Bhakti Visualities

Imaging Devotion in the Visual Arts

Print, Representation, and Formation of Bhakti in the Long 19th Century

Print, Representation, and Formation of Bhakti in the Long 19th Century

150 150 Regional Bhakti Scholars Network

organized by Jon Keune and Gil Ben-Herut

Fully online, using an hybrid asynchronous and synchronous format

Postponed from 2020 due to the pandemic, this symposium capitalized on the conference’s online-only modality by using an innovative hybrid asynchronous/synchronous format that encouraged substantive discussion while avoiding Zoom fatigue. One week before meeting live online during the scheduled symposium, presenters’ abstracts and video presentations were made available on a Humanities Commons website. Viewers left comments in the website, which functioned as a springboard for the live discussion during the symposium meeting.

This symposium investigated the impact of print technology on bhakti traditions during the long 19th century (roughly 1800-1930).  The medium of print—both text and image—offered new possibilities for authorship, representation, and dissemination of knowledge.  It conveyed information (both traditionally construed and critically formed) about bhakti groups to new configurations of literate audiences.  Limited access to presses, especially when run by Christian missionary groups, privileged some voices over others.  This critical period in Indian history, with its new inflows of foreign knowledge and power-knowledge disparities under colonialism, transformed in many ways how Indians perceived and talked about their earlier traditions—discussions that were frequently initiated, caught, and pursued in print.  In some languages and regions, print not only brought traditional bhakti canons into publication; it contributed to the very process of canon formation itself.

Yet, for as much as scholars and devotional communities today rely on printed materials as sources, the complex conditions under which they first came to be published are rarely considered.  On a conceptual level, since early 20th-century scholars relied on printed materials as they theorized about bhakti generally, this medium shaped modern ideas about bhakti—including our own understandings.  Across diverse languages and regions, there are many distinct and surprising stories to tell, shaped by local politics and personalities.  Just as bhakti traditions differ from one another, these stories do not fit a single mold, and some question the boundaries and constitution of bhakti itself.  Juxtaposing multiple histories of print and bhakti will deepen our understanding of this complex historical, textual, and discursive terrain.

(The shortened schedule below reflects the sequence of our live discussion section, which assumed that everyone had already watched the previously uploaded video presentations on our temporary Humanities Commons website.)

9:30 – 9:35

Welcome and Orientation

Jon Keune & Gil Ben-Herut

Part 1

Theme: Formations

Tyler Williams (Chicago)
Producing a Past by Printing Paeans: Publishing Devotion in Hindi Genres 

Jon Keune (Michigan State)
Compiling and Printing Marathi Poet-Saint Gathas 

Peter Friedlander (Australian National University)
Images of Kabir and Ravidas and the Interaction of Manuscript and Print Cultures 

Bhakti Mamtora (Wooster)
Manuscript to Print in the Swaminarayan Tradition 

Part 2

Theme: Debates and Boundary Crossings

Venu Mehta (Claremont School of Theology)
From Sanskrit Tantra to Gujarati Bhakti: Exploring the Emergence of Bhakti Literature in Gujarati on the Jaina goddess Padmavati

Arun Brahmbhatt (St. Lawrence)
Printed Debates in Gujarati Between Followers of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya and the Sankaracarya of Dwarka Pitha, 1907-1908

Gil Ben-Herut (South Florida)
The “Modern” Reconfiguration of the Vachanas and Subsequent Public Debates

Amy-Ruth Holt (Independent)
Imaging Native-ness: The European Origins of Dravidian Nationalism

Part 3

Theme: Technologies

Heidi Pauwels (Washington)
Rasik Bihari and Lithograph Texts

Richard Davis (Bard College)
Bhakti Enters the Age of Mechanical Reproductions

Allan Life (North Carolina)
Purānic and Kāvya Narratives in Picture Postcards of the Raj

Jack Hawley (Columbia)
Blind Poet, Blind Alleys: Surdas and the Copyright Raj

noon – 12:30

Concluding discussion

(The group also voted to have a follow-up discussion on Zoom a few weeks later.)