South Asia at Chicago:
Fifty Years of Scholarship


University of Chicago Research Projects

Field Work in Village India

Field work holds a privileged position at Chicago. Virtually all who study South Asia at the University spend some time in the subcontinent. Those studying classical languages are as likely to work with texts and teachers at an appropriate place in the region as are anthropologists. And yet it is social scientists and more specifically anthropologists who have elevated the importance of study in the field to the level of an expectation among all South Asianists at Chicago.

The study of village India has been an enduring focus of study and theoretical reflection by Chicago’s illustrious social scientists. However, the very notion of what constitutes "the field" has expanded over the past fifty years. Studies of immigrant South Asians in Chicago, the Caribbean, or England are as much within the purview of faculty and students following the subcontinent’s diaspora as are studies of Bangladesh or north Indian villages. But, the conceptual underpinnings for these expanded studies are most often those created by McKim Marriott, Bernard Cohn, Milton Singer, and others who have made Chicago the center of social scientific inquiry on South Asia.


Literary Cultures in History

Among the many significant current research projects in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, "Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia" is one of the most ambitious projects ever to take up India's tremendous wealth of literature, with its dozens of languages and varied regional scripts, with depth and continuity. This practically unparalleled project "aims to provide the first connected account of the histories and theories of the major regional and transregional literatures of South Asia. The research is directed toward a set of topics that includes the aesthetics and politics of literary-language development and competition; the dynamics of literary regionality and cosmopolitanism before and after the rise of the nation-state; the development of notions of genres, aesthetic categories, and canons both individually and across languages, regions, and historical eras."

Directed by Sheldon Pollock, George V. Bobrinskoy professor of Sanskrit and Indic Studies, the project will produce a two-volume history of India's literatures. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, twelve specialists in literary traditions are meeting in India and the USA for a series of six workshops between 1995-1998. Pollock foresees that the resulting book, " informed by collective discussion and the new research this will stimulate, will be less a set of individually authored essays than a multifaceted reconstruction of a network of literary cultures."

A forerunner to the present enterprise was the conference "New Literatures, New Power: Literary History, Region, and Nation in South Asia" which met in Hyderabad in 1993, with the support of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). The outcome of that meeting was a volume of papers published from Delhi as a special edition of the journal Social Scientist. "Literary Cultures in History" furthers the SSRC project by moving from a collection or aggregation of essays to truly collaborative multi-authored work, and by rejoining traditions conventionally treated as distinct into the complex and dynamic nexus of practice from which they originally developed.

Pollock's approach brings together two streams of enquiry. Traditionally, focused pursuit of discrete literary traditions has aimed to make specialists' knowledge useful for research on South Asia in the various disciplines of area study. For example, English translations of the epic poems Mahabharata and Ramayana on which the Bobrinskoy chair's first holder J.A.B. van Buitenen, Wendy Doniger, Pollock, and others have labored over the years. To the standard humanistic approach has been added a concern for rigorous historicization, informed by recent developments in cultural theory, and intending to account for wide-sweeping--even global--movements in the premodern period. The ultimate goal is to "replace the question that has directed a century of Western scholarship on the East -- Why did South Asia not develop like Europe -- with a better one: How did South Asia develop, and what might that tell us about Europe?"



The Study of a Region

Increasingly the study of geographical and cultural regions and sub-regions of South Asia has become a focus of scholarly work. Collaborative inquiry by colleagues from several intellectual disciplines working in "study groups" is generating new knowledge. Rajasthan studies is one of the more striking examples of this movement.

Over a period of nearly thirty years Chicago faculty and students have explored Rajasthan, bringing to bear their training in such fields as linguistics, political science, performing arts, history, literature, and gender studies. These disciplinary orientations have been forged into the Rajasthan Studies Group, largely with leadership from Chicago. The group’s Chicago roots are evident through the preeminence of cross-disciplinary approaches and vigorous debate.

The Library is the fortunate recent recipient of Kali Charan Bahl’s collection, much of which relates to Rajasthan. Now an emeritus professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Bahl’s wide-ranging collection will support future research in an array of subjects on Rajasthan and other north Indian regions.


History of Religions at Chicago

Well before the history of religions was an established intellectual enterprise at the University of Chicago, the Divinity School had robust programs in mission studies and religious education that attracted students with South Asian interests. Since 1945 the History of Religions program, first known as the Department of Comparative Religion, has had a different focus. As Frank Reynolds said in his 1977 essay on "History of Religions," the program emphasizes "the manifestations of religious phenomena in the history of mankind."

This program has an international renown based on both the current faculty’s work and on that of early pioneers in the field such as Mircea Eliade and Joseph Kitagawa. Because of the University’s encouragement of cross-disciplinary involvement, faculty in the Departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Anthropology, Political Science, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and Geography have also engaged in research on history of religions and guided students. In fact, more than seventeen percent of all doctoral theses related to South Asian studies have been completed in the Divinity School.

Library resources supporting research on the religious traditions of South Asia is unrivaled in this country. Beyond the major forces of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, the Sikh and Jain traditions, to name but two, are richly represented in the Library’s holdings.


Public Culture

shankar.jpg (18181 bytes)Public culture is a sphere of intellectual inquiry and also the title of a journal with its editorial home at the University. Chicago South Asianists are prominent as leaders of this movement and the journal.

Carol Breckenridge has primary editorial responsibility for Public Culture. Arjun Appadurai, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Homi Bhabha are among the additional Chicago South Asia faculty involved in editing the journal.

Produced in conjunction with the Society for Transnational Cultural Studies, the journal is described on its World Wide Web site:

In the ten years of its existence, Public Culture has established itself as a field-defining cultural studies journal. Public Culture seeks a critical understanding of the global cultural flows and the cultural forms of the public sphere which define the late twentieth century. As such, the journal provides a forum for the discussion of the places and occasions where cultural, social, and political differences emerge as public phenomena, manifested in everything from highly particular and localized events in popular or folk culture to global advertising, consumption, and information networks.

The range of issues taken up in journal articles is remarkable. Information on the web site continues, "Such cosmopolitan cultural forms as cinema, sport, television and video, restaurants, domestic tourism, advertising, fiction, architecture, and museums" are all within its purview. The journal seeks to "explore the cultural implications of such processes as migration, the internationalization of fiction, and the construction of alternative modernities."


Writing Indian History

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indologists often wrote of India as "a land without history" It was without history in that it seemed timeless, an archaic survival of an earlier phase of civilization, one that Europeans had left behind. Further, India lacked a comprehensive narrative connecting the distant past with the present. Documents for constructing such a history were not lacking; the same three-fold periodization of ancient, medieval and modern that had served for European history could be discerned in India's written sources. There was an abundance of texts in classical languages: Sanskrit for the ancient period, Persian chronicles for the medieval, with English records for the modern. One outstanding problem was that the Sanskrit texts in particular were hard to turn to historical purposes. Much effort was expended on attempting to supply India with a history by slotting the events of the antique Vedic corpus, the great epics, and the mythico-historical puranas into a universal timeline. The task of turning South Asia's wealth of inscriptions into positive dynastic chronology proceeded more smoothly.

New styles of historiography have since emerged in Chicago, in tandem with the civilizational approach to Indian studies developed for undergraduate teaching and the expertise in modern regional languages which distinguished South Asian studies in the new area centers from those of classical Indology. Cohn commented in his 1977 article on "Historical Studies" at Chicago:

Systematic efforts have been made to break with ... earlier traditions of study of the Indian past. This effort has focused on shifting the point of view from the outside to the inside of the civilizational traditions. The attempt has been made to reconstruct the Indian past in its own terms .... The distinctive features of this new approach are utilization of indigenous and local sources; the microanalysis of the sociological conditions for cultural and intellectual changes; the conscious use of varying social science models, particularly drawn from anthropology; and the effort to understand the underlying meaning of events and structures in Indian terms.

Most recently, there has been a critique which charges that even these consciously sensitized efforts have not been adequate to the task of writing South Asian history in a way which accounts for the experience of Indians of every class. Subaltern Studies publishes the work of historians dedicated to recovering the voices of those who have been silenced by political and intellectual regimes of the past. Angles of approach to India's past have been multiplied by the Subalterns, and their critique and methods have been influential in domains beyond South Asian studies per se.


Space in South Asia

On May 17, 1997, an interdisciplinary conference of advanced graduate students conducting research on South Asian topics met to consider issues of spatiality in South Asia. Meeting under the leadership of Arjun Appadurai, the Samuel N. Harper Professor in Anthropology and South Asian Languages and Civilizations, the conference provided a forum for advanced graduate students to present scholarly papers on cultural and social considerations affecting the organization, use, and understanding of the external environments whether in the form of maps of the nation or the organization of stages for dramatic performances. Among the issues considered were: How is the spatial organization of everyday life affected by particular, historical developments in society? How do representations of space both reflect and affect situations when the control of a place or region is a matter of conflict? What have been the effects of globalization upon conceptions of national identity in South Asia?

Professor Bernard S. Cohn, whose own work on the configuration of spatial practices in South Asia continues to inspire younger scholars, was invited to be the general moderator of the conference. In total, twelve students from the departments of Anthropology, History, Political Science, and South Asian Languages and Civilizations presented papers on their current work: Malathi De Alwis, Brian Keith Axel, Ian Barrow, John Bernard Bate, Gautam Ghosh, Manu Goswami, Pradeep Jeganathan, Ritty Lukose, Caitrin Lynch, Omar Qureshi, Vyjayanthi Rao, and Susan Seizer. The papers presented at the conference are currently being prepared for a volume to be edited by Appadurai.

The items on display illustrate some of the subjects and projects discussed in the conference.