Remembering Kumkum Chatterjee

Memorial for Kumkum Chatterjee at Madison South Asia Conference 2013
Memorial for Kumkum Chatterjee at Madison South Asia Conference 2013

Two weeks ago, a group of scholars and family members gathered at Penn State University to honor the memory and work of Kumkum Chatterjee (1958-2012). The conference, The Local as Cosmopolitan: Negotiating Tradition, Making History, Translating Culture in South Asia, was hosted by Penn State’s History and Asian Studies departments along with others. It focused on presentations and discussions of the themes which animated Kumkum Chatterjee’s life-work: cultural and imperial entanglements, literary history, place and narrative.

On the academic front, the papers by Ramya Sreenivasen, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Mrinalini Sinha and Madhuri Desai were a special treat for me. A number of speakers – Partha Chatterjee, Robert Travers – spoke of the historiographic impact of Kumkum’s 1998 article, “History as Self-Representation: The Recasting of a Political Tradition in Late Eighteenth-Century Eastern India” Modern Asian Studies 32, which launched a number of re-assessments as well a critical interest in examining Mughal historiography on Bengal.

On the personal front, it brought tears to my eyes (of laughter) when after dinner, participants shared funny anecdotes and songs, evoking the laughter that I most associate with Kumkum.

We look forward to the publication of Kumkum’s essays and the establishment of her library and archive in the future.


Recently, a Sikh man was called “terrorist” and “Osama” and assaulted near his house – in Harlem. I wrote about it:

Is the attack on Mr. Singh an event that bears a relationship to incidents of violence against minorities around the globe? His is, after all, a singular story. Yet, all the other cases of crimes against minorities are also unique. Each represents a member of a community chosen as a target and then subject to annihilation – legal or physical. To resist such erasure, to speak out against the attackers, to educate the community, to build networks of support, are all necessary acts that depend on proper contextualization of the crime.

Have a read.

Village Idiots

[Gentle Readers, let me introduce to you another member of the CM family:ਮੁਟਿਆਰ مُٹیار mutiyar who prowls the streets of Lahore in a bael-gari and whips any machar she encounters. She is currently finishing her B.A. She is the best. We like her. We hope you do, too. – sepoy.]


“Some might see this as racism but it’s really funny to see all your friends doing stupid stuff.”

I’ve met students from LUMS who have participated in those popular “Paindu Day” and “Daaku Day” festivals where youths dress up like stereotyped Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtuns, etc to show their self-proclaimed “appreciation” for aforementioned cultures in Pakistan. The appreciation, however, is lost somewhere in translation and ends up only becoming trite and typical of mostly rich students studying in a university located in a gentrified housing residential area. Obviously the last detail is conveniently brushed aside. The usual trajectory of such a conversation goes like this:

Interviewer: So, tell us more about the motivation to “appreciate” rural culture in this particular way?

LUMS student: Well, yaar, dekho. My driver na? He’s from some duur daraz village and he talks in such a funny way like he bumps off words and sounds like your typical paindu. Then there’s Sheeda Tulli or Bhatti in your Punjabi movies and even Urdu dramas, and they all look so hilarious and happy despite not having much na.

Interviewer: You decided to appreciate this culture by wearing excessively bright and tacky garb, black marker moles on your cheeks and keeping mid-parted oily hair?

LUMS student: Aho! That’s how paindus say it, right? AA-HO! Ho, get it? I’m hilarious. My friend laughed at my brilliant mimicking – I mean appreciative impersonation – of the jaahil painday for, like, hours, yaar.


I: And you saw nothing wrong with it?

L: Yaar, please. Racist hogi tumhari dunya mai. Idher scene chill hai. Only over-sensitive uncles and aunties will be offended at our appreciation of rural people. Ek to you guys want representation and then tum laug fauran bura mana letay ho. Look at this black mole I put on my cheek to look like one of them. And check out my pagri and my fake mustache that I’ll twirl dramatically like every done-to-death Punjabi villain in movies does. My girlfriend here put on a tub of makeup to look happy and cheap si like those paindu girls. Someone really needs to teach them what to wear, you know?

I: …

L: My other friend appreciates Sindhi culture so he dresses like a Daaku (bandit). I love the diversity in Pakistan, man. Another friend of mine pretends to eat niswar and wields a fake machine gun to look like a Pathan and –

I: Pashtun.


L: Yeah, whatever you call them. They smell weird, hai na? This is appreciating cultures in Pakistan. What’s the big deal! Khocha, come on! Maybe we could find a bachi who puts on a topi burka for the day and acts like a subservient Pathani wife which is so hilar –

I: That’s racist.


L: Lighten up, yaar! We’re appreciating culture. Besides, we do pay the dhol wala a good amount of money and I’m sure the janitors on campus love to see us copy their accents. They know we’re appreciating them.

I: I’m sure.

L: My idea of showing interest in the cultures of Pakistan is by acting like them. Don’t lie. You know they’re misfits in the city. I don’t hate them, though! I certainly do not have a superiority complex either…

I: But you would never let them sit on the same couch with you, right? Or embrace you on meeting because, you know, they smell “different” and you don’t want your peers to see you in questionable company, correct? Ever considered taking them to Gloria Jeans with you? Maybe for dinner at CTC? Or will they be told to wait in the car?

L: Dekho. That’s different. Kuch farq bhi hota hai hum mai aur un mai.


Photos via here and here.

Said is Dead. Long Live Said!

Dear all,

On September 27th, I will be moderating an event in CCNY noting the tenth year anniversary of Edward Said. Details on the event are here. The panelists include our very own Lapata; Martín Espada, Chee Malabar (whom you should remember from here), Anjali Kamat, Kade Crockford, and Robyn Spencer. Here is the FB page for the event, should you want to like it.

It bears saying that I am intensely excited about this event, and the gathering. I also want to note that this event is truly a NYC collaboration with CCNY, CUNY, York, Columbia and NYU as well as The New Inquiry and The Asian American Writers’ Workshop among the supporters. We all hope to see you there.


Looking at Mughal(s)

Lately I have been thinking about narrativizing visual language of Mughal art. Which is a weird way of saying I want to talk about Mughal art telling stories. Which is even more of a weird way of saying I am beginning to see a future article in which I, a historian of text, looks.

Looking seems to be the motif of the summer, in retrospect.

In any event, gentle readers, I (@sepoy) tweeted a number of images which are helpfully storified here by CM Intern (to be disclosed soon) and CM Head Archivist (@salmaan_H). The article will most certainly look something like this.

XQs II: A Conversation with Kavita Datla

A regular series on CM, XQs (Ten Questions), is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies. The aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship – sepoy.

Kavita S. DatlaKavita S. Datla received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. She is currently Associate Professor at Mount Holyoke College’s History Department. Her book, The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India was published by University of Hawaii Press in 2013.

[Interview conducted by Sepoy, via email, July 12-15th, 2013]

1. Yours is a really invigorating work, which opens up new archives to discuss a host of important issues – translation, governmentality, secularism, colonialism. I want to start at a tangent, important as it is to your book, and ask you to discuss what particular relationship exists between language and community pre 1700 in India. Is there one? Or should we put this in the basket of “ruptures” caused by colonialism.

The Language of Secular Islam Hardcover. 248pp. Cloth  Price: $49.00 ISBN: 978-0-8248-3609-2  Published: January 2013
The Language of Secular Islam
Hardcover. 248pp.
Price: $49.00
ISBN: 978-0-8248-3609-2
Published: January 2013

No, I do think there is a relationship between language and region even prior to the colonial period. Clearly, poets would employ certain languages, and explicitly reference that usage, in order to make claims to specific places – something that had a very long history. But, I would add that what is striking to a twenty-first century reader of these earlier texts is the mobility of language – scripts, vocabulary, genres, and languages themselves – in comparison to the situation today. I’ve spoken with non-academic translators who, working in their native language, as they move back in time to earlier texts, are struck by the number of ‘foreign’ words they encounter. I think this has something to do with the fact that languages, before 1700, were associated with regions, amongst many other things. So, as I understand it, every region (though it might be associated with a particular language) would be home to several. This is because languages were also associated with courtly culture, with temple performance, with particular religious narratives or practices that were trans-regional, etc. I am thinking here of Indira Peterson’s work on the multilingual literary and performative traditions of Tanjavur, or Velcheru Narayana Rao’s work on the various shifting geographical sites at which Telugu literary production took place. And of course, in periods of shifting patronage, poets themselves would move, along with their literary and linguistic resources.
Continue reading “XQs II: A Conversation with Kavita Datla”

XQs I: A Conversation with Teena Purohit

The inaugural issue of a regular series on CM, XQs (Ten Questions), is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies. The aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. I am actively looking for authors & interlocutors so, do get in touch with me. I hope to develop this series into a mainstay at CM. Many thanks – Sepoy

T_PurohitTeena Purohit submitted her Ph.D in Religion at Columbia University in 2007. She is currently Assistant Professor in Boston University’s Religion Department. Her first book is The Aga Khan Case: Religion and Identity in Colonial India published with Harvard University Press. You can access her full C.V. at her faculty page.

[Interview conducted by Sepoy, via email, June 10-15th, 2013]

HARDCOVER 198 pages $45.00 • £33.95 • €40.50 ISBN 9780674066397 Publication: October 2012
198 pages
$45.00 • £33.95 • €40.50
ISBN 9780674066397
Publication: October 2012
1. Both the jacket blurb, and your introduction makes a case against an “Arab-centered” perspective of studying Islam and Islamicate cultures. Could you start by telling me what do you mean here? What is the corrective you are offering?

The book centers on a discussion of a famous court case known as The Aga Khan Case of 1866. The primary argument I make is that the British colonial court redefined a local caste group in Bombay, the Khojas, as “Ismaili Muslim.” In the final judgment, the definitive claim was that they were “converts” to a Middle Eastern Islam. I analyze how this legal process unfolded, specifically, the ways in which the judge deployed what I call an Arab-centric framework in the adjudication process and in the final judgment.

What I mean by an “Arab-centered” approach is that it gives primacy to origins of Islam–the classical Arab period and Arabic texts. This approach was consolidated in the 19th century when Orientalists wrote definitive accounts of Islam on the basis of their philological work in Arabic. This perspective predominates today in the popular media as well as the western academy: Islam is thought to be understood primarily through Arabic religious texts (Quran and Hadith) and Arab-centric practices, such as pilgrimage to Mecca and praying in the direction of the Kaaba.

The judge determined the character of Khoja religious idenity through a tendentious interpretation of the gināns, the devotional texts of the Khojas. The alternative approach I offer is an examination of the gināns from a literary perspective as a way to think religion outside the language of identity. The gināns are body of South Asian Muslim devotional poetry composed in the Gujarati, Hindi, and Urdu languages between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. These texts have been primarily translated and interpreted by scholars of Ismaili studies, who have adopted an Arab-centric perspective to understand these texts. That is, they have analyzed the gināns as part of a continuous Ismaili tradition that can be traced to the origins of Islam.

I situate the gināns as “Islamicate” texts because I am interested in the how these texts are embedded in local contexts and how their texture and movement help us understand religious practices that are not derivations of an Arab Islam, but instantiations of local Islam, described by the poems as Satpanth. My analyses of the poems foreground how the Satpanth tradition reworks classical Sanskrit and Arabic forms and ideas, giving them new meaning and significance. These “borrowings” and “exchanges” set in motion particular ways of imagining community and belonging that are not based on a restrictive conception of identity.
Continue reading “XQs I: A Conversation with Teena Purohit”