Washington South Asia Report

Spring 2012


"Indology is a fascinating ocean..."-In Conversation with Heidi Pauwels


When Agatha Christie’s ace detective Hercule Poirot took up new cases in London, he always made it clear to his employers – “I’m not French, I’m Belgian.” Prof Heidi Pauwels had to maintain a similar line of defense in her virginal days of research at Vrindavan in North India, when she was accused of being an “Angrez.” – “I’m not Angrez, I’m Belgian,” was her reply, trying to wrestle out historical encumbrances. Some of those sleuth-like qualities would come handy in her current mission to uncover the poetry and miniatures of the 18th century crown Prince of Kishangarh, Nagaridas. The South Asia Bulletin met her for a chat in her office - the same Gowen Hall room that once belonged to the legendary Prof Alan Entwistle. UW’s eminent South Asian medievalist Prof Pauwels tells us that Indology is a fascinating ocean that a student can make a meaningful contribution to, by simply editing and translating just about any pre-colonial manuscript.

We: Can you tell us about your current research in Rajasthan?
She: The focus of that research is Nagaridas, pen name of Savant Singh, who was the crown prince of Kishangarh in Rajasthan, a town not far from Jaipur. He’s famous because he sponsored the celebrated Kishangarhi miniatures when he was the crown prince (in the first half of the eighteenth century). He was also an extremely prolific poet. He’s essentially a Radha-Krishna poet and I first stumbled upon him because he wrote a hagiography in which he devotes several sections to the first poet I (systematically) studied, Hariram Vyas. The most interesting thing about him perhaps is the combination of the poetry and the miniatures. This seems to be quite unique.I thought there is lot that a student of literature can contribute here because most art historians focus on the pictures. But you have to realize behind many miniatures, there is a poem. The miniature takes on a new meaning, with details that the poet has composed in verse. Nagaridas was a painter too and also made some humorous sketches.

Secondly, this was in the early 18th century, when Urdu was “born” and he experimented with the then new poetic medium of Urdu. Prof. Purnima Dhavanand I have been working on Wali, also known as Baba-e-Urdu, the father of Urdu, a poet from the south whose poetry became a rage in the North in the 1720s. The amazing thing is that he is quoted by Nagaridas in his anthologies of Krishna poetry! Nagridas had this way of collecting in anthologies his own verse together with that of other people, and while most them are Krishna poets, one of them is Wali. This shows that Urdu poetry was not yet exclusively associated with Islam. It also brings up the issue of intertextuality, about how poets were inspired by other poets over the centuries. It is interesting to see how they created their own thing in dialogue with other poets. It may surprise us now: you have Radha-Krishna poetry and then you have Wali. How would he have known about Wali and what could've been the channels of transmission is one of my central questions. The Kishangarhi family had a house in Delhi because they were very close with the Mughal ruler, Mohammed Shah Rangeela. Probably they attended mushairas, so understanding what the scene in Delhi was is important. Another channel of poetry transmission is that Nagaridas had a concubine, a singer bought from Candni Cauk in Delhi, who was a poet in her own right, and he quotes her. I've also found a book of poetry that is attributed to her, and in it she quotes Wali’s poetry too. So she also may have been a conduit bringing the new Urdu poetry to Nagridas’ attention. I think my next project will focus on her.

We: So to begin from the beginning, how did you get interested in India?
She: In high school I was trained in Latin and Greek. The idea was I would go on in that in College. I was very interested in philosophy and history. But so much has been written aboutthe classics. Then I wanted to really contribute, do something different that had not yet been done. I considered Indo-Iranistics, without a good idea what that entails. You have to choose your major as a freshman in Belgium and you're stuck in that from the first day. As I studied more, I realized I don’t know a thing, there is so much more to learn. I got a degree in history and philology of India and Iran.Despite this, I felt like an imposter, so I wanted to keep learning. That’s how I got into my PhD. I had studied grammar of Hindi and Sanskrit, but didn’t speak a word of Hindi when I was in my fourth year of college.There was no Indian connection at that time in Belgium, very few Indian people, no Indian restaurants. There was hardly a chance to speak Hindi. But in the senior year, we had a rather famous guest teacher form India, Prof. Satyavrat Shastri. It was almost like the world opened up for me. We read Shakuntala, read Hindi short stories, and I thoughtwhat have I been doing for so long. I was hooked.

We: What was your first major academic project?
She: It was on bhakti or devotion to the goddess Radha.Dr. Winand Callewaert, who did not teach, but was a research scholar at the K. University Leuven in Belgium,supervised ourM.A. theses.He's a scholar of bhakti, of Nirguna Bhakti, actually, that is devotion to an abstract God. Initially, I wanted to do something on the Upanishads. He said you can’t do that, you have too little Sanskrit. But you can learn Hindi. He put me on to Bhakti, but I gravitated towards Saguna Bhakti (devotion to a personal God with mythological attributes), especially through the books by Jack Hawley and Kenneth Bryant. I really loved their workand I got into doing my thesis on the goddess Radha.

Before I graduated, I had been only once to Vrindavan and not long enough to become fluent in the language. I thought I need to do more. For my M.A. thesis I had received an award that I used to go to India for a few months. Belgian students did not have the benefit of structured language programs like AIIS. I went on my own and stayed in the ashram of Shrivatsa Goswamiin Vrindaban,which fortunately turned out to be a wonderfully scholarly environment. I also started going to the Vrindavan Reseach Institute, which was founded by scholar from London, Dr. Ramdas Gupta, who collected, restored, and preserved manuscripts from the Braj area.A remarkable archive!

In fact there is an interesting story behind this. Dr. Gupta is from the Braj area. One day, he saw a jalebi seller wraphis jalebis in a paper, and that paper turned out to be an old manuscript. So he asked him where did you get this? The jalebi seller replied, we have tons of it. Dr. Gupta thought we have to do something or it will all be lost. So he decided to start an institute and by the time I was there, they had quite a collection and had just moved into a brand new building right next to the ISKCON Mandir.

I became good friends with another student at the VRI, Swapna Sharma, and talking to her helped me get fluent in Hindi. (Ed. – Dr. Sharma now teaches Hindi at Yale.) Neither she norI spoke much English at the time (my mother tongue is Dutch and my second language is French). So we had to speak in Hindi, which forced me to learn it well. Ironically, in the beginning all the kidsin town called me Angrez, Angrez. In my innocence, Ikept telling them “I am not English, I am Belgian.” Eventually, I figured it out. During my first four months at Vrindavan, I did not speak to a single non-Indian person. Just by the end, Jack Hawley came by the ashram. My Hindi became fully fluent and I learned Braj Bhasha after I spent another year in Vrindaban, this time on an Indo-Belgian Exchange scholarship.

To come back to your question, besides learning Hindi, I was working on finding a topic for my PhD research. Initially I planned to do this at K. University Leuven and my advisor again was Callewaert. He insisted that I do manuscript research and he said if you do a PhD with me, you have to find manuscripts and edit a text. You choose any poet. I looked at the bhaktas of Radha of the first generation in the sixteenth century and found Hariram Vyas's poetry very good. I still love his poetry. He has gorgeous poems on the love play of Radha and Krishna, but also “upadesh” more general advice on life, what to do and what to avoid; some poems are very sarcastic.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to ignite much interest in him even though I wrote two books about him. The first book was about how Sanskrit scripture of Bhagavata Purana was reworked in Braj poetry, using Hariram Vyas’ Ras-pancadhyayi as an example. The second was on hagiography, how saints are remembered. Here I edited a set of poems by Hariram Vyas on other bhaktas, including Kabir, Raidas and Krishna bhaktas. Read together, this set of poems is a sort of precursor to the more famous Bhaktamal of Nabhadas. I also discussed poems about Vyas, how he has been remembered over the centuries. Even today he is the subject of intersectarian rivalry. 

We: How did you decide to come to UW?
She: There was no interest or money in Belgium for doing a PhD on Braj literature. I was fortunate to get to study on a DAAD scholarship in Germany for a year with Monika Horstmann. She was in Cologne for a year, and just that one year, I got to work with her. Then she moved on to the South of Germany. I came to UW because I wanted to work with the late Prof. Alan Entwistle, who has written the major standard work of Braj.He was an amazing scholar. In fact, he had this very same office.

I came on a Fulbright and I finished my PhD in four years, but of course you have to count that I had spent a yearin Germany and in India preparing, working on my research. At UW, I learned proper Sanskrit with Profs. Salomon and Cox. I was studying Urdu with Naseem Hines. (Ed. - Dr. Hines now teaches Hindi and Urdu at Harvard.) I studied Kabir, Gurugranth and Chayavad poetry with Prof. Shapiro. I also took advantage of all the other fascinating classes offered, ranging all the way from Prof. Karl Potter’s readings of philosophical Sanskrit to Prof. Paul Brass’ seminars on violence and pogroms. Visiting scholars whom I had the good fortune to take classes with were Nita Kumar and David Lelyveld. I’ve been very happy with the intellectually very stimulating environment at UW.Last but not least for someone coming from Belgium, I’ve been always delighted with the excellent library here. It is amazing what resources are available, which is so crucial for scholarship. This is not true everywhere else in the world. In India of course, scholars have to contend with this major handicap of lack of access to the expensively published western scholarship. In Belgium, our library was very poorly equipped. It is easy to take it for granted if you grow up here, but a shock when compared to elsewhere in the world.

We: Can you talk about your last book, The Goddess as Role Model: Sita and Radha in Scripture and on Screen?
She: The idea for the book came to me when I was teaching at SOAS, London, my first job. There, at that time, all the students had to take a full semester of Old Hindi: both Braj and Avadhi. They weren’t very happy with this, as they felt it was not relevant to modern India, so I brought in the Ramayana TV series. May be the seed had been sown earlier, as the guruji with whom I studied(in India) had said, on Sunday morning (when the Ramayana TV serial played in the late 80s) you have to come and watch TV. In any case, I told my students in London:“if you wantto understand modern India, consider that the whole country was watching this series.” We were reading Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, which is one of the main sources of Ramanand Sagar’s TV series. As I delved deeper and compared the medieval text with was shown on the screen I found things were changed in interesting ways. It was not random at all. I was also working on my first book, on Radha-Krishna Raas Lila reworked by Hariram Vyas, so as I was translating a Braj version of how Krishna calls the gopis to come out in the woods, I was reading with students in Avadhi how Sita follows Rama in exile in the woods. And I thought there is a nice parallel. I had to make a vocabulary list for the students and I found a lot of the vocab used was also the same - Awadhi, Braj, old Hindi.

For my book, I expanded on that initial idea.I selected to compare different moments to see how Sita and Radha (or the Gopis) behave, Sita as the ideal wifeand Radha as the mistress. I look at the Sanskrit “classics” (Valmiki Ramayana and Bhagavata Purana), medieval poetry (Tuslidas and Braj poets), and then the television versions. Over time, you see, Radha becomesvery much Sita-ized, “cleaned up” if you want. After the success of the TV Ramayana, Ramanand Sagar later made a series on Krishna, in which you see a shift: Radha's a lot more submissive here than in medieval texts. I also compared with references to Sita and Radha in feature films.I heard older people in Braj say they don’t know what’s going on in Bollywood movies. But when there is a reference to the Ramayana, then they get it. Movies like Hum Aapke Hain Koun worked for them because they could see Rama-Sita in those relationships. The directors knowingly put in such references to appeal to a large audience. Some people say Sita is old fashioned. But Sita is of many ages, she has evolved. Whether you consider her empowering or restricting for women depends on which Sita you are talking about, and which part of her story you have in mind. The main point of the book is to provide material for people to reflect on this, not to judge too quickly, but grasp the retellings in all their complexity. In grappling with the multiple examples the goddesses set, you can make up your own mind about which part of the model might work for you. Even if you do not choose to follow a model, you will still learn from working through the stories.

We: What is your philosophy of teaching?
She: Teaching is fun. For one, you get to talk about things that interest you to a captive audience. In the process, you learn so much from the students’ reactions. There is nothing quite like seeing someone’s eyes light up at hearing about some interesting literature that you have the privilege of sharing with them, and then hearing their reflections.

That being said, teaching is also hard work. In terms of content, we have to teach quite far outside of our areas of expertise, which means a lot of research goes into a class. Of course you want to be up to date, so no matter whether you’ve taught it before, it still involves a lot of reading of the latest. That is even before you set the syllabus. In terms of teaching methodology, I’ve come a long way. I was educated in an older European lecturing system, where the professors often read notes and students rarely asked any questions. We had our exams only once a year, and questions were very arbitrarily selected from a full year’s worth of lectures. I had to adapt to the US system, but I loved it as a student. It is so much more student friendly and gets much more learning done.As a teacher, it was hard to adapt, I used to feel I was not earning my money honestly if I did not use all class time on lecturing. Discussion seemed a luxury to me,that was better done during office hour or outside of class, not during precious class time. Now I really enjoy the discussions and I like to set creative projects for students as appropriate for certain courses. It’s great to see the student engagement with the material. It is hard work though, one has to communicate requirements clearly, and it takes a lot of thought how best to work towards achieving the class goals. There is good support at UW for experimenting with technology and have posting boards and the like to facilitate discussion. For the larger classes we are increasingly asked to teach that is crucial.

Ialso find teaching very beneficial for research. I try to plan my teaching as much as I can in conjuncture with my research interests. This is what I tried to do when I taught a Hindu-Muslim literary encounterscourse last year in preparation for my project on a Braj poet’s (Nagaridas) engagement with Urdu in the eighteenth century. With research,there is always the danger that youcan develop a tunnel vision, you’re too much into it, you don’t have perspective any more. But when you have to teach, you have to step out of it to reach out and it helps. That being said, it is sometimes frustrating to have to go over basics again and again and not to be able to teach one’s specialization. It would be nice to develop an advanced Braj readings course here at UW.

We: Who have been you chief influences and favorite poets?
She: In India, I am deeply indebted to my late gurus in Vrindaban: Shri Baldev Lal Gosvami and Buddhi Prakash, as well as to my friend Swapna Sharma, and to my host Shrivatsa Goswami, who also guided me. But so many people showed warmth and interest that it would be a long list to name them all. You can only begin to understand and love a culture through such friendships.

My academic mentors have all been very influential on my work. At UW, I am still enjoying very much the satsang with Prof. Shapiro andProf. Salomon, they are wonderful colleagues. The late Prof. Alan Entwistle of course was a big guiding light, his passing has been a great loss for scholarship. In Germany Prof. Monika Horstmann has been an amazing mentor. She taught Sanskrit and Braj and modern Hindi all at the same time. She did it all: from basic manuscript research to historical interpretations, contributions to anthropology, literature, religious studies, writing textbooks… She taught me not to remain stuck in one discipline but to reach out. She has been a great role model, be it a very hard one to live up to.My first advisor, Dr. Winand Callewaert, first inspired me with zeal for manuscript studies, a formative experience. Rupert Snell in SOAS was a wonderful mentor in my first job and his work has been a great intellectual influence. I’ve been very fortunate to work closely with these scholars. Outside my field, but throughout my scholarly journey, has been a major influence my husband, who is a scientist and a very clear thinker with remarkable capacity of creating ideas and research questions. I cannot say how much I have learned from him, and his support is a major strength.

As for favorite Indian poetry, there are many pleasures in life, butI should admit that in Sanskrit Jayadeva's Gitagovinda is one of my all-time favorites. Jayadeva is so mellifluous, especially the songs. A different pleasure is Bhavabhuti. His dramas are very profound. But then, there’s also Urdu, you can mull just one sher of Ghalib over and over. O yes, and I love Qawali and bhajans.Of the Braj poets, for devotional verse, Hariram Vyas is brilliant. Tulsidas is always a pleasure to hear. Biharilal is dazzling, he's one of the poets that can absorb you completely. That’s just a few.There is such a wealth of treasures, a lot still unexplored. I’mglad I somehow found my way into Indology, because there's so much that has not been done and so much to do. You can make a contribution by picking up nearly any (pre-colonial) text or poetry. They are all interesting in their own right and so much stilluntranslated. Imagine, so many works have not even been edited. Especially for beginning students, even if you can do the task of translating some of these sources, you've made a contribution right there. I hope to inspire students to contribute in this way to make the fascinating Indian literatures wider available and better-known.




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