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.

2. What is your book arguing?

Publisher: Orient BlackSwan Price : Rs. 745.00 ISBN: 978-81-250-5018-6
Publisher: Orient BlackSwan
Price : Rs. 745.00
ISBN: 978-81-250-5018-6

My book tells the story of a set of vernacular projects in the Urdu language in the early twentieth century. It argues that the people involved in these projects were self-consciously trying to ‘modernize’ the Urdu language and make it fit for new national, and secular, purposes. Given Urdu’s associations with Muslims, these projects were simultaneously about finding a place for Muslims in the nation.

The book begins by considering the general character of education in the Hyderabad state, and the different projects of reform that were proposed by late nineteenth/early twentieth century administrators and thinkers – from a plan to create an Islamic university that would usher in a theological reformation in the larger Muslim world, to a proposal to found India’s first vernacular university. Ultimately, it was the latter that was taken up and the new university became a site for a massive project of translation, and for the unfolding of new research agendas. Many of these projects sent intellectuals sifting through the Indian past and non-Western (and especially Islamic) scholarly traditions to identify vocabularies and experiences that might be retrieved and used for a newly defined common good. Ultimately, the book tries to recover some of the tensions and debates involved in this process (as people argued about which vocabularies or traditions to draw from) and also the political impasses that they led to; the latter most dramatically in discussions with figures like Gandhi over India’s national language (Hindi, Urdu, or Hindustani). In that sense, it is as much about language as it is about the political questions opened up by Indian nationalism.

3. Three conceptual spaces are operating in your work: Princely States as a political and geographic space, language as geography, and global networks of intellectual and political figures. Tell me how you conceived of the relationship between these spaces for your work?

I first became interested in the project when I found out that a Hyderabad administrator (Sayyid Ross Masood) had been sent to Japan to study its system of education. We are really accustomed to thinking about South Asian education in relation to England and the U.S., so I was intrigued by this. I was especially surprised to hear that the Hyderabad government had been involved as so much of the secondary scholarship gives us an image of the state (by the late nineteenth century) as being a kind of place apart, with parochial horizons, importing practices and people from a maximum distance of north India – in other words, a backwater. What became clear to me as I was doing research, perhaps because of the interests of scholars today in global history, was not only that people in Hyderabad traveled or had connections to global travelers, but also that many of the preoccupations of its literary scholars and educators were shared in other parts of the non-western world. Contemporaries, from Al-Afghani to Tagore, even believed that Hyderabad might create opportunities that were unavailable in the directly-ruled territories of the British empire. In this particular case, intellectuals were thinking about larger questions: how to translate the content of western education into non-western languages; how to make those languages fit for the task of modern life; and also how to make education itself serve the interests of modern citizens and nations. The solutions they devised took a particular shape in Hyderabad, which tells us about the evolving political culture of Indian society, but the questions themselves constantly drew people into a discussion of other languages, places, and even times.

4. My favorite chapter, if I may be so bold, is your chapter on “Muslim Pasts: Writing the History of India and the History of Islam”. In your discussion of Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926) and Sayyid Hashmi Faridabadi (/), you argue, convincingly, that these scholars were articulating an alternative space both in history and in historiography for Muslims (alternative to the Oriental scholarship). Could you speak to why the earliest history of Islam was so pivotal a period for these scholars and their projects?

I am both delighted and surprised to hear you say that! When I finished my dissertation, that chapter was lying on the chopping room floor. I knew that there was something there but had done an awful job developing it. That chapter was especially difficult for me to write as it took me into the (then unfamiliar) terrain of Arabic historiography.
Clearly, the time of early Islam has always been important to practicing Muslims and to Muslim scholarship. But, it is also true that in late nineteenth-century South Asia there was a heightened interest in writing about it. So, we see a proliferation of historical biographies of the Prophet, for example. In fact, Shibli’s monumental Sirat-ul nabi is produced in this period with the financial assistance of the Hyderabad government. I think there is a lot more that we could do to think about why this happened at this particular moment. This was, of course, a time when scholars in other parts of the Muslim world, like Egypt, were composing modern Prophetic siras as well. My small contribution was to look at how one series of texts on the History of Islam was constructed, to think about the choices that were available to the author as he wrote and to understand his particular narrative decisions. Clearly, Sharar was responding to western scholarship on Islam. But, he was also interested, I think, in trying to understand historical “decline”. In this, he shared a context with many other thinkers in the colonial world. It was a question that especially preoccupied Indian Muslims in the wake of the permanent displacement of the Mughal emperor and one that led them to think in terms of a model of civilizations, to which Gibbon was central. It is also striking that the Hyderabad state made the determination that there were no fitting books on the History of India or Islam that they could use in their classrooms. Clearly, history was a uniquely politicized academic subject in this period and those writing in Hyderabad had their eye on the evolving state of the field, keeping track of archaeological excavations of the Indus Valley civilization, or writings about Dravidian civilization, as well as those works being produced by European authors on the early history of Islam and the history of India.

5. In a sense your work traces a network of British and Indian intellectuals at the early 20th century moment in Hyderabad. Simultaneously, you are also tracing the history of an institution – that is the Osmania University? Is there a tension between these two foci? What theoretical framework helps you move from the individual to the institution?

You might be surprised by how many different individuals are hailed as ‘the founder’ of Osmania University. Obviously, that is not the relationship between individual and institution to which you refer.

I think there is a tension here, but I hope that it is a productive one. On the one hand, the archives themselves seemed to suggest a project on Osmania University, as it was so important to education in the state and had effects that rippled out into the countryside. But I also wanted to get more involved in the challenges that the institution was trying to address, and one way to do this was to work through the many publications of the individuals associated with it. So there was an element of intellectual history here, an attempt to understand why certain concepts, like that of the vernacular, became particularly and peculiarly loaded at the turn of the twentieth century. The focus on the trajectories of scholars associated with the institution also allowed me to write about the larger political debates that characterized this period, and to do so in a way that the dilemmas resonated to readers today. But ultimately, I was also interested in finding out as much as I could about how these intellectual debates came to shape the system of education in the state and therefore also affected a larger public. So, in the last chapter, I look at some of the statements made by students during the course of a protest movement, trying to take their ideas about language and religion seriously. Osmania University continues to be a nerve center for political movements, today for a separate state of Telangana, and it is important to think seriously about the (not identical) political motivations that have inspired these movements in different periods.

6. A key interest of mine in these discussions is to illuminate the process that moves the dissertation into the book. Share with us some of what changed for you, what enabled the change to happen, lessons learned?

The biggest change came with my teaching full time. Grading student papers and putting together lectures, I think, made me a much better writer, or at the very least, a much more careful and clear one. Aside from the actual writing, the greatest changes came in the conceptual framing of the book. This, of course, involved reading others work, circulating my own and getting involved in new conversations. But I think I also needed a certain distance from the materials, a draft that I could actually put away knowing that things had been recorded, so that I could think. While writing my dissertation, I was still trying to figure out if there was a story. In writing the book, I could ask larger theoretical questions. Now, I knew I had a story, so the question was: how does knowing this story change anything? In India, more generally, I thought it could tell us about the unfolding of competing secular agendas within the context of Indian nationalism. For Hyderabad, in particular, I hope it tells us something about the varied political ambitions that have motivated its people.

7. Tell me about the structure of the book, the form of it? Do you feel that you were able to tell this story in the way it does justice to your archives and the history? Can you think of other ways in which you would tell the same story?

I am not yet ready to disavow any part of the book! I’m not even sure how many have had a chance to read it.

The book is organized both thematically and chronologically. This seemed natural as certain projects were more important in certain periods. So, for example, translation was very important to the institution from the beginning, student politics much more important in the 30s and onwards, as student life became consolidated geographically and political parties more active in the city. A few conversations I’ve had with colleagues suggest that this might have worked well, so that those interested in social movements know where to turn, as might Islamic studies scholars, or others.

8. How was the process of finding a publisher? Tell us how you landed at your press. There is a bibliography and an index but there is no map! Not a one. Which makes me sad. Will you blame the press for it?

As I was thinking about a home for this book, I was, in part, interested in expanding its natural audience. It struck me then that the questions that it addresses, about intellectual responses to the displacements of colonialism, reform of the vernacular, secularism in multi-religious societies, and the engagements of Muslims with democratizing projects, resonated very strongly with scholarship on Southeast Asia. In that regard, Hawaii was an obvious choice, and I wrote to them.

There is one map in the book, on p. 11! But I certainly did not mean to make you sad, and will keep this in mind for the future. Any blame to be had is mine.

9. Can you recommend five recent works that you think ought to be read in conversation with yours?

Parna Sengupta, Pedagogy for Religion.
Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism.
Bhavani Raman, Document Raj.
Bhangya Bhukya, Subjugated Nomads.
Iftikhar Dadi, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia.

10. As an author of a brand-new work that also makes historiographical intervention, could you finish this sentence: “In South Asian history, we need to focus on … “

There is so much we could do! Certainly, the manuscript collections of Hyderabad (many of which have not been discussed seriously in the secondary scholarship) testify to this. I’ve currently begun work on the eighteenth century Deccan, so at the moment I wish everyone worked on the same. But I think, more generally, South Asianists are at their best when they address big questions about the experience of capitalism, colonialism, and democracy and how they have created the political and economic predicaments which plague us in the present, all of which, of course, requires us to think across regions. Within South Asia, we can and should talk about the diverse ways in which these experiences have been addressed. In other words, I think we could stand having more robust and intimate political genealogies. We especially also need scholars of the premodern period, attuned to modern theory, who can show us how things did not have to end up the way that they did, to introduce us to radically different ways of doing and seeing things. In other words, it is very exciting time to think across periods in South Asia.

Thank you so very much, Kavita – and I really hope your book travels far. Congratulations!

2 Replies to “XQs II: A Conversation with Kavita Datla”

  1. I shall read this book very soon! It seems to bring together important conceptual, cultural, and political issues.. I work in the early modern period and hope to find it of use! Congratulations.!

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