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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What does "South Asian Studies" mean?

Is "South Asian studies" only the politically correct version of what was previously known as "Indology", i.e., the study of Classical India?
One might think so, if one considers the names of several journals (such as the WZKS, literally "Vienna's Journal for the knowledge of South", or the Italian RiSS), research groups, etc. At most, the geographic label makes it possible to accept also contemporary studies about South Asia. But this is only true in contexts where Classical India is still the prevalent paradigm.
In the US, by contrast, the stress of the last decades on "Areal Studies" means that "South Asian studies" tends to mean just "the study of whatever counts and happenS in South Asia". You can see some evidence in favour of this view in the comments to this post, and I have now a further point to discuss.
As already mentioned, I just come back from Moscow, where I took part to a workshop called "Open Pages in South Asian Studies". In harmony with the first meaning of "South Asian studies" discussed above, there were several participants dealing just with Classical India, who all delivered their speeches in the first day. The second day was meant to be dedicated to Contemporary South Asia. Interestingly, speakers of the first group (including myself), expected a prosecution of the first day's trends, with papers dealing with Philosophy, Religion, History of Art, Linguistics, etc. This has been the case as regards Prof. Alexandra Safronova's speech on Theravāda Buddhism in Śrī Laṅkā. After that, we heard very interesting papers focusing on sociological and political topics, with no link at all with the cultural heritage of India (now meant in a cultural and not geographical sense).
Speakers of the first group enjoyed them, but I wonder whether the interest is bi-directional or not. Are scholars of (contemporary) South Asian studies interested in the background of what they study? Or do they prefer to read more about their topics (sociology, anthropology, politics, economics…)?

On this topic, see this post.

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