An annual conference which has its downside, but the ups seem to more than make up for it.
Does Conferencing on South Asia provide “intellectual fun?” It does, says Prof. Joseph W. Elder of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the acknowledged centre of South Asian learning in North America. The “fun” event which brought over 460 academics from all over the U.S. to this mid western city in late October was the annual meeting on South Asia, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year.
There are enough reasons to criticise this annual gathering of PhDs. It is North America-dominated, the subjects are India-centric, and the region’s own voice is absent. There is also grumbling that the organisers favour theory rather than “action-research” or policy prescriptions. However, the three-day affair is the only conference in the world that looks at South Asia with any continuity. The papers may be theoretical, but they provide analytical insight that people closer to the ground may well miss and whose views may reflect nationalist or other biases.
Despite the obvious gaps, the sheer volume of papers presented and discussed in simultaneous forums was impressive. There was something for everybody, and topics ranged from Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Bihari Raj to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ascendance in Gujarat and Maharashtra; from an ethnographic discussion based on conversations between women in a Kathmandu beauty parlour, discussing why a lady named Indira had shaved her head and lit her mother’s funeral pyre, to a paper analysing 110 love letters to explore ‘the issues of incipient literacy and social change’ among Magars, in a Nepali village called Junigaon.
The papers dealing with India took up, among other things, “Hindu-Muslim Landscapes of the 18th and 19th Century India,” “Cultural Movement for Autonomy in Jharkand,” “Cultural Geography of Khush: A Cybernetic Place for South Asian Lesbigay Interactions,” “The Press and the Foreign Policy Change in India,” and “The Endurance of Nargis.”
One researcher traced how grandparents on extended visits from India tend to mould their grandchildren’s sense of self as Indian-Americans. Another investigated what was authentic and what impure in Indian dance, delving into Kathak-tap, Kathak-jazz, and Kathak-Flamenco and Kathak-Bharatanatyam. The researcher questioned if a balance of “classical purity and artistic integrity” could be maintained, while participating in the “technological processes of a growing public culture.” Folk beliefs and practices were not left out either: one researcher discussed “Why Some Tibetan Babies Change Sex after Birth: Popular, Religious and Medical Explanations in Exile.”
Beyond forays into always-interesting psycho-social research, the conference had its share of technical, subject-focused inquiry, such as “Species Composition and Dynamics of Temperate and Sub Alpine Forests in West-central Nepal,” “Population and Habitat of the Saurus Crane in Nepal’s Tarai” and “Patterns and Sources of Variation in Bihari Hindi.”
SAARC at Madison
The annual conference began as an initiative of some scholars including Elder, who had come together with high school teachers to find instruction material on South Asia. Within two years, the group changed focus to become a full-fledged conference on South Asia. “This is one of the few conferences, which is just sheer intellectual exchange,” says Elder. “There are no business meetings, no membership drives, just intellectual fun.”
The only other regular forum, in which South Asia is discussed in North America, is at the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies, organised by the University of Michigan. However, Japan, China and East Asia dominate the discourse at the AAS, and South Asianists prefer the cosier climate at Madison.
The deliberations in Madison covered all SAARC countries except Bhutan – no, there was no paper on either the Druk Yul’s much touted tourism successes, or the question of Bhutanese refugees. Pakistan lagged far behind India in the number of papers presented, but the Mohajirs did maintain a presence through a paper on “Re-forming of Pakistani (Mohajir) Nationalism” after the 1972 Karachi riots. On Sri Lanka, the scholars went for post-colonial identity, the “Third Eelam War,” and Jaffna nationalism. The panel on Maldives had one paper on “Ritual Politics, Islamic Identity and Island Nationalism,” and another on “Sixteenth-century Nationalism in an Indian Ocean Nation State.”
The Nepal studies papers comprised mainly of research by foreign scholars. Selma Sonntag, of California State University at Humboldt, analysed the difficulties faced by ethno-linguistic groups, as they compete for state recognition and resources. The case of Tamang is that of a language in search of an ethnic group, or pan-Tamang identity, she argued, while with the Tharu, it is a case of an ethnic group searching for a language.
A Nepali faculty member of the University of Wisconsin, Gautam Vajracharya, discussed the “Vedic Axis Mundi and Ashokan Pillar,” and there was considerable interest in another paper on “Authenticity and Authority in the Imagination of the Buddha’s Birthplace.” Striking one blow for SAARC scholarship, a Sri Lankan named Arjun Guneratne presented a paper on “the Vicissitudes of the Tharu identity in Nepal.”
The larger issues of contemporary Nepali society, such as acrimonious debate surrounding the recent Arun III project cancellation, or the pains of democratic transition in different aspects of Nepali life, were conspicuously absent. The same was the case of many contemporary issues that national scholars in various South Asian countries are grappling with. The same was the case with the broader issues of contemporary South Asian discourse, such as sharing water resources, trade and regionalism. SAPTA, about to go into force, might as well have been the name for a newly discovered planet, as far as the conference was concerned.
Even though it is the conference of choice for South Asia scholars, the attendance of scholars from the Subcontinent has always been low at Madison. The organisers estimate that about 15 percent of those who attended Madison this year were based in and working in South Asia. That the sessions appear to be “India-dominated,” might also explain the low turnout of scholars. The number of papers on India is only a reflection of who sends the proposals, says Elder. “We don’t structure the area emphasis.”
Actually, there is a simple reason for the tilted focus: there is more money to study India, says Prof. Robert Goldman of the University of California at Berkeley. “People often tend to use India interchangeably with South Asia. This is a problem and other countries need better representation.” The makeup of Madison’s South Asia faculty, which screens presentations, also probably plays a part, says anthropologist Beatrice D. Miller.
India studies received an initial boost when they were funded with the surplus non-convertible rupees earned from U.S. wheat exports in the late 1950s, under the programme known as PL-480 (PL for ‘public law’). Today, the American Institute for Indian Studies, a consortium of 47 American colleges and universities, has its own endowment. There is an association for Pakistan, but it is not as large, or as well-funded, as the Indian one. The Bangladeshi studies group has been around for only a few years and the Sri Lankan one is not operating. Nepal has a study group, which usually meets at Madison during the conference, but it has no money either to fund research or to invite Nepali academics to meetings.
Miller says that the Madison conference serves as a forum for scholars to test research ideas, and many books have been nurtured in the Madison’s meeting halls. Among the cutting-edge research to be presented at the annual meetings, have been those on Harappa and Mohenjodaro archaeology, and on Tibetan Buddhism.
But, how relevant is Madison to the “real” South Asia? Scholars in South Asian universities rarely get to see the papers presented here, which means that the research will rarely receive peer review from those on the ground. But, Frank F. Conlon of the University of Washington, Seattle, thinks the Madison conference is useful, regardless. “This is a one-stop chance to see what other people are talking about or are interested in. I come here to recharge my batteries,” says Conlon. “We are always trying to refine our knowledge, and these discussions eventually become part of what is taught about South Asia at U.S. universities.”