has been made possible through the generosity of Professor Robert Stevenson, Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill from 1966 to 1991.
Rachel Dwyer, Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema, SOAS, University of London, Friday, March 28, "Remover of Obstacles: The Persistence of the Mythological Genre in Hindi Cinema"
The mythological, the founding genre of Indian cinema, is one of its most innovative forms. In the colonial period, it promoted nationalist ideals while avoiding censorship through its association with religion and tradition. It is usually thought that the mythological genre declined in popularity in Hindi cinema in independent India, eclipsed by the social which foregrounded new ideas of Indianness, a concern which continued through the Bollywood films about the diaspora and the recent flourishing of the biopic. Yet the mythological, ignored by many writers and critics, who saw the massive success of the film Jai Santoshi Maa in 1975 as a freak occurrence, has continued as a popular form in Hindi cinema, notably children’s animated films, up to the present, also flourishing in other media ranging from television to popular English fiction.
This paper looks at Hindi mythological films about Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles, in the wider context of the evolving genre, discussing his changing image while also examining the nature of his gajatva or ‘elephantness’.
Prof. Joanne Punzo Waghorne, Professor of Religion, Syracuse University.
Gods in the High‐Rise: Hindu Gurus Above It All. Friday, March 9, 2012 at 17h00, Birks Heritage Chapel.
Cities in South and Southeast Asia are moving up in the world—both economically and architecturally. High-rise apartments are not new to Mumbai but now real-estate developers even in Chennai, once identifies with the much-desired classic garden house, advertise high-rise condominiums cleverly titled “Alta Vida” with all modern amenities. Singapore lead the way for the region in the early 1980s demolishing the once signature two-storied shop house with high-rise developments that now cover this 25 square mile city-state. Such an environment, once supposed to kill the human soul, nurtures some surprising Hindu-inspired movements. I have witness a guru seated on leopard-upholstered couch as he preached to devotees in the fourteen-floor flat. The owner had the couch and a huge portrait of his guru created for these visits. Again in another high-rise, devotees built a homa in a brassier in the middle of the living room—as thick incensed smoke poured into the hallways. In yet another event, a Chinese-heritage Roman Catholic acting for her Indian guru chanted prayers for Buddha’s birthday. All these events are Hindu in flavor but often explicitly above ethnicity and even “religion”—although the majority of the participants are of Indian origin.
With so much of space and place theory in religious studies oriented either toward grounded-ness, wholeness, and stability or placelessness and “crossing over,” the new solid urban move-up leaves our theories in the air. What kind of religiosity flourishes in this new and soon-to-be dominate spatial régime in Asia? One answer: Hindu gurus, but how and why?
Professor Joanne Waghorne works in contemporary theoretical directions in the study of religion, especially issues of changing religious organizations, practices, and self understanding in the present era of mass communication, urbanization, globalization and transnational migration. World Systems analysis, concepts of the public sphere, public culture and visual studies inform her interdisciplinary approach which she works to integrate with her roots in History of Religions and phenomenology. Her concerns include revisioning World Religions/Comparative Religion in a post‐colonial/post‐modern era. Her publications contextualize these issues in contemporary urban India and in the Hindu diaspora. Her most recent book, The Diaspora of the Gods: Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle‐Class World (Oxford University Press, 2004) won the American Academy of Religion’s prize for Excellence in the Study of Religion.
Sumathi Ramaswamy, Professor of History at Duke University.
An Historian among the Goddesses of Modern India. Friday, March 1, 2011 at 17h30, Birks Heritage Chapel.
In October 2006, the globally recognizable Statue of Liberty traveled—virtually—from New York city’s harbor to an unusual new location: the map of India as it appeared on an artist’s computer screen in New Delhi, India. With some critical transformations that speak to her novel identity as “English the Dalit Goddess,” the Statue of Liberty has digitally morphed into a new icon for the Dalits of India in their centuries-long struggles against caste, class and linguistic oppression. Following Michael Taussig’s injunction to allow the image “to billow into the driving concept,” this talk explores the political and ethical impulses that motivate this new Dalit project of fighting back by considering some critical image-journeys leading from and to the novel Dalit "Angrezi Devi." I will reflect on what it means for me as an historian of India to write about goddesses such as these in our times, and why I have found visual history profoundly revelatory in doing so.
Sumathi Ramaswamy is Professor of History at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and Executive Director of the North Carolina Center for South Asian Studies. Prior to this appointment, she was Professor of History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. She pursued her M.A. and M. Phil. in ancient Indian history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She also has a Master’s in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, and graduated with a Ph. D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley. Prof. Ramaswamy is the author of The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India (Duke University Press, 2010), The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories (University of California Press, 2004), and Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970 (University of California Press, 1997). Her edited volumes include Barefoot Across the Nation: Maqbool Fida Husain and the Idea of India (Routledge, 2010), and Beyond Appearances? Visual Practices and Ideologies in Modern India (Sage, 2003). She is currently working on a project entitled “Global Itineraries: The Indian Travels of a Worldly Object.” She is co-founder of a trans-national digital network for popular South Asian visual culture called Tasveer Ghar (House of Pictures) (www.tasveerghar.net)
Philip Lutgendorf, Professor of Hindi, Modern Indian Studies at University of Iowa.
Mira: Cinematic Citations of a Radical Woman SaintThe legendary sixteenth-century princess of Rajasthan, Mira (a.k.a. Mirabai, Meera), remains one of the most popular and sometimes controversial figures in the pantheon of pre-modern Hindu bhakti poet-saints. Apart from formal and informal performances of the many songs to Krishna that are attributed to her, she is often invoked in popular culture through a set of visual and verbal signifiers that I call the “Mira trope.” And although Mira has also been a favorite subject for Indian cinema—celebrated in at least nine hagiographic films—she is also regularly invoked, through her “trope,” in films that are neither hagiographic nor even “religious” in subject matter.
After briefly discussing the evolution of mass image culture in South Asia and identifying the characteristics of its “Mira trope,” my presentation will focus on the deployment of this trope in several popular Hindi-language feature films spanning more than four decades. In analyzing the segments in each film that invoke Mira, I will focus on the different ways in which filmmakers have introduced the Mira trope to add intertextual richness to their narratives—ways that both confirm and, at times, challenge, the conventional meanings conveyed by the trope. I thus aim to reveal another, and perhaps unexpected, aspect of the interaction of pre-modern devotional traditions with contemporary mass culture.
Philip Lutgendorf is Professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies and has taught in the University of Iowa’s Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literature since 1985. He regularly offers Hindi language classes as well as courses on written and oral narrative traditions of South Asia, including Indian film. His book on the performance of the epic Ramayana, The Life of a Text (University of California Press, 1991) won the A. K. Coomaraswamy Prize of the Association for Asian Studies. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002‐03 for his research on the popular Hindu “monkey‐god” Hanuman, which has appeared as Hanuman's Tale, The Messages of a Divine Monkey (Oxford University Press, 2007). His interests include epic performance traditions, folklore and popular culture, and mass media, and he maintains a website devoted to Hindi cinema. He is currently President‐Elect of the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS).
Indira Viswanathan Peterson, David B. Truman Professor of Asian Studies, Mount Holyoke College. “Religions and Cultures in Conversation: The Tamil Protestant Poetry of Vedanayaka Sastri”. Friday, March 6, 2009 at 17h30, Birks Heritage Chapel.
This paper is a study of Bethlehem Kuravanci (BK) (1800 /revised 1820), a celebrated Tamil dramatic poem by Vedanayaka Sastri (1774 -1864) of Thanjavur, the first major poet of the Tamil Protestant community in Tamilnadu. I argue that Sastri’s choice of the Kuravanci (Fortune-teller) genre, and the specific literary strategies he deployed toward adapting it to create an “Evangelical” poem, resulted in a distinctively Tamil refraction of the Protestantism which had been brought to Tamilnadu in the 18th century by German Pietist missionaries.
The highly popular Kuravanci genre arose in the eighteenth century as a literary expression of changing relations among populations of increasingly diverse linguistic, ethnic (Tamil, Telugu, Marathi) and social affiliations in the Tamil region, represented, among others, by the principal character, the nomadic Kuratti fortune-teller, who joins her husband after predicting the fortune of a lady in love with a king or god. The play depicts the lord’s glory, the lady’s love, the Kuratti’s native mountain landscapes, and her wanderings in many places.
In BK, treating the Fortune-teller Wisdom’s prophecy of the union of Christ with the Church (the bride Devamohini), Sastri used literary strategies such as allegoresis to emphasize the difference between his Christian work and Saiva/Hindu works in the genre. At the same time, in the bridal mysticism, prophecy and other conventions of the genre, he found the perfect vehicle for complex negotiations among Biblical, European and Tamil literary and cultural materials, old and new. BK delineates the major narratives of the Old and New Testaments, and describes the spread of Christianity, ending with the prophecy of a Protestant world in the future. Here the landscapes of the Kuravanci drama become a geography of the Bible lands and the world churches, expanding into a modern geography and ethnography of the world, from a Tamil perspective.
The paper shows how Sastri effectively manipulates the fortune-teller genre's tension between intensely localized and widening spheres of topographical description and experience, to portray a coherent Evangelical history, geography and cosmology. While Tamil geographies expand into world geographies in this poem, the Evangelical worldview and ideal of the spread of the Gospel are encompassed in Tamil cultural discourses.
Indira Viswanathan Peterson is David B. Truman Professor of Asian Studies at Mount Holyoke College and Five College Fortieth Anniversary Professor at the Five College Consortium of Western Massachusetts. A Tamil-speaker by heritage, Prof. Peterson grew up in Bombay (Mumbai), India, focusing on the study of several Indian and foreign languages, including Sanskrit, Marathi, German and Russian. Prof. Peterson has a B.A. (honours) in English Literature from Bombay University (1971), and A.M. (1974) and Ph.D. (1976) degrees in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard University. She specializes in Indian literature in Sanskrit and Tamil, Hinduism, and South Indian cultural history (classical, medieval, colonial and modern).