Vernacular Cultures and New Muslim Elites in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia
Coordinators: Michel Boivin and Julien Levesque
The “Vernacular Cultures and New Muslim Elites in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia” workshop would like to explore the notion of “vernacular Muslim cultures” from a multidisciplinary perspective, with a focus on the contemporary Indian sub-continent. The double enquiry that will structure the workshop can be formulated in this way: what do Muslim vernacular cultures tell us about the transformations of the representations and practices of Islam in South Asia at the present time? And also, what happens when religious culture is no longer produced by religious specialists? The notion of Muslim vernacular cultures refers to cultures that have appeared and developed in Muslim contexts, but using a vernacular language. This qualification of vernacular follows from the split distinguishing two series of languages used by Muslims: vehicular languages (Arabic, Persian, Urdu, or even English) and vernacular languages.
Muslim vernacular cultures do not constitute a homogenous category, however. In the colonial and postcolonial periods that constitute the chronological framework of the workshop, language as a tool to express a religious culture maps out a wide field. It would indeed be overly simplistic to assert that a certain type of religious knowledge is expressed in a certain language. There are cross-overs, overlaps and intersections between, for example, texts written in Arabic and those in Sindhi. The presentation of the foundations of faith (uṣūl al-dīn) has at times coexisted in both these languages. From the perspective we wish to adopt in this workshop, the idea of Muslim vernacular cultures is meant to reference a notion of place and “regionalism” in that these cultures reflect local or regional constructions that are the result of competitions, integration and exclusion processes that are operative on an ongoing basis. The development of Muslim vernacular cultures does indeed take on specific forms according to the region: not only does the language define a geographically situated zone of common expression (to which visual productions are not limited), but the emergence of new elites also occurs differently depending on the social structure (in particular on the proportion of Muslims in the overall population and the distribution of real estate holdings) and on the political structure (princely State or region administered by the British Crown, autonomous province, or one under the authority of a presidency, etc.).
In using the term “cultures,” the intention of the workshop is to expand its investigations beyond just the written literary object, to open itself up to other forms of expression, such as ritual, epigraphic, iconographic or cinematographic corpuses. Furthermore, even when we do turn to written literary corpuses, the workshop will pay particular attention to forms of knowledge that are excluded from official doctrine by the political and religious authorities and to the relationships such forms of knowledge maintain with these authorities. One of the things we have in mind in this respect are the texts on occult sciences, or those that declare there is no difference between the spiritual quest as Islam and Hinduism define it. To more precisely delineate the fields of activity among Muslim vernacular cultures, the activities of the workshop will be organized around two periods, both of which are characterized by the appearance of new elites who contributed to the renewal of Muslim vernacular cultures. The first sequence will take the colonial period as its frame in order to study how new elites produced by colonization contributed to the renewal of Muslim vernacular cultures by incorporating new literary types, such as the passage from hagiography to biography of soufis, and also by preserving “folkloric” or heterodox forms of knowledge, which was greatly facilitated by the print industry. The second sequence, which will cover the postcolonial period, will be interested in the emergence of the new elites produced by the nationalist context and in their role in transforming Muslim vernacular cultures, sometimes using new tools such as film.
In order to highlight the continuity between these two periods, three transvers lines of inquiry will guide workshop activities. Along a first line, the workshop intends to examine general questions, such as the role of the colonial, then postcolonial State in the production of Muslim vernacular cultures. Let us specify right away that we will not consider the State as an essentialized notion, but rather as a site where power is used, be it central, regional or local. Along a second line of inquiry, the workshop will focus on the agents who boost the resilience and initiate the preservation of these precolonial Muslim forms of knowledge. Our aim will also be to evaluate whether these new elites, who were often trained in British schools, replaced the traditional Muslim sources of authority, or at least to understand what forms of interaction occurred, if any. The workshop will also revisit other themes, in particular those having to do with social cleavages—such as that between the ashrāf and the ajlaf—with the relationship to authority, and the question of the production and dissemination of the religious norm in subaltern milieus. The third line of inquiry will be concerned with the content, properly speaking, of these corpuses which make up Muslim vernacular cultures.
This diachronic approach, which straddles the colonial and postcolonial periods, will allow us to highlight the continuities and disjunctions in State policy, but also the impact of the various forms of religious radicalization, and finally the capacity for resilience inherent to Muslim vernacular cultures. Moreover, the workshop will prefer a critical approach to conceptual tools. Rather than relying on essentialist theories of Islam or the State, we will analyze Muslim vernacular cultures in the context of historical social structures as well as of sites of power. The workshop will rely on transdisciplinarity, with cross-overs mainly between historiographical research conducted in public and private archives and on-site ethnographic studies.
The role of the colonial and postcolonial State.
What role did the State play in the objectification process of Muslim vernacular cultures? The objectification process, developed by Bernard Cohn in other contexts, played a key role in the development of Muslim vernacular cultures. The print industry was a privileged tool for the implementation of this process. Our starting point will be the hypothesis that, while the State played a decisive role in the formalization of Muslim vernacular cultures in an initial phase, the new elites themselves also objectified these cultures before producing, in a second phase, new cultural formations during the nationalist period. After 1947, the independent States began once again to seek control over Muslim vernacular cultures, using a variety of strategies. In contemporary Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, what is the State’s position on shrine culture, for instance? Moreover, the close interaction between the print industry and the State continued well into the postcolonial period as a means to control how Muslim vernacular cultures were produced. In Pakistan, when the Department of Religious Endowments took control of Sufi mausoleums, a new phase of publications in vernacular languages on the saints was initiated. We may therefore wonder to what extent the print industry can reinforce the legitimacy of the State in this respect. These reflections will also be carried over to other media, such as film, radio and television. For example, how does the patronage provided by public media to musicians—especially those specialized in devotional songs—transform Muslim vernacular cultures? Finally, we will consider the role played by public research institutions: the aim will be to understand how institutions mandated to preserve popular culture, such as the Lok Virsa in Pakistan, actually perpetuate colonial ethnography, which describes typical groups, rather than looking closely at the society around them. The role of the new elites in these institutions deserves particular attention, because the discourse they construct—a discourse which sometimes touts Muslim vernacular cultures as a regional heritage—often maintains an ambiguous relationship with that promoted by the State.
New elites versus traditional authorities.
In what circumstances did new elites appear at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries? Who were they and where did they come from? How much freedom did they have in relation to traditional Muslim authorities? And in relation to the State? How did they multiply and how did they react in relation to nationalist and independence movements? The new elites were generally employees of the colonial administration, and after independence was achieved, they often continued to work in the same professional fields (bureaucracy, education, finance, law). These new elites, who had a certain degree of control over religious knowledge, were however not religious specialists. This novel situation will need to be evaluated within the context of the construction and transmission of Muslim vernacular cultures. It will also be necessary to understand how these elites situated themselves in relation to others who also disseminated Muslim vernacular cultures, such as caste musicians for example. A certain continuity in how elites are constructed can be observed. Since independence was achieved, it has been the new university elites, those who studied at Aligarh for example, who have taken on the preservation of Muslim vernacular cultures. It is therefore very important to reconstruct the career paths of these new elites in order to be able to get a handle on the structural changes they are involved in, and which provide the frame for the authority they acquire and the discourse they produce. Depending on the region and the administrative environment, these career paths differ. How did these elites gain access to university-level education? What professions and lifestyles do they aspire to? Who are they in competition with? Where do they stand in terms of real estate distribution and what role do they play in the relationships between the urban and rural areas of their region? Finally, in this regard as well, it will be important to examine the relationship between these elites and the print industry as a tool of legitimization. After independence was achieved, the new elites made use of new technologies which enabled them to gain a hold on the field of the religious.
Productions and corpus transmission.
What types of Muslim vernacular cultures have these elites produced? Has the use of a given language inflected the morphology of the corpuses? Have specific texts been produced in one language and not in others? At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the printed corpuses are comprised of occult science treatises, Shia devotional literature or Sufi poetry. Where the latter is concerned, a process of popularization can be observed, through the publication of biographies of the saints and explanatory works on difficult texts from the past. Beyond the exploration of sources in the main archives, ethnographic study will enable us to evaluate the social role of Muslim vernacular cultures in current Muslim societies, in particular by looking at rarely-mentioned practices, such as those of divination for example. We may also want to consider a new generation which has staked out a claim to “social networks” on the web, in order to study what types of content are disseminated by this means, and how. What kinds of changes has technological modernity introduced when it comes to the preservation and transmission of Muslim vernacular cultures? Do new media, especially visual media, transform the corpuses? Do new media make it possible to disseminate a common iconography that extends beyond language barriers? Is a difference in how new media are used from one social environment to another observable? After independence was achieved, while new cultural agents appropriated Muslim vernacular cultures through motion pictures and documentaries, did this result in observable changes to the array of options or modalities of transmission of these cultures? What image(s) and representation(s) of Muslim vernacular cultures are produced by popular visual culture? The workshop will thus provide an opportunity to study the progression of the image of an idealized and typified society starting in colonial and postcolonial ethnography and through to films and music videos. It will also be necessary to examine how these kinds of representations are able to coexist alongside a social critique that, at the other end of the spectrum, describes the woes of the day. These two visions, one idealized and the other touting itself as realistic, are both embraced by the new elites, especially in the post-1947 political context. The aim will therefore be to connect these cultural productions with the social transformations and the political context in order to understand the role of the new elites.
The workshop cannot, of course, be exhaustive, so we will begin by focusing our work on the north-west of the Indian sub-continent and the west side of the Indian Ocean, while retaining a comparative approach that brings in other cultural areas of the Muslim world. Outside scholars working on these terrains may be invited to participate. After having settled on a one- or two-year thematic focus, members of the workshop will meet once a month, and two one-day conferences per year will be organized. A collaborative publication will be considered at the end to sum up this five-year workshop. Finally, a research notebook will be created on the hypotheses.org website to provide information on the activities of the workshop and its members, but also to constitute a corpus of hard-to-find texts and other documents (iconographical, sound, audiovisual, etc.).
 See the split between “honorable specialists” and “lowly specialists,” for example; Marc Gaborieau, “Typologie des spécialistes religieux chez les musulmans du sous-continent indien : les limites de l'islamisation,” Archives des sciences sociales des religions, N. 55/1, 1983, pp. 31-34.
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