A Princeton Reunion in Sri Lanka

Jan. 11, 2023

By Nikhil Pandhi

On 8 January, 2023, doctoral candidate Nikhil Pandhi met and interacted with Princeton Emeritus Professors Gananath Obeyesekere and Ranjini Obeyesekere at their home in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Emeritus Professors Gananath Obeyesekere signing a book

Pandhi, who was visiting Sri Lanka for a research and translation related fieldwork trip, discussed a plethora of issues with professors Obeyesekere and Obeyesekere ranging from caste in India and Sri Lanka, Buddhism and its spiritual politics of emancipatory liberation, the power of decolonial translation studies in Sinhala and Hindi, the horizons of literature, anthropology and storytelling from the Global South, and the ways in which critical studies of ethnicity, race, violence and conflict can help shed more nuance on the ongoing crises of state, religion, minority identities (Tamil/Muslim/Dalit-Bahujan/Tribal/Indigenous) and political accountability in Sri Lanka and India.

Professors Obeyesekere and Obeyesekere remain deeply engaged public intellectuals in South Asia, writing and publishing prolifically about the intersections of art, politics and anthropology. They both signed and gifted Pandhi copies of their latest published works.

Performance in a Time of Terror book cover

Ranjini Obeyesekere recently published Performance in a Time of Terror: Five Sinhala Plays from Sri Lanka (Routledge, 2021), a book of critical translational scholarship traversing literature, anthropology and performance studies. The volume is a collection of five Sinhala plays, translated by Obeyesekere into English, which were written and performed during the most violent phase of modern Sri Lankan history, between the 1980s and 1990s. In a time of the brutal suppression of voices, terror and political violence, Obeyesekere discusses how audiences flocked to the theatre to watch plays, which offered a political space for criticism, introspection, discussion, dissent and solidarity.

The Creation of the Hunter, Gananath Obeyesekere

Gananath Obeyesekere recently published The Creation of the Hunter: The Vädda Presence in the Kandyan Kingdom: A Re-Examination (Sailfish, 2022), Placating the Demons: Ritual Practices Among Sri Lankans (Routledge, 2021) and Stories and Histories: Sri Lankan Pasts and The Dilemmas of Narrative Representation (Sarasavi Publishers, 2019). In the first, a powerful exemplar of decolonial anthropology, Obeyesekere draws on his long-term fieldwork among the Väddas of Sri Lanka, dispelling the prevailing view of their being primitive hunters and gatherers living in isolated pockets, to instead bring back their stories and voices and present an alternative reading of Sri Lankan history. In the second, Obeyesekere examines dominant ceremonial practices in Sri Lanka pertaining to spirit possession, trance and mediums, highlighting their key ideas and symbolic systems, while also shedding critical light on urban ceremonial and purificatory practices, theories of diseases and specific cases of the apotheoses from demon to divinity. In the third, Obeyesekere analyses key historical texts ranging from the ancient Pali Buddhist corpus in Sri Lanka to modern European colonial scholarship to emphasize the “tentativeness of historical knowledge” and draw attention to unique ideas of caste, kinship, kingship, myth, gender and religiosity in Sri Lanka and South Asia.

Professors Obeyesekere and Obeyesekere and Pandhi also discussed Princeton’s attention to changing forms and tessellations of decolonial knowledge from the Global South over the past four decades and the ways in which cutting-edge anthropology always rests on a sound infusion of the creative and the critical, alongside a commitment to people’s everyday stories. Also in audience, in this engaging and inspiring inter-generational interaction was Zheng, the Obeyesekere’s more-than-human canine companion, who lives with them in Kandy.