Tyler Williams, University of Chicago

Paper Trails: Money, Manuscripts, Malis and Merchants in Northwestern Bhakti
The question of whether bhakti functioned as an ideology of emancipation from, or submission to, structures of power has occupied scholars for much of the past century.  My paper will complicate this question by investigating how the ‘logic’ of bhakti as both a type of network and as a type of personal practice restructured power relations among individuals and groups, and allowed for multiple kinds of power relationships to coexist simultaneously, even within the same community.  Specifically, I will present the case of two bhakti communities in seventeenth-century Northwestern India—the Dadu Panth and the Niranjani Sampraday—demonstrating how bhakti as a concept and as a practice restructured relationships between individuals and groups within these communities, as well as relationships between the communities and structures of political power like the Mughal Empire and the Rajput kingdoms of Marwar and Amer (Jaipur).

My presentation will follow the ‘paper trails’ of the Dadu Panth and Niranjani Sampraday—in a literal sense, their manuscript records, and in a metaphorical sense, the flow of capital within the communities—in order to reconstruct how each articulated a notion of bhakti that allowed the re-writing of relations between ‘subaltern’ castes and middle castes, especially merchants.  The presentation will also address how the hagiographical works of these sects re-imagine the relationship between the temporal power of kings and emperors and the transcendent power of saints and gurus.  Initial observations suggest that these re-imaginings of the individual, their place within the community, and their place within the cosmos reflect macro-level developments like the consolidation of the Mughal Empire (but also its dissolution), expanding inter-regional trade, and the development of a cash economy.

Bio:  Tyler Williams teaches courses on Hindi-Urdu literature, South Asian literature, aesthetics, and intellectual history in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations.  His research interests center on book history, literacy, aesthetics, and merchantile religious and literary culture in South Asia.  Williams received a BA in South Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley,  an MA and MPhil in Hindi literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and a PhD in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies from Columbia University, New York.

Williams is currently pursuing two research projects: the first a social and material history of vernacular reading practices in North India; the second a study of the role of merchant communities in shaping Hindi literary tastes and bhakti religious sensibilities in the early modern period.  He has recently co-edited the volume “Texts and Traditions in Early Modern North India,” forthcoming from Oxford University Press, India this year, in addition to publishing articles, reviews and translations in various journals and collections.  Williams writes an academic blog in Hindi titled “Kaagaz” (‘Pages’ kagaaz.wordpress.com), and posts information about academic projects in English and in Hindi on his personal site, www.tylerwwilliams.com.