This summer, one of our lecturer’s, Dr Andy Davies, is undertaking a research fellowship in Southern India exploring the political and cultural history of the state of Tamil Nadu, and in particular the city of Puducherry (or as it’s more often known, Pondicherry). Here he explains what he’s up to and why.
“I’m in India on a fellowship organised by the British Association of South Asian Studies, in collaboration with the European Consortium for Asian Field Study and the British Academy, and will be spending two months in New Delhi, Chennai and Pondicherry, where I’ll be based in the Ecole Francais d’Extrême Orient.
The research I’m doing is looking at anti-colonialism in south India in the early 20th Century, particularly looking at Pondicherry because, as a French colony, a group of nationalist activists who wanted India to become independent from British rule, sought political exile from the British there from 1908 onwards. Geographically, this is interesting, as the men who did this were in their ‘homeland’ (many of them, including the poet Subramania Bharati, were Tamil and fiercely proud of this identity), yet were also in ‘exile’ at the same time. Whilst these men and women suffered many hardships whilst in Pondicherry, they were part of international political networks that stretched from India as far as Paris and London. The British Government of India saw these as dangerous ‘terrorist’ networks, and much of the language used in official reports is similar to the language we see used today about organisations like Al-Qaeda.
These colonial histories are important to Geography in many ways – in Pondicherry, French colonialism shaped the culture – for instance it is possible to order red wine with a beef steak for dinner – something that is culturally very difficult elsewhere in India! The French influence is also clear in the urban fabric of the city. At the height of colonial rule, the city was divided on grounds of race between the ‘Ville Blanc’ (the French district) and the ‘Ville Noir’ (the Tamil district), and the differences between the two areas still exist today. On top of these, there are also political legacies as well – Subramania Bharati died in 1921, long before India gained its independence, but his poetry was important to people involved in the freedom struggle after he died. His work is still important today, schools and streets in Tamil Nadu are named after him, and more controversially, the poetry he wrote whilst in Pondicherry has been used by Tamils in Sri Lanka to argue for a Tamil homeland in that country (Frost, 2006).
My research will produce a number of academic papers, but also ties into a wider research network of people studying Indian culture and society within the University, and links to the ETIC project based in the University, as well as my own interests in the politics and history of South Asia.”
Frost, CM (2006) ‘Bhakti and nationalism in the poetry of Subramania Bharati’ Hindu Studies 10, p. 150-166