The South Asia Center is proud to feature Terenjit Sevea, Assistant Professor of history and religion in modern South and Southeast Asia, and the newest addition to the faculty in the Department of South Asia Studies.
Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? Can you share with us something about your childhood, and what decisions or choices led you here?
I would describe myself as a historian of Muslims in modern South and Southeast Asia, and interested in the history of religion and Islamic connections in the Indian Ocean. I recently completed a PhD at the UCLA Department of History. I am originally from Singapore, and I was born into a family of migrants from Punjab. I spent most of my childhood living in an industrial neighborhood in Singapore and in particular, a paper-mill wherein my grandparents and father worked as security guards.
Reflecting upon this world I grew up in, I can definitely say that it was here that I first witnessed how Muslim faqirs and miracle-workers served as intermediaries, I was first told stories of transcultural spirits and demonologies by my earliest Malay teachers and I was first introduced to Punjabi Muslim poems and songs. I eventually produced a dissertation related to the very figures I was often curious about as a child, Tamil Muslim miracle-workers and intermediaries of spirits.
What are your research interests? What are you working on at the moment?
I am particularly interested in the history of Muslim miracle-workers and 'Sufis' in modern South and Southeast Asia, and the study of peculiar socioeconomic worlds across the Indian Ocean that were centered upon peripatetic miracle-workers. My work attempts to trace the sophisticated interweaving of miracles and economic operations in the 19th century, and networks of Muslim religious and economic activity that connected India, the Malay Peninsula, Yemen, Ethiopia and the broader Indian Ocean.
I am currently in the process of preparing a monograph on Muslim miracle-workers from the Coromandel Coast and the parts of the Indian Ocean who were pivotal to rice agriculture, alluvial mining, elephant trapping and gun expertise in the 19th century Malay Peninsula. I am working primarily with a corpus of unpublished 'magical' manuscripts that are replete with data on the miraculous expertise of these cosmopolitan miracle-workers and materials that were collected as I researched and traveled in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and the United Kingdom.
I am increasingly focusing my research upon the 'miraculous economies' of 19th and early 20th century port cities such as Batavia, Bombay, Malacca, Nagapattinam, Penang and Singapore wherein religion was centered upon peripatetic Muslim, Saiva, Catholic and Sikh miracle-workers or gods, and the circulation of miracle stories, miracles, hagiographies and supernatural manuals across the aforementioned port cities that facilitated and sustained multilingual devotional cults preoccupied with the materiality and powers of miraculous beings.
What courses are you teaching this semester? What courses are you teaching in future?
I have been teaching a graduate-level course entitled 'Godliness, Miracles and Madness in Indian Ocean Port Cities' this semester. This course has focused upon how extant, published sources reveal that religious life in Indian Ocean port cities and islands in the modern period was directly associated with holy men and women and spiritual beings, and intricately connected to economic, political and technological developments.
In the course of the following semesters, I will be teaching a number of courses pertaining to religion and religious cultures in pre-modern and modern South Asia. These include: 'An Introduction to Religion in South Asia', 'The Mullah and the Englishman - Muslims in Modern India and Pakistan', 'Re-enchanting Modernity - A Guide to Sufism in South Asia' and 'Religious Bodies and Sex in South Asia'.
Can you share with us some of your experiences and thoughts of Penn and the city of Philadelphia? What are some of your other interests, outside of academics?
Whilst I have only served as a faculty member at Penn for a few months, my experience has been a wonderful one. It has indeed been a much-illuminating time spent at the Department, and I believe that the thematic depth and richness of the Department is helping me mature as a scholar and allowing me grow as a historian of religion in South Asia and the Indian Ocean world. Moreover, being at Penn has allowed me to discuss (and debate) my work, and participate in wider forums, with scholars from the Religious Studies and History and Sociology of Science Departments.
In terms of the city of Philadelphia, I have yet to explore the city fully but it does appear to be an extremely livable city. I am particularly enjoying the vibrancy of Philadelphia, and being a "foodie," the access I am enjoying to Senegalese, Ethiopian and even Malaysian and Indonesian food. Beyond academics and reading, I enjoy watching movies (unabashedly, I am a fan of 'Bollywood', 'Kollywood' and 'Lollywood' movies), listening to recordings of qawallis and ghazals, keeping 'up-to-date' with (European) football and cricket matches, and cycling. In fact, I am enjoying the scenic cycling tracks in Philadelphia!