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Ninth International Conference: A Report


Doctoral Student
Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Ninth International Conference of the Forum on Contemporary Theory was held in Udaipur, India from the 17th to the 20th of December, 2006 in collaboration with the Vidya Bhawan Rural Institute. The theme of this conference, “Knowledge-Systems in a Climate of Creativity: Indian Perspectives,” reflected the call made at the previous conference to move away from looking solely towards the West for the affirmation of both theory and praxis.

The topic emphasized not merely knowledge-systems produced within India, but systems produced and reproduced as part of both local and global networks of knowledge. The papers presented at this conference echoed this theme and tackled issues and concepts that are now, more than ever, relevant to our changing lives and realities. The climate of creativity then refers not only to knowledge-systems, which are constantly re-thought, but also to the extant creative climate in which scholars inhabiting a global world approach, and perhaps must approach, these knowledge-systems. Most papers presented at this conference thus focused on rethinking concepts, revisiting histories and reinventing ways of understanding our lives within global networks.

The inaugural session of the conference commenced with a welcome address by Dr.G.M.Mehta, Director of theVidya Bhawan Rural Institute. Dr. Mehta outlined the many achievements of the Institute in its mission to provide high quality and yet affordable education to the rural poor. Dr. Prafulla C. Kar, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Theory, Baroda commented on the beauty of the city of Udaipur, and on the good fortune of those gathered to be able to share ideas in such an idyllic setting.

The Convener of the Conference, Dr. Sitanshu Yasaschandra, introduced and elaborated on the various aspects of the theme of the conference. He spoke of the character of knowledge—both revealed and systematic—and the necessity of these forms for the fulfillment of the human condition. He then suggested that just as we have begun to speak of the local and the global in the same breath, there is perhaps a need to bring together other concepts that have been held as binaries. Such unions have been commonplace in Indian knowledge-systems, as affirmed by the dual concepts of bhakti and vibhakti within Hindu philosophical thought, or the simultaneous presence of the masculine and the feminine in Bhakti and Sufi thought. In defining and understanding India today, Dr. Yasaschandra also urged those gathered to examine not only the colonial period in India but also to the more than three thousand years of history that preceded it.

Dr. Yasaschandra’s remarks were followed by the release of the conference volume of the Eighth International Conference titled Theory as Variation. In introducing this publication, Dr. Radhakrishnan, the editor of the volume, commented on the phrase “to release a book” suggesting that it evoked an image of emancipating cloistered ideas, and the necessity of such an act of freeing knowledge. The special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Thought devoted to the topic “Actually Existing Colonialisms” was released next, followed by the remarks of its editor Dr. Gaurav Desai. While expanding the idea of freeing knowledge, Dr. Desai spoke of the need to openly engage with difficult issues and to address discomfiting questions.

The inaugural speech was delivered by Professor Jagat Mehta, President Emeritus of the Vidya Bhawan Society. Professor Mehta, a former diplomat, spoke of the 21st century as being a turning point in the history of humanity. He listed recent events, such as the disastrous outcome of the US invasion of Iraq, the recent nuclear tests by North Korea, and the inability of Israel to overpower Hezbollah forces, as being indicative of a massive failure of military power. He observed that for the first time humanity is faced with the prospect of finding a new solution to problems that could no longer be dealt with militarily. He proposed that it was the responsibility of social thinkers to both understand and shape the zeitgeist of these early years of the 21st century. This inaugural address thus reflected the theme of the conference.

The keynote address by Professor Sheldon Pollock titled “Indian Knowledge and the Problem of Early Modernity” addressed the issue of locating Indian texts within the category of the Early Modern. When the notions of Early Modernity are taken as being contiguous in both India and Europe, this category of the early modern is found to be virtually devoid of creative content in India. Dr. Pollock suggests that the solution to this problem may lie in refashioning the concept of the Early Modern, and emptying this category of all presupposed content. This invariably must derive from a “de-westernization of intellectual history.” When the category of the Early Modern is thus approached without specifying content, the period of Indian Early Modernity is seen to have produced several creative and dissenting strands of knowledge. In conclusion, Dr.Pollock commented on the still existing problem of the move away f rom creativity, and the reaffirmation of older knowledge-systems, that he sees as being evident in the early colonial era.

The second plenary session, “Talking across Time: Gandhi and Postcolonial Culture,” opened with Drs. Vaidehi Ramanathan and Alastair Pennycook’s paper “Talking across Time: Postcolonial Challenges to Language, History and Difference.” Presented as a dialogue between the two authors, this paper interrogated the concepts of “home” and “ancestry” made complex in the context of a colonial and postcolonial world. The second paper in this session was “Locating Gandhi in the History of Ideas” in which Dr. Jasbir Jain examined Gandhi’s philosophical, ethical and religious conceptions against the backdrop of larger knowledge systems, both Indian and otherwise.

The second day of the conference opened with the plenary session, “Gandhi and Tagore: A Pragmatic Relationship.” Dr. Radhakrishnan’s paper “The Pragmatics of Reason: Gandhi and Tagore” addressed Tagore’s response to Gandhi’s conception of nationhood and freedom, where Tagore uses his calling as a poet to position himself in a state of active passivity. Dr. Suresh Raval’s paper, “Imagining Postcolonial India: Reading Tagore’s Fiction,” examined the ways in which Tagore’s novels spoke of his political stance and his view of colonial India.

The next plenary session titled “The State of the Humanities and Social Sciences Today,” addressed the broader issues of Theory and its relevance and necessity to re-examine various conceptual categories and forms. Dr. Gaurav Desai’s paper on “Humanities for the 21st Century” pointed out the profound lack in comparative literature and area studies programs that incorporated literary works in indigenous languages of critical balance due to their ingrained biases. Dr. Vivek Dhareshwar’s paper “Self-Knowledge and the Social Sciences” problematized the concept of “discovery” and its relation to postcoloniality through an examination of the works of Gandhi and Nehru. The final plenary session of the day was titled “‘Hind Swaraj’ in Our Time.” Dr. Akeel Bilgrami’s paper “Gandhi’s Rarefied Relativism” pointed out how Ayurveda and Allopathy, the two mutually exclusive systems, are approached within a Gandhian perspective. Dr. Yasaschandra’s paper “Hind Svaraj to Hind Swaraj: Changing Contexts of Textual Transmission” demonstrated how Hind Swaraj could be interpreted in multiple ways through the redefinition and reinterpretation of certain key terms and conceptions used by Gandhi in this text. Both Drs. Bilgrami and Yasaschandra proposed new and multiple ways of understanding Gandhi’s notions of the global, the local, and the personal.

The last day of the conference opened with the plenary session, “Art and Science in Historical Contexts.” The first paper in this session, “Knowledge Systems and the Creation of Art: Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka,” was presented by Dr. Sinha Raja Tammita-Delgoda. Here Dr. Tammita-Delgoda proposed ways of understanding the distinct trajectories that Buddhist architecture has taken in these two nations in relation to their state-structures and military histories. Dr. Indira Choudhury’s paper, “Worshipping at the Temple of Science: Reflections on Creating a Critical Institutional History of Science in India,” shifted the discussion to contemporary South Asia through an examination of the creation of a historiography of scientific thought in India by citing the example of the establishment of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay.

The final plenary session of the conference, “Theorizing Language and Performance,” consisted of two very dynamic presentations: by Dr. Parul Shah and Dr. P. G. Patel. Dr. Shah’s paper, “The Practice of Theorizing Performative Art: A Case Study of Classical Indian Dances” questioned if a suitable form of notation for performance could be developed, and if such a system of formalization would take away from the innovative trends within the performative arts. Dr. Patel, in his paper “The Brahmi Script: Evidence and Theories,” used the phonetic principles of the Brahmi script in an analysis of the transformation of what he characterized as “Vedic Speech” into Sanskrit.

Papers in the general sessions of the conference were presented under the following themes: “Reflections on Philosophy and Religion”; “Ethical Perspectives”; “Indian Knowledge in Encounter with the West”; “Writing and Violence”; “Humanism and Creativity”; “Knowledge, Art and Activism”; “Art as Mimesis under Globalization”; “Lincoln and India: Cross-Cultural Affinities”; “Caste as Cultural Signifier”; “Varieties of Philosophical Models”; “Oppositional Dialectics: India and the Other”; and “Psycho-Social Dynamics of Indian Thought.”

As is evident, the overarching theme of Indian perspectives did not stand in the way of the depth and range of the subjects addressed at the conference. Papers at the plenary as well as in the general sessions sought to understand knowledge-systems as a continued dialogue within and between India and the larger world.

During the course of the conference Dr.Bishnu Mohapatra commented that social thinkers assess their field to be either in crisis or in transition. Though said in jest, his remark is insightful. It is this dynamic conception of our disciplines that allows social thinkers a clearer view of our changing world. The papers presented at the conference evinced this dynamism by revisiting notions of ancestry, heritage and home, reexamining and reinterpreting texts that we thought we knew well, finding innovation in categories we thought bereft of imagination, delving deeper into language and performance, finding intellectual and spiritual connections across time and space, and locating new ways to evaluate and understand historical figures who would otherwise remain frozen in the past. We may consider it fortunate that we do indeed dwell in transition and crisis.

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