IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |South Asia


8-12 September 1998
Charles University, Prague

Fifteenth European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies

By Thomas de Bruijn

A major, multi-discipline conference like the one held in Prague is to the participant like the proverbial elephant in a village of blind men: everyone touches a part of it and believes it to be the whole. After a joint opening session by professors Elizarenkova (Moscow) and Rothermund (Heidelberg), the conference diverged into a delta of numerous panels covering a range of historical, sociological, anthropological, cultural, and literary topics. This format restricts the participant's opportunity to 'surf' the many simultaneous panels and learn from other disciplines, which, besides delving deep into one's own field, is a purpose of such meetings. The inherent logistic problems of the much-heralded concept of multi-disciplinary studies become obvious on such occasions.

During the more in-depth experiences at this conference, as a convener of a panel on Sufism and early Islam and as a participant in a panel on the representation of marginality in modern South Asian literature, it sprang to mind that the approach from various disciplinary angles should be found in the limited space of specific areas of research rather than across the vast expanse of the field of South Asian studies.
The Sufism and early Islam panel evolved from collaboration with scholars who work on the medieval and early modern religious literature in the Indian 'vernaculars'. In this area the interaction between the popular Sufi centers and Indian religious traditions has been a dominant feature which forced Indologists to cross over into the study of Islamic traditions in India, and vice-versa attracted Islamologists to the field of Indian religions. The role of Sufi-centers in providing a 'stage' for the emancipation of lower castes, challenging existing positions in the field of popular devotion and religious prestige, and offering a cosmogonically defined locus which facilitated settlements of nomads and others in many areas of South Asia, has instigated interesting comparisons with research into Sufi-traditions all over the Islamic world. The application of methodology from the cultural studies provides an interesting handle for a many-sided approach to the development of Indian Islamic traditions. As an example I proposed the application of the concept of the literary field as a continuous element in the development of Indian Islamic literature throughout its crossover into modernity.
Another example of the development of a multi-disciplinary approach within a specific field was the panel on modern literature. The theme of marginality turned out to be such a ubiquitous and fundamental element of modern fiction in the Indian languages, that the approaches put forward in the papers contributed to a varied and rich perspective on this issue. From the late nineteenth century writings to Arundhati Roy's award-winning fiction, the characters from marginal groups in society, the authors' experience of not fitting in with their environment, and the inherent marginalization of individuals in a modern urban society have been major elements in Indian writing. The tension between margin and centre, as represented in literature in many Indian languages, provides an amazingly manifold insight into the struggle with identity that went on throughout this century in all layers and corners of Indian society.
The conference, which was hosted in an exemplary manner by the Indian Institute of the Charles University, Prague effectively brought together scholars in this broad field. Its success will undoubtedly be carried on in its next instance, at Edinburgh, in the year 2000.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |South Asia