Dr Vivek V. Narayan: "The Möbius Strip of Spirit and Matter: Abolition, slave agency, and missionary modernity in nineteenth-century Travancore, south India"

Event date: 
Thursday 26 October
Moot Court, School of Law, Old College, University of Edinburgh
Dr Vivek V. Narayan

An IASH Work-in-Progress seminar, delivered by Dr Vivek V. Narayan (Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow 2023; Ashoka University)

The Möbius Strip of Spirit and Matter: Abolition, slave agency, and missionary modernity in nineteenth-century Travancore, south India

This paper argues that slave caste conversions in colonial-era Travancore must be read as a conjoining of the spiritual and the material within an encasted habitus best understood through the geometric metaphor of the Möbius strip. I develop my argument through three interrelated claims: first, that the language of spirituality was repurposed to articulate material claims; second, that many of the conceptual spaces that missionary discourse sought to enter were occupied by the Brahminical doctrines of caste; and third, that the slave castes recast Protestant theology within a situated intellectual habitus codified by Brahminical doctrine that compelled recent converts to insist upon transgression. I engage with Partha Chatterjee’s influential spherical metaphor for sovereignty in the spiritual domain in anticolonial nationalism to reveal the faultlines between the situated social imaginaries of anti-caste struggles and the focus upon the nationalism in postcolonial theory. In doing so, this talk attempts to demonstrate a method of doing intellectual histories in the repertoire of embodiment that situates anti-caste struggles within transnational flows, locates these intellectual exchanges in the repertoires of everyday life, and shows that the ideas of unlettered people can, do—and, more importantly, did—take on universalistic ambitions.

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Please note that our weekly seminars will take place in the Moot Court in the School of Law between September and December 2023.

Accessibility: https://www.accessable.co.uk/venues/old-college-north

Dr Vivek V. Narayan is a scholar, performance-maker, and writer working on caste and anti-caste politics in south India. He is Assistant Professor of English, Theatre, and Performance Studies at Ashoka University and an alumnus of Stanford University, Royal Holloway, University of London, and St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. His book project, Stolen Fire: Caste Scripts and Anti-Caste Politics in South India, 1806-1941, views the long history of anti-caste struggle in colonial-era Travancore through the lens of performance. His writing appears in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Indian Literatures, Theatre Survey, J-CASTE, Modern Drama, The Georgia Review, Black Warrior Review, Muse India, The Caravan, AZURE, The Bombay Review, and The Hindu, among others, while his plays have been performed at various venues in India, the UK, and the USA.