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Friday, July 26, 2013

How to be an excellent Tibetologist and land in a Marie Curie Fellowship: an Interview with Michela Clemente

I met Michela Clemente because we both studied at the faculty of Oriental Studies at "La Sapienza" in Rome and most of all because we studied together Tibetan at the IsIAO. She wrote her MA thesis on a 17th century religious master, Kun spangs pa Chos kyi rin chen, by translating his life-story, which was an uncommon type of biography and, to her knowledge, the only preserved copy of this text. The inner typology is so far the less-studied and least known among Tibetan biographies. She is thus the first scholar who translated a Tibetan “inner biography” into a European language (for further details on this genre of biographies and on Michela’s work in particular, see Clemente 2008).
Then, she wrote her PhD thesis on lHa btsun Rin chen rnam rgyal (1473-1557) a master who had a leading role in Tibetan printing history. Beside her interest for the contents of the works she has been dealing with, and for the genre of biographies in general, she has also been researching on their form, i.e., on Tibetan xylographies. These are woodblock prints and have been used since the beginning of the 15th Century in Tibet. Against in the case of modern printing with movable characters, the whole page was engraved in wood and then used as a stamp. Michela has been outlining some key elements for a philology of Tibetan xylographies (printing school, colophons, etc.). You can find, e.g., an abstract of her contribution on this topic to the first Coffee Break Conference here; the full article has been published on RSO 2011. She is now in Cambridge with a Marie Curie fellowship.

EF: What is your current project about?

MC: My current project is about Tibetan printings. It is entitled Tibetan Book Evolution and Technology. This is correlated to an international project entitled Transforming Technologies and Buddhist Book Culture: the Introduction of Printing and Digital Text Reproduction in Tibetan Societies, organized by the University of Cambridge (MIASU) in collaboration with the British Library and funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which started in 2010 and in which I am involved. My project will study extant early Tibetan prints from the South Western area, where the first printing houses of Tibet were set up, in order to understand the introduction of xylography as a complex process involving technical, economic, political and religious factors. The project will focus on the 15th–early 16th century xylographs from various libraries in the UK (Cambridge University Library, Bodleian Library, British Library, Liverpool Library) as well as other prints from the National Archives of Kathmandu, numerous libraries in Tibet and from the Tucci Tibetan Collection of the IsIAO Library in Rome. By focusing on the study of these early prints a great deal of codicological information will be produced. This will be used to supplement the historical information from the texts and provide the starting point for a new method of identification of early prints based on book features. I will examine the texts according to codicological standards and in co-operation with experts from different disciplines thus obtaining the fullest understanding of all aspects of the texts through:

  1. 1) materials analysis [paper, ink, pigments];
  2. 2) the style of the edition [front page, layout, ductus, orthographic peculiarities, woodcut representations];
  3. 3) book cover typology (if present); 
  4. 4) the study of the colophon.

EF: Do you interact with colleagues working on similar topics but with South Asian and/or Western materials?

MC: I am interacting with colleagues at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies in Cambridge, who are working on a AHRC project which focuses on Sanskrit Manuscripts preserved at the Cambridge University Library. Within the AHRC project on Tibetan book, we are also organizing a workshop on printing as an agent of change in Tibet and beyond, which will involve experts of Japanese, Chinese and Indian prints as well.

EF: Which topics do you envision as the more urgent priorities in your field of study? What would you recommend as a topic for, e.g., a young graduate student looking for a theme for his/her PhD thesis?

MC: Tibetan culture is plenty of topics to deepen and I can’t say which one has the highest priority. Furthermore, I think that each young student should choose something fascinating to him/her. Passion is what leads a scholar to continue his studies despite difficulties. It is not easy to carry on research, especially in Italy, and especially in this field. There are numerous texts that have not been translated yet and that are now available. There are collaborative projects that are investigating different facets of Tibetan culture. If students who are interested in Tibetan culture would like to contact me, they can write me at this address.

EF: You managed to get a prestigious scholarship. Apart from your expertise on this field, what was the key of this success? What would you recommend to colleagues and readers?

MC: It is necessary to find the right institution which will host you. It must have an experienced and well-trained staff. The credibility of the institution is extremely relevant. The presentation of the project is also really important. The topic of the project must be comprehensible for anybody and it should be presented in a fascinating way. Do not write the application as a scientific article. Try to write as simple as possible. Do not use Tibetan or Sanskrit terms. People that evaluate these applications are researchers of all disciplines and also managers, publicists, and so on. Graphs and charts are appreciated as well as pictures. Take into consideration outreach activities for a wider audience. It is important that the project is useful not only to deepen one or more aspects of your field, but also for the community. Before submitting the application, ask someone who is not a specialist in your field to read it. If it is comprehensible to him/her, then you can submit it. You also need someone who help you with the preparation of the application. Many faculties have people who do this as part of their job. Your curriculum is another important part of the application, especially publications. If you manage to create a collaborative project, it would be something particularly interesting. Try to start the preparation of the application some months before the deadline or you will be forced to do it as a full-time job! Good luck!

EF: More in general, what would you recommend to prospective scholars/younger colleagues?

MC: I would recommend graduate students to publish as soon as possible and as much as possible, to participate in conferences, workshops etc, to interact with colleagues and scholars across the world, to collaborate to any kind of initiative or project of universities, cultural associations and institutions. 

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