Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, December 14-15, 2015

The project team organised an intensive workshop examining traditions of life writing in Indian languages in December 2015. The workshop’s theme on the articulation and representation of ‘self-transformation’ across a range of texts and language traditions gave us the opportunity to embed the project’s focus on conversion accounts in a wider comparative context. There was an enthusiastic response to our Call for Papers from scholars in India working on specific autobiographical texts exploring various kinds of transformation, including the perceived self-transformation engendered by religious conversion.

As the programme shows, speakers presented from several disciplinary contexts—history, social anthropology, literature and culture studies, gender studies, religions and politics—each bringing to the theme a different set of questions. This gave us plenty of opportunity for a constructive interdisciplinary debate while maintaining our focus on the theme. Two of the project’s academic advisors based in India, Udaya Kumar and A.R. Venkatachalapathy, presented their recent work on autobiography and led discussions on the conceptual frameworks and methodologies one could engage with usefully to take forward the study of autobiographical narratives within the Indian context. The sessions were attended by colleagues and research students from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University who made valuable contributions to the discussions. And thanks to Milind’s excellent organization, we were also well fed at regular intervals, which kept us going late into each day!

Individual sessions combined with roundtables at the end of each day meant that we had two days of intensive conversations deliberating on how each of the narratives functioned as a space that allowed the writer to set up a ‘self’ outside of or anterior to the particular set of choices that they perceived were on offer. Binaries that are often assumed regarding autobiographical texts between the ‘private’ and the ‘public,’ between ‘individual’ and ‘community,’ and between ‘belief’ and ‘loss of faith’ are presented in such complexity that the texts bear the marks of the pressures of negotiating these boundaries.

One of these complexities, and particularly relevant to our project, was the discussion of the several conceptual categories that different narratives brought into play. For instance, Sarbeswar Sahoo demonstrated how “Atma parivartan” or ‘transformation of the soul’ was reiterated as superior to “Dharma partivartan” ‘transformation or conversion of religion.’ Similarly, Mohinder Singh unpacked for us the tension between the Arya Samaj leader Swami Shraddhanand (1856–1926)’s use of the two terms “mat parivartan” and “dharm parivartan” in his autobiography as distinct processes of transformation. This desire of individuals engaging with religious conversion to address, and in some sense, control the linguistic categories that define their transformation is significant: their careful differentiation and mobilisation of specific idioms of language use point to the evaluative force of conceptual terminology.

delhi-conferenceThe world in which transformation is to take place is to some extent already mapped out and yet the future must be conceived of as something that the self can act on and create. One common factor that emerged across the several texts we discussed was the points of breakdown and rupture, of silence and a withholding in the midst of articulate narration. What elements of a ‘life’ can be narrativised and conversely how do narratives handle the ‘unspeakable’? This question is explored further in this blog post.

Besides highlighting new strands for further thinking on autobiography, language and representations of transformation the workshop was an excellent run up to our conference panel at the 24th European Conference of South Asian Studies in Warsaw. See CFP for ‘Linguistic Terrains in South Asia: Translation and the Enlargement of Language Cultures’ July 27-30, 2016, where we plan to explore the historic role of translation in the development and relationships between language cultures in South Asia.