South Asia Conference, SMU

On September 22, Asian Studies in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences ( and the North Texas nonprofit SARII ( presented the 7th Annual South Asia Conference at SMU. The conference – Cities, Courts and Saints: Muslim Cultures of South Asia – brought together six leading specialists of Indo-Muslim history and culture. Since the arrival of Islam in South Asia, Muslim communities thrived in cities, giving them a unique shape with new forms of courtly and spiritual life. The scholars presented new perspectives on the way Muslim traditions contributed to forms of religious life, social etiquette, music and art of the Indian subcontinent. The conference, which is free and open to the community, was co-sponsored this year by the Clements Department of History and the Department of Religious Studies.

Collecting songs and preserving culture

An update from first-year student Chasitie:

Dr. Katherine Schofield, King’s College, London

This weekend I was able to find time to squeeze in attending a South Asian Conference at SMU. With my knowledge of the Indian subcontinent limited to what I have learned so far in my Introduction to Asian Religions course with Dr. Lindquist, what better way to expand upon my knowledge than attend a South Asian Conference?

The particular talk that I attended was “The Social History of Song Collections: Awadh, Delhi, and Hyderabad,” presented by Dr. Katherine Schofield of King’s College, London. The lecture discussed the practice of song collection during the 18th century under the British. I was eager to hear a lecture on music and its connection with Indian society.

I have to admit that there were quite a few new concepts and technical terms, so while the lecture was challenging for me, it was very exciting. I learned about Sophia Elizabeth Plowden, a British song collector during the 18th century.  Plowden started collecting Northern Indian songs out of personal interest. She attended many music performances and also invited these musicians into her home to play for her.  During their performances, she wrote down the musical notation, including the lyrics, and later learned to play these songs herself. As an admirer of all cultures, I appreciate her concern with preserving the authenticity of these rich songs, but also making them her own.

I walked away from the talk with a strong image of Sophia Elizabeth Plowden, fully garbed in traditional native clothes, as was her habit, and playing the melodic tunes of a vibrant culture which she wanted to preserve, but also live within.

So what is the significance of these song collections? They show the rise of a concern with preserving tradition, even by those outside of it.  While I admit that I didn’t understand everything from the lecture since it was so, so new to me, it was great to see scholarship in action.  And what I understood satisfied my desire to learn today and to learn about this dynamic culture.

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Revisiting the 14th to 20th centuries in South Asia

An update from Carl, graduate student in religious studies:

Audience during conference presentation

This Saturday marked the seventh time that SMU’s Asian Studies Program has partnered with the South Asia Research and Information Institute (SARII) to bring world-renowned scholars to our campus. From Drs. Barbara and Thomas Metcalf (Universities of Michigan and California, Berkeley) to Dr. Richard Eaton (University of Arizona) to SMU’s own Dr. Azfar Moin, the presenters were all top-notch experts in their field — something made abundantly clear by their choice of presentations.

With topics as diverse as studies of advances in cannon technology in the 14th-15th centuries, Brahmans serving in Mughal courts in the 17th, and Muslim queens ruling in defiance of both local tradition and colonial preference in the 19th-20th, there was something for just about everyone. Whether it was a question of culture, history, religion, language, or even music, there was an answer to be found. To a person, the presenters skillfully walked the fine line between the academic rigor that one might expect to find at a major national conference, and the accessibility one would find in any SMU classroom.

Paul Pandian, chair and vice president of SARII, opening the conference

The enthusiasm from the audience (a group of approximately 100 that represented a diverse mix of faculty and students from both SMU and nearby universities, combined with a very large turnout from the South Asian community in Dallas) was evident at each turn, with Q&A sessions that often proved to be as stimulating as the presentations themselves.

Cap it all off with an excellent Indian lunch and a rousing open panel discussion at the end, and the conference on “Cities, Courts, and Saints: Muslim Cultures of South Asia” was worth every minute spent. That it didn’t cost this struggling graduate student a penny put it well over the top.

Panel discussion (from left): Katherine Schofield (King’s College, London), Rajeev Kinra (Northwestern University), Barbara Metcalf (University of MI, emerita), Azfar Moin (SMU), Thomas Metcalf (University of CA, Berkeley, emeritus), Richard Eaton (University of Arizona), and Steven Lindquist (SMU, Director of Asian Studies)

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Inspiring research from around the globe

An update from Michael,  who is majoring in religious studies and marketing:

Presentation by Dr. Rajeev Kinra, Northwestern University

It is great when students have the opportunity to engage in conversation with academic specialists from across the country, and a rare treat to discuss a topic like Muslim cultures in South Asia. Before coming to SMU, I did not even know that South Asia had such a rich history, and today I learned about the Muslim cultures in the region from the 8th century CE onward. For over 1,000 years, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and occasionally other smaller, religious populations have had to learn how to interact with each other in the same space, and their cultures have woven together in incredibly dynamic ways.

I was thrilled to see SMU host six professors from across the globe to discuss this topic this past weekend in McCord Auditorium. This year, the six featured researchers from the US and UK discussed the complex history of Islam across the Indian Subcontinent. They addressed how Islam changed and gave shape to courtly and spiritual life, both regionally and locally, including the influence of Persia on Indian Islam; the history of cities and forts; the success of Nawab Squander Begum, a Muslim ‘queen’ in Bhopal; and the importance of and innovation in art and music.  All of the presenters also discussed the history of scholarship on Indian Islam.  There were dynamic PowerPoint presentations that made this history come alive!

I always love attending these sorts of events, not just for educational benefit, but because it’s always exciting to meet other passionate researchers and writers in fields like Asian Studies, History, and Religious Studies.  They are always so eager and willing to talk about their work. When I entered Dallas Hall, the chatter and conversation coming from the third floor echoed down throughout the Rotunda! While our classes are fantastic at SMU, these sorts of events take it one step further and bring us students into the professional process of research beyond the University.  It provides us with the opportunity to gain inspiration for our own studies and to better understand the format of an official paper presentation. Further, the ability to meet professors and researchers from other institutions opens doors for students who are considering pursuing careers in academia.

Presenters and audience in conversation during one of the conference breaks

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