AIIS 2021 Book Prizes Awarded to Vaibhav Saria and Holly Shaffer

The Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Prize in the Indian Humanities was awarded to Holly Shaffer for Grafted Arts: The Marathas and the British in Western India, 1760-1820

The Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences was awarded to Vaibhav Saria for Hijras, Lovers, Brothers: Surviving Sex and Poverty in Rural India

Grafted Arts, which will be published by the Paul Mellon Centre in association with Yale University Press, focuses on Maratha military rulers and British East India Company officials who used the arts to engage in diplomacy, wage war, compete for prestige, and generate devotion as they allied with, or fought against, each other to control western India in the eighteenth century. Professor Shaffer conceptualizes the artistic combinations that resulted as ones of “graft”—a term that acknowledges the violent and creative processes of suturing arts, and losing and gaining goods, as well as the shifting dynamics among agents who assembled such materials. By tracing grafted arts from multiple perspectives—Maratha and British, artist and patron, soldier and collector—this book charts the methods of empire building that recast artistic production and collection in western India and from there across India and in Britain. This mercenary method of artistry propagated a wide range of mixed and fractured arts and took advantage of plundered ones. The author argues that such broken sculptures, scrappy self-portraits, and engravings of wax-formed noses—which would be identified as ephemeral, marginal, and interstitial in a conventional account—become vital evidence for a history of art that gains shape through assembly and juxtaposition. These arts, alongside oil paintings, religious murals, courtly albums, and printed books, emblematize how forms can transform by way of a different artist, patron, viewer, or troubling circumstance, from an artist who worked for Company officials like Gangaram Tambat to an artist like William Blake who drew on western Indian arts that returned with such officials to London. Indeed, these grafted arts iterated across India and Britain over the nineteenth century either to consolidate empire or revolt against it entirely; they still remain instigators of nationalist agitation today.

The AIIS Book Prize Committee lauded Professor Shaffer for her “imaginative use of a ‘grafted arts’ framework to examine the artistic creations and collections that resulted from the intermixing of the Marathas and the British in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” They noted that the “erudite and well-written book manuscript is also impressive in how effectively it engages the art, economic, military, political, and social histories of western India and the British Empire and draws on a rich array of source materials from archives and art collections in India, England, and the U.S. It is also unique in that it connects up moments, actors, and objects that are usually analyzed discretely and considers ‘western India as its center of inquiry with Britain a node in its network.’”

Holly Shaffer is an assistant professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. She earned her Ph.D. in History of Art from Yale University in 2015 and was an AIIS junior fellow in 2013-2014. She has been supported by postdoctoral fellowships from the Getty-ACLS, the Smithsonian Institution, and Dartmouth College; and is in the Society of Fellows at the Rare Book School at University of Virginia. Her publications connected to this book include “An Ecology of Picture-Rhythms (Talamala) in Western India, circa 1800” forthcoming in Art History; “Eclecticism and Empire, in Translation,” forthcoming in Modern Philology (2021); “‘Take all of them:’ Eclecticism and the Arts of the Pune court in India, 1760-1800,” in The Art Bulletin (2018); and “The Indian Evidence Act: Contemporary Art and Nationalism” in Third Text (2017). She is currently editing volume 51 of Ars Orientalis (2021) on replication and the force of forms in the graphic arts across Asia and Europe, and is developing a new project on food and art. She participated in the summer 2006CLS Urdu language program operated by AIIS as well as the 2013 AIIS summer Marathi program.

Hijras, Lovers, Brothers seeks to describe the fullness of lives. As one of India’s third gendered populations, hijras are too often and too easily relegated to positions of marginality as if their lives can be fully contained within the imperatives of survival. By offering a way of thinking about sexuality in Indian kinship in relation to the queer figure, and by restating an argument for psychoanalytic thinking of the Indian family, hijras are invited to step out from the long reaching shadows of global discourses of HIV prevention and human rights. Professor Saria’s book, which will be published by Fordham University Press, reveals not just a group of stigmatized or marginalized others but a way of life composed of laughter, struggles, and desires that trouble how we read queerness, kinship, and the psyche. Against easy framings of hijras that render them marginalized, the book shows how hijras makes the normative Indian family possible. The book also shows that particular practices of hijras, such as refusing to use condoms or comply with retroviral regimes, reflect not ignorance or irresponsibility but rather a specific idiom of erotic asceticism arising in both Hindu and Islamic traditions. This idiom suffuses the densely intertwined registers of erotics, economics, and kinship that inform the everyday lives of hijras and offer a repertoire of self-fashioning distinct from the secularized accounts within the horizon of public health programs and queer theory. This book is about the small pleasures of the everyday – laughter, flirting, teasing, but it is also about questions of the queer soul in India as calls of kinship, duty and honor, draw, and quarter it. It interrupts a global discourse with its power of strong language, which makes the hijra commensurable with interventions of HIV prevention, health and human rights to show that the hijra sexuality, though not fully embraced, is nevertheless accommodated by the various actors and institutions of the social in terms other than the normal or the pathological.

The Committee praised the book as compelling, ethnographically rich, theoretically insightful, and elegantly written. The descriptions and arguments about the “fullness” of their lives, particularly the rhythm and flow of the “small pleasures of [their] everyday lives,” add up to a stunningly fresh and intimate perspective on this marginalized and stigmatized group.  They also show how this community of hijras maintains significant mutually supportive kinship connections with their natal families. The fieldwork—conducted over a ten-year period between 2008 and 2018—is also impressive, as is the author’s deep engagement with key debates in cultural anthropology, queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and South Asian studies.    

Vaibhav Saria received their Ph.D. in Anthropology from Johns Hopkins University in 2014, and is currently assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University where they teach courses such as Global Trans Health; Gender and Sexuality in South Asia; and Global Health: Poverty, Panic, and Pandemics. Professor Saria’s research interests include Medical Anthropology, Global Health, Kinship, Psychoanalysis, HIV/AIDS, South Asia, Children/ Childhood Studies. Professor Saria is also a member of QuTUB, an international team of researchers working to advance methodologies to measure and improve quality of TB care, and to support quality improvement (QI) programs in TB. 

The 2020-21 AIIS Book Prize Committee included Sarah Lamb and Anand Yang, co-chairs, Chanchal Dadlani, Diane P. Mines, Tulasi Srinivas, and Tariq Thachil