Regionalism and Cosmopolitanism: South India
Coordinator: Emmanuel Francis
South India—comprised of four current states of the Republic of India: Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu—stands out in several respects in the larger context of South Asia. It is here, for instance, that the main Dravidian languages are spoken, whereas North India is dominated by Indo-European languages. The kinship system is isogamous. The religious architecture is characterized by tall and multicolored entry pavilions. “Colonial knowledge” has contributed to the emphasis placed on what distinguishes North India from South India, and this construction has been appropriated by nationalist movements.
However, from a very early time, South India has thought of itself as belonging to a much wider and more inclusive geographical and cultural framework. Sanskrit, an Indo-European language which became the pan-Indian language of culture and political discourse, has been in documented use in South India since the beginning of the Common Era. The religious and philosophical traditions to which Brahmanism has given rise took root there at around the same time, and Buddhism and Jainism were also well received.
South India, like some other regions of South-East Asia, has therefore been subjected to a process that we will call “Indianization,” for lack of a better word, while still adapting and transforming what has come from the outside, through a process of “indigenization” or “localization.” South India itself was the source of the Indianization that occurred in other South-East Asian regions at some points in time, which is evidenced by the fact that the written languages of South-East Asia are derived from a South Indian form of writing, itself an adaptation of a North Indian form.
With the political dominance of Islam in North India, South India even seems like a kind of preserve for Hindu and Brahmanic culture, because of the longer endurance of Hindu kingdoms there. However, Hindu and Brahmanic culture never completely disappeared in North India, and South India also has also seen its share of Islamic political regimes.
During the colonial period, South Indian culture was also exported, in accordance with the colonial regimes’ need for a workforce and functionaries in other parts of their empires. The French colonial administration sent Tamil functionaries to Vietnam. A sizeable number of Tamil agricultural workers immigrated to Sri Lanka. More recently, the political unrest in Sri Lanka incited many Tamils to emigrate. There is thus a Tamil diaspora that stretches from Malaysia to the island of Réunion, from Mauritius to Paris.
The “Regionalism and Cosmopolitanism: South India” team federates experts from a variety of fields around this regional particularity of South India, which is studied on the scale of longue durée. The aim is to describe the particular features shared by this regional culture, which, from the very beginning of its history, has inscribed itself within a double movement of both cosmopolitanism and regionalism.
Our overall aim is a total study (culture, religion, society, literature, politics, law, social and geographical representations), using the wide variety of different approaches provided by the fields of history, anthropology, geography and philology, as they are practiced by experts working on South India or on South Indian cultures in diaspora.
Our inquiry stretches over the entire span of history, in order to apprehend the formation and transformation of South Indian culture as it relates to the other regional or cultural constructions it has had contact with: the Brahmanic and Sanskrit culture of North India at the very beginning of the first millennium, Islamic culture shortly before the middle of the second millennium, and finally, starting in the second half of the second millennium, Christian missionaries and colonial administrators.
Our main questions—always launching off from empirical studies—are the following: How does one define one’s self in South India in relation to India as a whole and to the other parts of the country? In what milieus were “foreign” influences welcomed? For what purposes? What kinds of adaptations were these importations subjected to? What areas remain immune to external influences, or in what areas is regional specificity more particularly asserted? To what extent can we consider South India as the preserve of North Indian culture? What influence did colonization have on the formation of modern regional identity? How is South Indian identity preserved in the diaspora?
Such case-studies will be accompanied by a theoretical reflection on ideas and concepts such as cosmopolitanism, regionalism, Sanskrit cosmopolis, Sanskritization, Indianization, Aryanization, Brahmanization, Dravidian, anti-Brahmanism, acculturation, transculturation, syncretism, accommodation, localization, vernacularization, indigenization, regionalization, de-Sanskritization, “colonial knowledge,” etc.
This research will be conducted with a global and comparativist perspective. The aim is to describe the South Indian regional phenomenon and compare it to other regional phenomena so as to sharpen our ability to describe and understand them. We will be in constant dialogue with experts on other South Asian regions, but also on other cultural areas.
Concretely speaking, we will investigate the following:
Vedic recitation by Nambudiri Brahmins in Kerala (Michel Angot);
manuscript and commentary traditions of the Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai—a devotional text dedicated to the god Murukaṉ (Emmanuel Francis);
adaptation and acceptance of Christianity during the missionary period, “missionary literature” in Tamil (Ines G. Županov);
religion and Tamil territorial identity in India and in the diaspora, professional mobility of Tamil temple priests (Ādiśaiva or Śivācārya caste) in India and the diaspora (Pierre-Yves Trouillet).
2) Traditional medicine:
relationships between the Āyurveda text and Āyurveda practice in Kerala (Michel Angot);
transmission of knowledge and know-how in Siddha medicine (Brigitte Sébastia).
agriculture and food in South India (Brigitte Sébastia).
concept of Tamil customary law, mode of production and analysis of a vernacular legal corpus from the 18th to the 20th century (Zoé Headley).
Muslim implantation in the early modern period, historical and identity-political re-constructions by South Indian Muslims since the 16th century (Johanna Blayac).
6) Stage arts and social arts:
role of courtesans/artists in Indian society, in particular with regard to the temple and the court, modification of their status during the colonial and post-colonial periods, on the basis of analysis of ethnographic, epigraphic and historical sources (Tiziana Leucci).
7) Language and literature:
cultural and social history of the Tamil language (uses and representations), royal epigraphic panegyrics in the Tamil language (Emmanuel Francis).
The Regionalism and cosmopolitanism research notebook.
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