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Meet the New AAS Vice President

Anne Feldhaus is Distinguished Foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and will become AAS vice president after the 2017 conference in Toronto.

In the summer after my first year of college, I had the chance to live in Paris for some months. I returned elated and wiser, and confident that I had already used up my allotted time to spend outside the US. I was wrong.

Just two years later, a professor at my college invited me to accompany her to India for the summer. I jumped at the chance. After some delicate negotiations with my parents and the college, I set off across the world—and into the rest of my life. I fell in love with India that first time, a complicated love that has grown even more complex over the years. I have spent much of my adult life figuring out how to get back to India again and again, how to live there for long periods of time, and how to deepen my friendships with and understanding of ever more kinds of people there.

Graduate school was at first for me a way to get back to India. I chose my university because it offered courses in Marathi, the language spoken now by about 80 million people in Maharashtra, the western-Indian state I first went to as a college student. As my skill in the Marathi language has developed, I have delighted in the world I have found in its 13th-century literature, in the things that contemporary speakers of the language have explained to me, and in what I have learned from modern Marathi scholarly writings about the religious history of the region.

My own scholarly work began with the Old Marathi literature of the Mahānubhāvs, a thirteenth-century religious group including ascetics and lay people that is still active today. After translating and analyzing three early Mahānubhāv texts, the most enjoyable of them being The Deeds of God in Ṛddhipur (1984), I spent a year reading Mahānubhāv religious-geographical texts and visiting Mahānubhāv holy places throughout Maharashtra. That year provided me a springboard to move out of the relatively sectarian confines of the Mahānubhāv tradition and into the somewhat wider world (or, rather, the many other small worlds) of popular religiosity in Maharashtra. Using a combination of fieldwork and textual studies, I have written two books about Maharashtrian religious geography: Water and Womanhood (1995) and Connected Places (2003).

At the end of the twentieth century I spent a decade and a half helping my Old-Marathi teacher prepare a dictionary of the earliest period of the language (up to about 1350 C.E.), and I am currently helping another scholar prepare a series of catalogs of Marathi manuscripts. With the early death of Günther Sontheimer of the University of Heidelberg, I inherited some of his students, two of his research assistants, and his rich archive of oral literature related to pastoralists’ gods. A sampler of this literature came out in Marathi in 2006 and in English in 2014 (Say to the Sun, “Don’t Rise” and to the Moon, “Don’t Set”). I am currently collaborating with a natural-resource social scientist on a study of four mountain places visited by pilgrims, trekkers, and other kinds of tourists.

As the fashion for area studies has waxed and waned, a series of international conferences on Maharashtra has provided me since the early 1980s a way to listen to and collaborate with historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other scholars of literature and religious studies in what my university would call “transdisciplinary” research. As an incoming AAS officer, I look forward to new conversations and collaborations with scholars from many places, in many disciplines, working on many different parts of Asia.

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