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Dr. Indira Viswanathan Peterson Guest Lecture
May 17, 2018 @ 6:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Colonial Networks, Indian Elites, and the New Orientalism of the Royal Asiatic Society (1823-1840)
Indira Viswanathan Peterson
Professor of Asian Studies Emerita, Mount Holyoke College, USA
The establishment of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in London in 1823 not only transferred the institutional center of British orientalism to the metropole but also indexed a reconceptualization of British antiquarian practices and goals vis à vis the colonies. A marker of this shift was the active recruitment of Asians, especially princes and other elites, in the Society’s membership and activities. The election of Raja Serfoji of Tanjore, an enthusiastic orientalist as well as pioneering modernizer, as one of four honorary members in 1823 is a case in point. Tracing Serfoji’s initiatives and his interactions with Sir Alexander Johnston and other British administrator-orientalists in Madras and south India, and the Raja’s subsequent participation in the RAS’s activities, this talk demonstrates that a south Indian orientalist network– the “Madras School” –played a significant role in shaping the agendas of the newly-founded Society. Further, examining widely-publicised statements made by Sir Johnston during his long administrative career at the RAS, it is argued that the Society’s projects involving its Asian members signaled a turn in British orientalism, toward the promotion of a new mix of antiquarianism and the ideology of improving the colonies through useful knowledge.
Dr. Peterson held the David B. Truman Professorship at Mount Holyoke and has been Professor of Sanskrit at Columbia University. She specializes in Indian literature in Sanskrit, Tamil and Marathi, Hinduism, South Indian culture, history and religion, classical dance and Karnatak music, translation, and European-Asian culture contact. She has published widely on all of these subjects. She has held a number of research fellowships, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The American Institute for Indian Studies and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Major publications include: Poems to Shiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints (1989); Design and Rhetoric in a Sanskrit Court Epic: The Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi (2003); Arjuna and the Hunter (2016); and, with George Michell, The Great Temple at Thanjavur: A Thousand Years. 1010 – 2010 (2010). Two co-edited books are: with Martha A. Selby, Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of space and place in South India (2007); and with Davesh Soneji, Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in modern South India (2008).
Indira Peterson has recently completed Serfoji of Tanjore: Enlightenment and Princely Modernity in Colonial India, a biography of the royal polymath and innovator Serfoji II. In progress are Drama, the Court, and the Public in Early Modern India, a monograph on the multilingual dance dramas of the Thanjavur Maratha court, and An Enlightenment Library in Early Nineteenth-century India: The Personal Collection of King Serfoji II of Tanjore (1798-1832).