South Asia: Table of Contents
Organizer: Saurabh Dube, El Colegio de Mexico
Chair: Walter Hauser, University of Virginia
Discussant: Mrinalini Sinha, Southern Illinois University
In recent years, critical ethnographies and newer histories have increasingly emphasized that forms of historical consciousness vary in their degree of symbolic elaboration, their ability to pervade multiple contexts, and their capacity to capture peoples imaginations. As a corollary to this, there has also been a keen recognitionat least among the ranks of historians of a particular hue and ethnographers of a certain stripethat history does not merely exist as "events out there," but that it equally constitutes a powerful negotiable and reworkable resource tied to the play of processes of power, variously elaborated in and through languages of domination and idioms of subversion. The papers in this panel will work upon, elaborate, and extend these two overlapping but distinct emphases. By taking up the pasts of subordinate groups from South Asia they will attempt to think through the opposition between simple and sacral societies rooted in myth and dynamic Western orders grounded in history, explore the pluralities in the contours and conceptions of subaltern pasts, and examine the processes of the interplay between orality and writing in the making of traditions, the constitution of modernities, and the fashioning of histories.
Ishita Banerjee Dube, El Colegio de Mexico
This paper will explore the ways in which history becomes "a negotiable and reworkable resource" by focusing on the construction of an itihasa within a primarily lower caste and tribal sectarian formation, Mahima Dharma, of nineteenth century Orissa. It will discuss how this past straddles "modern" conventions of history and "traditional" Indian notions of itihasa to combine an attention to chronology and temporality with a belief in the divinity of the founder of the sect. These moves place the founder within tradition and outside history. They also legitimize this itihasa as the only "authentic" history of the sect. Yet, the attempts to state a single history by gathering multiple parts unto a singular rendering, by ruling out divergent voices, by recording fluid occurrences as established facts, also open the itihasa to further readings and different renderings. They engender the creation of rival accounts of the past that once again foreground the founder of Mahima Dharma in ever novel ways, providing us with the means to rethink various conceptions of "heroic histories."
Ajay Skaria, University of Virginia
In Dangs, a densely forested region of western India, there is a rich complex of oral narratives or goth about the past. This paper suggests that it is inadequate to understand these narratives as mere sources for an oral history, or even as important resources for an ethnohistory. Rather, it argues that these narratives are better understood as articulations of a counter-aesthetics of modernity. In conventional understandings of modernity, history is an inescapable and inevitable precondition for thinking about personhood and agency. Thus, radical movements have often staked claims to recovering the history of subaltern groups, to reclaiming for these communities the pleasures (and struggles) of their pasts. Yet, both in Dangs and elsewhere, is this move of claiming history (and thus modernity) adequate? Focusing mainly on the ways in which Dangi narratives deal with questions of truth and time, my paper will argue that these narrativesand subaltern narratives about pasts, more generallydo not simply affirm history, do not only claim history, but that they also significantly exceed the concerns of history. Precisely because of this excess, the paper suggests, they produce hybrid histories, pasts that exist in an agonistic relationship with history and modernity.
Saurabh Dube, El Colegio de Mexico
This paper discusses the contested pasts and the contentious histories of a subordinate, "untouchable" community. Satnampanth, a heretical sect of central India, has an elaborate repertoire of myths, a part of the communitys oral traditions. These myths questioned and challenged the tenor of ritual power and colonial authority in the region, but they also remapped cultural conceptions of gender and order. All this involved powerful articulations of the past, a specific historical consciousness, which simultaneously underscored group identity and solidarity and drew the symbolic boundaries of the community. In the twentieth century, different efforts to transform the group turned its past into contentious territory, a disputed domain. Evangelical missionaries and Brahman reformers seized upon the oral myths to construct alternative written histories, contending authoritative accounts. These assiduously staged moves and manoeuvres, based upon a recognition of the importance of their past to the members of Satnampanth, involved an interface and interpenetration between speech and scripture, orality and writing, Satnami myths and Hindu histories, converts tales and missionary stories, and local legends and Brahmanical lore. Within these texts pasts stood reordered, and identities were redefined. But did these histories realize their end(s) in the past?