Early modern North Indian literature
Tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you became interested in Asian Studies?
I was born in Québec city and lived and studied in Montréal for a few years before moving to Vancouver to pursue my PhD. I have always been curious and interested in the cultures, histories, and languages of South Asia and have travelled to India a number of times to visit my paternal family and explore various regions before deciding to formally commit to doing graduate school in Asian Studies. After graduating from the Université de Montréal with a B.A. in Philosophy/Journalism, I intended to pursue a Master’s in Political Philosophy but I changed my mind when I met Professor Boisvert at the Université du Québec à Montréal who was running a graduate program in the study of Indic cultures and religions that included an ethnographic component in India. I applied to that program and it became part of my M.A. in Religious Studies at the end of which I wrote a thesis on Sikh women’s experiences and self-representations in Montreal. While I was doing my M.A. degree, I studied Sanskrit at McGill University and discovered a new passion for South Asian languages. Following my M.A., I was not certain about whether or not to pursue my studies at the PhD level but my supervisor encouraged me to apply for a SSHRC doctoral scholarship, which I received, and that convinced me to apply for a PhD in Asian Studies at UBC.
Why did you choose the Asian Studies program at UBC? Was there an aspect of the program or location that was particularly attractive to you compared to other programs in Canada or internationally?
I came to UBC for three main reasons. First, I wanted to study under Professor Anne Murphy’s supervision. Her expertise in the historical formation of the Sikh tradition and of the Punjabi language and literature has contributed to deepening my own understanding of the Sikh tradition – as well as strengthening my abilities to use historical methods in the analysis of Punjabi and Sikh literature produced in the premodern period. Second, UBC’s wide collections of primary sources related to South Asia has provided first-hand resources for my research. Finally, the department of Asian Studies’ unique language training opportunities in Punjabi, Hindi, Persian, Sanskrit, and Brajbhasha and, a variety of courses and events related to South Asia, are regularly being taught and organized by supportive faculty members.
Could you explain to a non-expert what you are researching and why it is important?
Religious communities in early modern North India are often studied through the lens of the rigid identity categories articulated in the present. A brief visit into any archive in India is sufficient to make one aware of the rich and broad literary networks in which such communities were engaged. This trend is particularly true with Sikh and Punjabi literary traditions. My dissertation seeks to locate gurbilās literature in the literary, religious and political context of eighteenth and early nineteenth century North India and understand how this literature interacts with Brajbhasha literature produced in other courtly and religious contexts. Gurbilās literature refers to a collection of historical poems about the life of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, that are written in Brajbhasha, an early modern vernacular language that came to occupy a prominent place in religious and courtly circles in 16th century North India.
So far, gurbilās texts have been looked at almost exclusively within the boundaries of the Sikh and Punjabi tradition and most gurbilās texts have not been looked at in their own terms. My dissertation wishes to engage with gurbilās literature as a literary genre that was not only part of the Sikh and Punjabi world but also part of the wider world of Brajbhasha literature. I believe that framing gurbilās texts in relation to Hindi or Brajbhasha textual traditions rather than constraining their study to the exclusive context of Sikh and Punjabi literature has the potential to significantly enrich our understanding of early modern North India and open up a rich world of shared political and cultural imaginaries.
As a graduate student, what are your main activities?
At this stage in my program where I have completed my coursework, comprehensive exams, and prospectus defense, my main activities boil down to translating, reading, and writing. I have also been a teaching assistant and research assistant for many years and for various projects within the department. This year, UBC Asian Studies has given me the opportunity to teach two courses (Literature of Medieval India and Intermediate Hindi). I previously had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course on Sikh literature and history at the Université du Québec à Montréal a few years ago and I look forward to having the opportunity to share my passion for languages and literature of India with students.
What has been the most memorable or impactful moment of your graduate experience?
I had the opportunity to participate in the Early Hindi/Brajbhasha Retreat/Workshop that takes place every few years in Central and Eastern Europe. This program has allowed me to expand my knowledge of Early Hindi/Brajbhasha and to develop my abilities to read and increase my exposure to primary sources in this language from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries of North India. Participating in this intensive workshop has been crucial for my project not only because it made me engage in intensive language study and exposed me to a wide range of texts produced in Brajbhasha, but because it also provided me with broad knowledge about Brajbhasha literary production. This has been a rare and unique opportunity to work intensively and intimately with specialists in the field of South Asian Studies.
What are your goals (career or academic) once you’ve completed the program? And how is our program helping you achieve them?
Following my graduation from UBC, I expect to find a position as a professor of Asian Studies, Religious Studies or History. As part of my career, it will be of great importance for me to publish and engage with scholarship in French as well as in English.
Can you give any advice to new students in our program or for students considering applying to it?
A PhD is a fascinating path that can also be very solitary. Make friends, talk to your peers, form reading and writing groups. One aspect of the program that I absolutely love is the presence of students working on China, Japan, and Korea. This creates a stimulating environment for discussion and compels us to think outside the box.