The University of Chicago did not establish the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations until 1965, but Sanskrit—studied in the context of historical philology—has figured as an object of study since the University’s founding. South Asian studies, focusing on the Indian subcontinent and surrounding areas, have long engaged Chicago scholars.

Today the University is a leader in the field due in large part to extraordinary faculty. Over the past 11 years, the department has made a spate of faculty hires and other academic appointments that should position it to remain at the fore of South Asian studies. Assistant Professor Yigal Bronner, PhD’99, believes that the department boasts “an unusually harmonious combination of junior and senior faculty and our dedicated group of lecturers. This is simply an unbeatable combination.”

In this new feature devoted to the Humanities Division’s young faculty, Tableau is pleased to introduce the department’s talented and diverse assistant professors: Bronner, Thibaut d’Hubert, Sascha Ebeling, and Rochona Majumdar.

A native of Jerusalem, Yigal Bronner is a Sanskritist trained at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Chicago. Bronner was drawn to Sanskrit in college, where he was required to learn it as part of his major in South Asian studies. “It quickly became clear to me that this is where my heart was,” he says. “I loved the language itself, the learning process, and the emic literary tradition, with its own fascination with ‘things made from language.’”

He has taught courses in all levels of Sanskrit and a variety of seminars on the literary and intellectual history of South Asia. The cotranslator of Self-Surrender, Peace, Compassion, and the Mission of the Goose: Poems and Prayers from South India (NYU Press, 2009) and author of Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration (Columbia University Press, 2010), Bronner recently embarked on what he calls a “rather ambitious attempt to rechart the history of Sanskrit poetics,” an intellectual discipline that accompanied literary production in Sanskrit for nearly two millennia. In his research, which was recently featured in the University of Chicago Magazine, he plans to clarify aspects of this tradition that are misunderstood and to explore others that remain uncharted.

After teaching at Tel Aviv University, Bronner was drawn back to Chicago in 2005 by “the community of scholars interested in things South Asian across campus, which is without parallel, both in its strength and in its being a true community, not just a group of very bright individuals.” He is quick to point out that it is not only his colleagues who make up this community: “The students we get are simply the best.”

It’s an exceptional moment for South Asian Languages and Civilizations at Chicago.

Thibaut d’Hubert was appointed to the faculty in 2010–11 and began teaching his first classes in autumn 2010. Raised in Paris and in the French countryside near Toulouse, d’Hubert studied Bengali and Persian at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales. He trained in Sanskrit at the Central Institute for English and Foreign Languages in Hyderabad, India, and at L’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle–Paris 3. He completed a PhD at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 2010.

His main field of research is the history of Bengali literature and its interactions with other literary traditions. His dissertation is an analysis of the works of Ālāol, a prolific author of the mid-seventeenth century who translated poetry from Hindustani and Persian into Bengali. D’Hubert is working to turn his dissertation into a book and on several other projects, including a critical edition and translation of a narrative poem by Ālāol and a study of the poetics of vernacular courtly literature in Bengal and neighboring regions.

His interest in South Asia was first piqued as a young boy at the Museum of Oriental Arts in Paris, where museum specialists would tell stories about the gods and goddesses of India and show statues to illustrate their tales. Today d’Hubert is excited to work with Bengal studies scholars, including historians Dipesh Chakrabarty and Majumdar and Lecturer Mandira Bhaduri. “Together,” says d’Hubert, “we will be able to offer a very wide-ranging program for the study of Bengali language and Bengal studies. At Chicago, a student interested in Bengal is accompanied from his first step in Bengal language to the treatment of the most specific topics.”

Sascha Ebeling was born and raised in a small town in rural Germany, where he learned Tamil as a young boy from friends who were Sri Lankan refugees. As he grew older he pursued the study of many languages mainly because, as he says, “I was traveling and simply needed to communicate or because I met people I really wanted to be able to talk to.” Ebeling trained in South Asian studies, Romance languages and literatures, and general linguistics at the University of Cologne, Germany, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. His first book, Colonizing the Realm of Words: The Transformation of Tamil Literature in Nineteenth-Century South India (State University of New York Press, 2010), was just published.

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Currently Ebeling is working on two book projects: a comprehensive social history of modern Tamil literature, covering the period from 1859 to 2009, and a monograph with the working title The Imperial Rise of the Novel, which will address the connections between Western imperialism, Asian modernities, and the global history of the novel and discuss a wide range of texts from Europe and Asia. He finds that Chicago is “one of the few places in the world where you can work together with a larger team of South Asia experts. That is incredibly inspiring, and it has enabled a kind of collaborative, comparative, and interdisciplinary research that is simply not possible elsewhere.”

Rochona Majumdar, PhD’03, is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century India. She knew from a young age that she would pursue Indian studies. She grew up in Kolkata, India, in a neighborhood that served as the native quarters when the city was under colonial rule. “I was always drawn to walking in the lanes,” she recalls, “and would stare for hours at the old crumbling buildings wondering about the history that took place within those walls.” The questions she had formulated about the city were not answered in her undergraduate studies, and so she continued to search. At Oxford University she encountered the writings of the Subaltern Studies Collective, a left-leaning group of radical historians writing histories of the socially marginalized and oppressed, and this body of work inspired her to pursue the study of India at the doctoral level at Chicago.

Majumdar’s first book, Marriage and Modernity: Family Values in Colonial Bengal, 1870–1956 (Duke University Press, 2009; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009), analyzes the changing configuration of the “joint family” in the context of shifts in the institution of arranged marriage and the marriage market in Bengal. She also is a coeditor of From the Colonial to the Postcolonial: India and Pakistan in Transition (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007). Her next book, Writing Postcolonial History, is due to appear in October 2010 from Bloomsbury Press, UK. The study analyzes ways in which postcolonial theory has influenced the historian’s craft. Presently she is engaged in a long-term research project on the history of Indian cinema, particularly the film society movement and the rise and development of Indian avant-garde cinema.

It’s an exceptional moment for South Asian Languages and Civilizations at Chicago, believes Steven Collins, Chester D. Tripp Professor in the Humanities and Chair of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. “This new group of younger faculty,” he says, “combined with the senior members, make me anticipate that the next ten years, before senior faculty start to retire, will be the best decade in the department’s history so far.”