Reimagining the Indian Ocean with Smriti Srinivas and Bettina Ng’weno

“What are the conceptual limits of the Indian Ocean?” Bettina Ng’weno asks. In other words, where do you draw the line of the Indian Ocean’s imagined space? Is it at the high tide mark? Is it how far its products or its people go? Is it how far ideas travel through and from it?

These questions are the ones driving “Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds” a DHI Research Cluster that has been selected as a new Mellon Research Initiative led by Smriti Srinivas, professor of anthropology, and Bettina Ng’weno, associate professor of African American and African studies.

Conceptualized as “Indian Ocean Imaginaries,” the current research cluster draws together faculty and graduate students from departments and programs as wide-ranging as anthropology, African American and African studies, English, geography, human ecology, linguistics, and religious studies.

For Ng’weno, her interest in space and land has led to an interest in both the imagined and physical spaces of the Indian Ocean. “I’m interested in space and the imaginary of the Indian Ocean: how people think of it and how they place themselves within those thoughts, both historically and spatially, as well as where across the Indian Ocean do they imagine themselves connected to and why,” said Ng’weno.

Srinivas’s previous work in investigating “how boundaries are crossed” and “how people think and move across different cultural spaces” has drawn her to this project. Specifically, her 2008 book In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement on a global guru from India who has a devotional following from East Africa to Southeast Asia and beyond drew her attention to the way that South Asia often acts as a “central hub” for the movement of people, geographies of devotion, and ideas across the Indian Ocean.

Both are interested not only in movement, but also “what people do when in place, or how they form places even if they’re moving,” as Ng’weno explained.

The kinds of connections Srinivas, Ng’weno, and others involved in the cluster are interested in range from the production and exchange of foodstuffs, wooden boats, languages, waste materials, metals, oil, religious beliefs and shrines, and even hair and hairstyles.

Srinivas relayed the anecdote of a specific Sufi shrine on the east coast of India called Nagore Sharif with a large following historically in the Indian Ocean world; in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, this shrine developed new functions overlaying old connections to become a center of distribution of food and relief efforts to other places affected by the disaster. This is one example of a theme that the cluster will also be addressing in various ways: the role of climate change in Indian Ocean communities as sea levels rise and alter or reinforce the network of relationships in the area.

The group began as a research cluster this year, but it will continue and expand over the next three years with Mellon Initiative funding. Next year will begin with an opening conference to set the group’s agenda and start a dialogue on reimagining the scope of Indian Ocean studies. This will be followed by guest speakers every quarter and another conference at the end of the three years to look forward and imagine the future of Indian Ocean studies.

The initiative also hopes, over the next few years, to form an international working group of people with a variety of interests and investments in the Indian Ocean.

“I think what’s exciting about the Mellon Initiative here at UC Davis is that while we have some wonderful scholars in the UC system as a whole who work on the Indian Ocean, there hasn’t been a multi-year concentrated activity like this on contemporary Indian Ocean cultures and societies, and I really do think this puts UCD on the map of global efforts in this region,” Srinivas said.

Graduate students interested in getting involved with Indian Ocean Imaginaries are encouraged to get in touch with Ng’weno and Srinivas, or stay tuned for the group’s website.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English