Q&A with 2009 Flexner Lecturer Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Posted November 5th, 2009 at 12:03 pm.

subrahmanyam2009 Mary Flexner Lecturer Sanjay Subrahmanyam is a prolific, well-regarded scholar, and an accomplished teacher. He taught economic history and comparative economic development at the Delhi School of Economics from 1983 to 1995, when he moved to Paris as directeur d’études in the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. In 2002, Subrahmanyam moved to Oxford as the first holder of the newly created chair in Indian history and culture. In 2004, he became the Navin and Pratima Doshi Chair in Indian History at ULCA. A year laterhe became founding director of UCLA’s Center for India and South Asia.

His lectures focus on the crucial role 16th- and 17th-century Eurasian courtly encounters played in shaping Muslim, Hindu, and Christian group perceptions of one another at that time and the historical influence and modern-day ramifications of those perceptions

Subrahmanyam sat down with Bryn Mawr Now after his first Flexner Lecture to share more about his research and the lectures.

Your series is titled “Courtly Encounters: Translating Courtliness in Early Modern Eurasia.” How did you decide upon this topic as the focus of your lectures?
I was looking for something within my academic expertise that is appropriate for this three lecture format. The topic can’t be so small that it can’t be expanded into three lectures or so large that it can’t be given a proper examination. I also knew I was going to be talking to an audience, many of whom won’t have a background in the subject. So I needed to make sure the topic would be of interest to a fairly wide audience.

What are the lectures like?
I use a mixture of textual and visual materials in each lecture. As one learns as a teacher, visual materials do a much better job of holding people’s attention than simply presenting a lecture. Also, for about 10 or 12 years I’ve been looking at visual materials—not as an art historian, but as an historian. It turns out a lot of the visual materials that come out of South Asia are tied to courts.

These lectures provide a broad-ranging reflection on the worlds of early modern Islam, Counter-Reformation Catholicism, Protestantism and a newly emergent Hindu sphere. I argue that debates on a variety of matters and concepts of pressing interest for the contemporary world—including secularism and cosmopolitanism—can be illuminated by turning to this earlier phase of interactions and conflicts.

What do you mean by courtly encounters and why are they significant in examining history?
What is sometimes lost sight of by historians is the fact that cultural encounters don’t often take place between societies or cultural systems as such, but between subcultures or segments of societies, in many cases courts. In these lectures, it is my intention to focus on how courtly encounters were the crucial site for the forging of mutual perceptions and representations in Eurasia.

Your lectures involve several groups that came into contact with one another in early modern Eurasia—Muslim states, Christian states, and Hindus. How were the courts from these very different groups able to interact with one another?
In order for these encounters to take place, there has to be a prior recognition of at least a crude parallel morphology, where the societal agents involved in the encounter saw each others’ societies as possessing somewhat similar political systems, dominated by rulers with courts, which in turn possessed systematic rules and conventions.

So was there in some respects greater tolerance for difference among these groups during this time than what we often see today?
There are some who like to portray these times as much more inclusive and tolerant than today, and then there’s the other extreme position that sees this as a time of great oppression and uses that view to justify their current actions. The reality is that there were all kinds of peculiar and difficult problems among these groups, including violence, in the period I’m dealing with but people’s reactions weren’t always what we might expect.

For instance, I researched an incident in which a Hindu temple was torn down and a mosque erected in its place during this period. About 20 years ago in India a gang tore down another similar mosque, that in turn led to riots and lots of people got killed. But when I researched the original incident, I found out that a lot of people at the time said, “Well, they tore down the temple, they put a mosque in its place; it used to be a place of worship, it’s still a place of worship.” So this act did occur, but the modern day reaction was more oriented to retribution and an idea of grievance than the reaction at the time.

How was the first lecture and what are your initial impressions of Bryn Mawr?
It’s a lovely campus which naturally reminds me of Oxford, though the undergraduates are far better behaved than in England. We shall see if that impression survives the weekend, though! I am also enjoying the baseball games amongst the big Philly fans we have here.

The first lecture went fairly well, I thought. There was an excellent turnout, of a wide diversity of people. I was particularly happy to see a number of colleagues and friends who made the trip from Penn. I look forward to the other lectures very much.

Visit the Mary Flexner Lectureship Web site for more details about the 2009 Flexner Lectureship, including a complete calendar of events for faculty, staff, students, and the general public.

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