Interested in pursuing an MA or PhD in Asian Studies? In this interview series, we ask our graduate students about their research, their experience in our program and their future academic and professional goals. This interview features Julie Vig, current Ph.D. student, who will be teaching Sikh Studies as an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto this upcoming September.
Tell us a little about yourself, your background, and how you became interested in the Punjabi Studies Program?
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. I chose Punjabi Studies mostly for the presence of Dr. Anne Murphy and for all the language classes and library resources available.
What has been the most memorable or impactful moment of your undergraduate/graduate experience in Punjabi Studies?
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.
Could you explain why Punjabi Studies at UBC is important? What can you tell students who are considering taking Punjabi, Asian Studies, or Punjabi-related courses?
Punjabi Studies at UBC is the only program of the sort in Canada. It provides students the opportunity to take language classes in modern Punjabi and in Brajbhasha (which opens up to wide and fascinating literary worlds), and also to take various classes related to Punjab and South Asia. Vancouver has also one of the world’s largest populations of Punjabi speaking citizens outside of Punjab and Punjabi Studies at UBC allows students to build bridges with a culture that is so pervasive in Canadian history, yet often misunderstood.
What are your current academic or career goals upon completing your program?
How do you think UBC Punjabi Studies is helping you achieve these goals (or has helped you accomplish your goals)? Next September, I am thrilled to start a position in Sikh Studies as an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. I will teach a graduate seminar (Sikhs in Early Modern India: Texts and Encounters) and an undergraduate class that is already part of the program (Introduction to Sikhism). After years of reading scholarship, translating, writing, participating in international conferences, and discussing with students, faculty members, as well as my wonderful supervisor, I feel ready to begin my academic career, and I am thankful to UBC Punjabi Studies for that. I also feel fortunate to have as a mentor Dr. Anne Murphy who has supported me in achieving my goals. In the future, I wish to publish and engage with scholarship in French as well as in English and to continue to improve my research, teaching, and language skills.
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.
Why did you chose Punjabi Studies at UBC? Was there an aspect of the program or location that was attractive to you compared to other programs in Canada or internationally?
I came to UBC and Punjabi Studies for three main reasons. First, I wanted to study under Dr. 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 and Punjab 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.