Gillian Goslinga Wins 2006 Sardar Patel Award

Gillian Goslinga Wins 2006 Sardar Patel Award

The Center for India and South Asia, and the UCLA Department of History felicitated Gillian Goslinga on June 9, 2007 with the Sardar Patel Award, given for the best dissertation submitted at any American university on the subject of modern India.

The Sardar Patel Award was instituted in 1999 and first conferred in 2000. This annual award of $10,000, endowed by the Los Angeles-based organization known as the Friends of the Sardar Patel Association, is administered by the UCLA Center for India and South Asia. Dissertations are evaluated for their insights into the nature of modern Indian society, the grasp demonstrated by the writer over the scholarly literature, and the clarity of exposition and argument. The dissertation must have been completed at an American university in history, anthropology, sociology, literature, political science, or one of the other disciplines in the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences.

The Sardar Patel Award for 2006 is being awarded to Gillian Goslinga for her University of California, Santa Cruz dissertation titled The Ethnography of a South Indian God: Virgin Birth, Spirit Possession and the Prose of the Modern World.

Gillian M. Goslinga is a cultural and visual anthropologist, feminist, and graduate of the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research on gender, reproductive technologies, and so called "traditional" god-assisted reproduction or virgin birth beliefs in contemporary Tamil Nadu, South India, explores the intersections of religion, science, and modernity in the lives of women, as well as the question of subalterity in the representation of religious experience.  Gillian Goslinga has also published in Feminist Studies on gestational surrogacy in the U.S., and directed/produced an ethnographic film on the subject, The Child The Stork Brought Home (1997). She is currently in post-production on her next ethnographic film, The Pujari's Daughter, an intimate chronicle of the life and work of the big priestess (periya pujari) of the Hindu temple that is the principal site of her research in South India. Gillian M. Goslinga teaches at San Francisco State University.

Following is an abstract of the 2006 award-winning dissertation:

"This dissertation introduces a Hindu god by the name of Paandi Munisvaran, whose temple sits on the outskirts of the city of Madurai, Tamil Nadu. This god's boons are the gift of children (often through the idiom of the sexual spirit possession of women) and the exorcism of unwanted spirits, curses, and black magic. Paandi also makes some women “dance” (aadi), and through them, advises individuals and families about their daily lives, interpersonal relations, and personal conduct. In the Madurai region, his popularity is steadily on the increase; during the peak months of the Tamil ritual calendar, lakhs of devotees come to his temple to ask for or reciprocate blessings. Known to dispense favors irrespective of caste and creed and according to codes of conduct (dharma), Paandi “catches” (pidi) Hindu, Muslim, Jain, and Christian women alike, married and not. On account of these idiosyncrasies, he will often trump the moral triumphalism of both present-day “traditionalist” and “modernist” South Indian discourses, opening up an unexpected and important oppositional space. My dissertation explores this oppositional space, both for what it reveals about popular Hinduism in a modernizing South India, and for how it talks back at common and gendered representations of village Hinduism, spirit possession, and the phenomenon of the virgin birth in scholarly and popular discourses.

Methodologically, I anchor my analysis neither in the objects “South India,” “Paandi's Temple,” or “Paandi,” nor in the anthropological and feminist literatures that educated my thinking about reproduction, spirit possession, and the social, but rather in the encounter between both during my fourteen months of fieldwork. Crafting a “twined ethnography,” I apply arguments made recently in critical anthropology, postcolonial theory, and science studies that call for an awareness of the historical specificities that underpin modern conceptual practices and knowledge projects. As part of this “homework” (Visweswaran), and following Marilyn Strathern among others, I consider how the causal conjunction made in nineteenth-century British social anthropology between “blood kinship” and “the social” produced normative secular representations of sociality that reductively figured the social as the concrete relations between individuals only, and of persons as the sum of biological and social parts “ending at the skin” (Haraway). This last idea also concretized causal “relations” between parents and children, introducing a developmental temporality into theories of the person and the social, while habituating us moderns to locate the “sense” of things in their presumed related contexts (e.g. a child and the family, an individual and her society, etc).

Taking note of the civilizational politics embedded in these nineteenth-century derived notions, I point out that knowledge of the scientific “facts of reproduction” continues to be a marker of membership in modernity, automatically casting Paandi and his boons of children into the nonmodern or, as was often the case in the South Indian progressive press during my fieldwork, the “superstitious” and the “backward.” I review how these civilizational stakes were also at the heart of the anthropological “Virgin Birth debates” in the 1960s, a time of deep post/colonial and intellectual unrest, and argue that the theory of cultural relativism that consolidated during these debates and later enabled feminists to politically disengage gender from sex and culture from nature, nonetheless retained several of the conceptual structures of nineteenth-century common sense, making it still challenging to read a “virgin birth” practice as mattering (Barad) ontologically or politically.

Indeed, the deeply entrenched biologisms and the resulting perspectivism on the real under modernity made it especially difficult for me to appreciate and represent the complex and lived agencies and kinships at work in Paandi's gift of children or his long-term relationships with devotees and his “wives.” Giving numerous close readings of ethnographic moments during fieldwork as well as narrated and witnessed Paandi-assisted conceptions and accounts of women's relationships with him, I call for another hermeneutic to account for this South Indian god's vivid and historical realism in the lives of his followers. I call this hermeneutic the “prose of the world” after Foucault (The Order of Things, 1970) and Paandi's own trickster, oppositional interventions in the affairs of his devotees and my fieldwork. Paying attention to the prosaic idiom of Paandi's “body” as experienced by devotees in the intimacy of their lives (e.g. dreams, his speech through mediums, visitations, the timings and propinquities of events) and reading “context” and “kinship” in a decidedly non-anthropological or modern way, my own prose attempts to recuperate Paandi's variegated reproductive assistance and sakti, or power, not as exemplary of Hindu “cultural” practices or socio-historical conditions or understandings of reproduction and gender, but rather as vivid moral and ethical commentaries on the gendered tensions of social life and hierarchies at this time in Tamil Nadu, the uniquely South Indian ethos of god-devotee bhakti and mutual interdependence, and the dangers of textual reification or of forgetting one's personal historical location.

Doubling back this hermeneutic onto a modern setting in Madurai – an equally famous regional medical fertility clinic only a mile from Paandi's Temple and where I concurrently carried out eight months of fieldwork, I offer a critical account of the so-called “crisis of infertility” in Tamil Nadu and the enormous resources being deployed to ward it off and educate citizens about the “ facts of reproduction.” Suggesting this crisis to be in no small part about Tamil Nadu's civilizational aspirations for ultra-modernity in the national and international imaginaries, I argue that knowledge of the facts of reproduction is once again being intimately tied to projects of social reform and the production of gendered modern subjects. The “infertile” woman is cast as the “barren” woman's modern counterpart, empowered and knowledgeable. Reproductive technologies are cast as saving poor “ignorant” South Indian women from the horrors of “traditional” social stigma. Juxtaposing Clinic and Temple prosaically, however, complicates this civilizational rhetoric, since in the lived everyday of Tamil Nadu's pro-natalist environment and nuclearization of the family, women whose bodies are medically found “infertile” are in truth far more vulnerable to repudiation than women and families that might have, or might still, appeal(ed) to a South Indian god such as Paandi."

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Published: Thursday, June 7, 2007

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