Notes on the Second Annual Telugu Studies Conference at the University of Pennsylvania

By Chinnaiah Jangam. Chinnaiah is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carleton University in Canada. His research interests include the social and intellectual history of Dalits in modern South Asia. He is the author of Dalits and the Making of Modern India.

Over the past decade, we have seen an organized field of Telugu Studies in North America has begun to take shape. Early initiatives were taken at Emory University with the establishment of an endowed chair in Telugu Studies in 2015 and the organization of a Telugu literary conference in 2016. In recent years, the University of Pennsylvania has played an important role by hosting conferences that bring together scholars focused on the Telugu region from leading institutions across North America. To date, Pennsylvania has hosted two Telugu Studies conferences. The first was in December 2019 and the second was in December 2022.

These Telugu Studies conferences have attracted researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds who are interested in the cultural, historical, and socio-political aspects of the Telugu language and its speakers. I was privileged to participate in both of these conferences and would like to take this opportunity to share the proceedings that took place at the 2022 conference and reflect on their contribution to the future of Telugu Studies.

The Second Annual Telugu Studies conference took place over two days from December 2nd – 3rd, 2022. It featured five panels and was hosted University of Pennsylvania professors Lisa Mitchell and Afsar Mohammed. The central theme of the conference was “History, Circulation, and Identity.”

The papers that were presented drew attention to the migration of Telugu speakers across the globe for centuries. Migration has made Telugu speakers repeatedly reimagine their identities. This has led to the production of multiple forms of history and the circulation of the Telugu language through print and oral forms.

Telugu Studies Conference Attendees
Source: Conference Organizers

The conference theme aptly forces us to urgently engage with the present formation of a Telugu diaspora in the United States. It was conceived as dialogic with the past and present of Telugu peoples and regions undergoing a profound transformation in terms of caste, history, language, accent, identity, and gender. Notably, the formation of Telangana State in 2014 has led to a reconceptualization of territorial identity and language, especially in how it is spoken and used in literary and public spheres.

The first panel of the conference was on the topic of “Caste Histories and Textual Studies.” It was chaired by Afsar Mohammad (University of Pennsylvania) and focused on print culture in Telugu.

Chinnaiah Jangam (Carleton University) presented the way caste is imagined, produced and circulated by caste associations and kula patrikalu (caste newspapers) such as Vasavi, Vaishya, Reddi Rani, Kamma Patrika, Brahmana Patrika, Erukala, Padmashali, Tellajanda, Vishwakarma, and Kalyani Patrikalu. He argued that caste associations and kula patrikalu played a paradoxical role in reproducing caste identity. At one level, most non-Brahman castes defined their self against Brahmanical dehumanization. At the same time, they aspired to a higher caste status within the Brahmanical caste hierarchy. Ironically, the annihilation of caste or the establishment of an egalitarian society was not on their agenda. They were only interested in the modernization of caste social and political mobilization.

Chandrabhanu Nalamala (OP Jindal University) presented on the growth of Telugu history writing in the early twentieth century by Dalit activists such as Bhagya Reddy Verma and Kusuma Dharmanna. He argued that they tried to imagine their histories through the prism of anti-caste ethics and rejected Hindu nationalism.

The last presenter on the panel was Sasi Kiran (FLAME University). He focused on caste and vernacular historiography by examining the pioneering early twentieth-century Telugu history Andhrula Charitra by Chilukuri Veerabhadra Rao. This history was commissioned by zamindars of the period who were invested in reinventing their own caste identity. However, Veerabhadra Rao’s history failed to meet their social and political aspirations. The zamindars commissioned a further critique of it through the Jatprol court poet Vellala Sadasiva Sastri’s Veerabhadreeya Khandanamu. In this way, Sasi Kiran demonstrated the deep caste investments of patrons in the project of writing history.

The second panel reflected the present predicament of history in the Telugu-speaking regions with the topic “Telangana’s New Histories.” It was chaired by Daud Ali (University of Pennsylvania).

The first presenter was Himadeep Muppadi (Vassar College). He critically examined the way the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, a political party that played a leading role in the separate Telangana movement, used the regional dialect of the people and forged a relationship with the Majlis-e Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM). He argued that these efforts challenged the dominance of Sanskritized Andhra Telugu and provided a counter to Hindu nationalism. His paper explored the importance of having a plurality of linguistic expression and considered them a strength of the democratic polity and its inclusive process.

The following presenters, Sunil Purushotham (Fairfield University) and Afsar Mohammad (University of Pennsylvania), analyzed the fascinating history of the Telangana Armed Struggle, the Razakars, and Muslim identity in Telangana. Sunil Purushotham placed the Telangana Armed Struggle in the larger context of decolonization as the princely state of Hyderabad tried to protect its sovereignty against the tide of the Indian nation state. He treated Telangana’s political history apart from the more popular party-centric approach.

Afsar Mohammad added a new dimension to Sunil’s presentation by focusing on the short stories of the midcentury Telugu writer Nelluri Keshava Swamy. Afsar treated the Police Action of 1948 as a significant event that changed how Muslims in Telangana imagined their identity, history, and future. In this context, Afsar argued that Kesava Swamy’s writings capture the negotiation of Muslim notions of self and identity in light of the disruptive events of 1948.

The third panel topic focused on the “Multiple Dimensions of Politics and Resistance” and was chaired by Gregory Goulding (University of Pennsylvania).

The first presenter, Indivar Jonnalagadda (University of Pennsylvania), critically examined the Telugu public sphere’s discussion of corruption. He showed how the ruling party manipulates public opinion against the bureaucracy to raise political leaders as messiahs of the people and condemn bureaucrats as villains. He highlighted how the Telangana state machinery is subtly undermined by the political class. He argued that this will damage the state’s democratic institutional structures in the long run.

Indivar Jonnalagadda presenting on coverage of corruption in the Telugu public sphere
Source: Conference Organizers

The second presenter, Abhishek Bhattacharya (University of Chicago), drew on the Telugu short stories of “Katti” Padma to examine the histories of the Progressive Organization of Women and the Naxalite Movement. He argued that these stories reflected a new women’s subjectivity in the communist movement.

The panel’s final paper was presented by Ashok Mocharla (Harvard University). He problematized marriage, kinship, and family structure among Telugu Christians. Even though Christianity as an egalitarian religion does not recognize any caste-based differences, caste endogamy is practiced among Christians. This is visible in their other forms of association and relationships based on class, status, language, region, culture, denomination, and urban networks. His paper powerfully presented the existence and practice of caste among Telugu Christians.

The fourth panel topic focused on “Devotional Contexts and Public Cultures” and was chaired by Davesh Soneji (University of Pennsylvania).

Sravani Kanamarlapudi (University of Texas-Austin) presented a paper on the sthalapuranas, temple myths, surrounding the Shiva temple of Srikalahasti in southern Andhra. Examining classical Telugu and Tamil texts, she brought critical attention to the depiction of indigenous Adivasis and their interactions with nature, human and animal interactions, and the assimilation of indigenous hunters into the mythology of Shaivism. Moreover, Sravani highlighted the way the Brahmanization of the temple demonized the practices of meat-eating indigenous people by examining how way bhakti (devotion) is used to create a purified mythical past for the temple.

The panel’s second presenter was Yamini Krishna (FLAME University). She took these debates on temples and devotion in the Telugu public sphere further by focusing on the recent history and transformation of the famous Yadadri Narasimha temple in Telangana. She examines Telugu films and media in order to show the importance of the temple city of Tirupati in modern Telugu identity. Then she discussed the Telangana state administration’s focus on transforming Yadadri into a new “devotional capital city” in the context of the loss of Tirupati to Andhra Pradesh in the 2014 state bifurcation. The massive financial investment by the Telangana government shows how devotional centers are created not just as spiritual places but as political and ideological projects of the state. In this way, Yamini’s paper highlighted the prolonged interaction between state and religion in the Deccan and the creation of politicized devotional spaces across the Telugu regions as well as the Telugu diaspora.

Sailasri Kambhatla (Columbia University) presented a paper on the Telangana goddess festival of Bonalu in Hyderabad. This paper served as a capstone for the discussion on devotion, spirituality, and politics. Her paper demonstrated that the new Telangana state government used devotion and spirituality in order to assimilate popular subaltern practices like the Bonalu festival and create new institutional structures like the Yadadri temple to strengthen the hold of the state on the lives of ordinary folks. Most importantly, she argued that these efforts produced a legitimacy necessary for the state and expanded its power into everyday practices like the Bonalu and Yadadri temple. This was done by making the sacred and the political indistinguishable as they take on new avatars under the patronage of the government.

Conference presentation on Bonalu
Source: Conference Organizers

The topic for the final panel of the conference was “Language, Politics, Borders, and Boundaries” and was chaired by Lisa Mitchell (University of Pennsylvania).

The first paper was presented by Akshay Aitha (University of Chicago). He discussed how “Telugu-ness” evolved as an identity and language among the diaspora in the United States. By focusing on the diasporic youth of Telugu origin in the Bay area, he complicated the formation of racial identity among South Asians. His paper captured tensions between Telugu American’s cultural and linguistic identity in relation to the broader racialized identities of “South Asian” and “people of color.”

Bhangya Bhukya (University of Hyderabad) examined the tension between language and identity within the Telugu-speaking regions of India. He focused on the historical growth of Telugu-language nationalism and the anti-Nizam movement in Hyderabad state. Through an incisive reading of the relationship between language and power, he unpacked the multiple dimensions of language not just as a communication tool but as a medium representing society’s cultural, social, and historical dimensions. He discussed how Telugu activists first pitted Telugu against Urdu. Then he showed how this discourse evolved into an anti-Nizam and, eventually, an anti-Muslim movement. Further, he demonstrated that the politics of the Telugu language movement in Telangana was imbued with a Hindu communal consciousness that demonized Muslims and the Urdu language.

The final and concluding paper by Pranav Gulukota (UCLA) focused on the politics of water in terms of the colonial hydrological projects developed between the Madras presidency and the Hyderabad princely state in 1934. His paper analyzed how the political and bureaucratic elites represented themselves as the makers of modern institutions within the Telugu-speaking areas at the expense of the masses. Gulukota brought forward the underlying developmentalist notions that excluded the victims of large dams from the discussions and construction projects of the time.

Overall, the conference provided a necessary and critical platform in North America to delve into the multiple dimensions of Telugu language, history, and identity. This allowed for an important interdisciplinary and intersectional approach to the subject. It was also striking that all conference participants were personally familiar with Telugu language and culture. Therefore, the panel and discussions were passionate and heartwarming as no one had to explain basic concepts and could speak from their comfort zones.

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