Divine Bodies

At the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco:


From the mailer:


And from the museum’s website:

The first section, Transience and Transcendence, reveals the implicit connection between time and eternity. Over 100 interviewees in David and Hi-Jin Hodge’s video work Impermanence reflect on how human lives, although transitory, can have meaning. Hauntingly beautiful photographs by artist Gauri Gill of ephemeral graves in the desert, as well as a Tibetan thangka that captures both the decease of the historical Buddha and his attainment of immortality, also speak to life and its eventual end.
Embodying the Sacred considers the body as a powerful form of communication, presenting a provocative juxtaposition of sculptural portraits of the Buddha from China, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Pakistan. A sensual bronze Shiva from Tamil Nadu, a beautiful gilded copper White Tara from Nepal, a stone sculpture of the ferocious Thunderbolt Tara and humorous depictions of the gods in Vivan Sundaram’s series Khajuraho bring to life the exhibition’s third section, The Many Aspects of Divinity. Pamela Singh’s composite photographs taken in urban landscapes also evoke this theme by simultaneously suggesting the presence and absence of the artist.
Divine Metamorphosis, the final sectiongroups together several distinct bodily forms of a single Hindu or Buddhist deity, suggesting the centrality of transformation to our understanding of the divine. The Hindu god Vishnu is depicted in various forms, from cosmic pillar to wild boar to flute-playing Krishna, while photographs by Dayanita Singh from the series Mona Ahmed document the lived reality of self-transformation in India’s eunuch community.
Ultimately, these diverse images of gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas, humans and their landscapes — past and present — lead us to reflect on how to find meaning in an impermanent world.

“The lived reality of self-transformation in India’s eunuch community” leads us to the hijras of South Asia. From Wikipedia (in an article heavily focused on their legal status in South Asian countries):

Hijra is a term given to eunuchs, intersex people, and transgender people in South Asia.

… Hijras are officially recognized as third gender in South Asian countries, being considered neither completely male nor female. Hijras have a recorded history in the Indian subcontinent from antiquity onwards as suggested by the Kama Sutra period.

Many hijras live in well-defined and organised all-hijra communities, led by a guru. These communities have sustained themselves over generations by “adopting” boys who are in abject poverty, rejected by, or flee, their family of origin. Many work as sex workers for survival.

The word “hijra” is a Hindi-Urdu word, derived from the Semitic Arabic root hjr in its sense of “leaving one’s tribe”. The Indian usage has traditionally been translated into English as “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite”, where “the irregularity of the male genitalia is central to the definition.” However, in general hijras are born male, only a few having been born with intersex variations. Some Hijras undergo an initiation rite into the hijra community called nirwaan, which refers to the removal of the penis, scrotum and testicles.

Since the late 20th century, some hijra activists and Western non-government organizations (NGOs) have lobbied for official recognition of the hijra as a kind of “third sex” or “third gender”, as neither man nor woman. Hijras have successfully gained this recognition in Bangladesh and are eligible for priority in education. In India, the Supreme Court in April 2014 recognised hijra and transgender, eunuchs, intersex people as a ‘third gender’ in law. Nepal, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh have all legally accepted the existence of a third gender, with India including an option for them on passports and certain official documents.

And that leads me to the linguist Kira Hall (at the Univ. of Colorado, Boulder). Her statement on her Colorado website about one of her research programs:

Much of my research on language, gender, and sexuality involves groups associated with non-normative systems of sexuality and gender in India. These groups include hijras, a traditional Indian group identified in anthropological scholarship as a “third sex” because of their identification as neither man nor woman; kotis, cross-dressing men who marry women yet have male sexual partners; gays and lesbians, groups that emerged in India in the 1990s through HIV-AIDS activism and orient to a Western model of same-sex sexuality; and boys or TGs, a burgeoning category of persons assigned female at birth who wish to live their lives as men. The claims I make about the language practices of these groups are very specific — even radically particularized — to the localized sociocultural environs in which they occur. At the same time, my work reveals that every local use of language is deeply informed by broader ideologies of language and personhood that circulate at higher levels, whether urban, regional, national, or global.

While my early work focused on the language practices of Hindi-speaking hijras in Varanasi, my more recent work examines the bilingual practices of the globalized middle classes in urban India. I am particularly interested in how Hindi and English, along with a range of hybrid language varieties situated between these two extremes (now often labeled as ‘Hinglish’), inform the emergence of new forms of sexual subjectivity arising in and around India’s capital, New Delhi. Because Hindi and English are ideologically bound to contrastive dichotomies of personhood — traditional vs. modern, rural vs. urban, working class vs. upper class, local vs. global — they are used as resources in the production of particular kinds of sexual selves.

From the discipline of anthropology, I take the insight that the relationship between language and social meaning is best uncovered through ethnography, a time-intensive empirical method requiring longitudinal participant observation with the speakers, languages, and societies under study. In the case of my research in New Delhi, this method has revealed the complexity of ways that India’s rising global economy has worked to sediment the status of English as a language of modernity, and more specifically, of sexual modernity. My publications in this area over the last decade include a 2005 article Intertextual Sexuality in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology on the kotis’ contrasting impersonations of hijras and gay men and a 2009 article “Boys’ Talk”: Hindi Moustaches and Masculinity in New Delhi in Pichler and Eppler’s Gender and Spoken Interaction on divergent uses of Hindi and English by groups identifying as boys and lesbians. My 2014 commentary Hypersubjectivity in Journal of Asian Pacific Communication considers the role of global movement in bringing about the kinds of indexical shifts between form and meaning seen in Delhi’s expanding middle class, and my 2013 commentary “It’s a Hijra”: Queer Linguistics Revisted in the journal Discourse & Society questions queer theory’s ability to account for these shifts, given what I view to be its very limited, if not static, understanding of identity. In this latter article, I propose that the concept of indexicality as advanced by sociocultural linguists provides a much more powerful way of understanding identity as something that is multilayered and always shifting across time and space [emphasis mine- AMZ], both presupposed and created anew in every act of discourse.



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