Mellon scholar brings insight into initiative

St. Franchis Church
St. Franchis Church, Kochi. Neelima Jeychandran, 2012.

A new research initiative, Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds, examines the diverse places – from Tanzania to Indonesia - the ocean touches and how they are all connected by it.  The initiative holds its first symposium Friday, Oct. 16.

As well as traversing a great distance geographically, the initiative also aims to do so intellectually by involving UC faculty and students and guests from many disciplines including religion, geography, anthropology, African and Asian studies, and the arts.

One of the key participants in the initiative and the symposium is Neelima Jeychandran, a visiting Mellon Foundation scholar for the initiative.

“We are looking at new paradigms in understanding this large space,” said Jeychandran, who received her doctorate in Culture and Performance from World Arts and Cultures/Dance from UCLA last year. “The region has been studied more from a historical perspective, not through contemporary cultural transmissions such as cuisine, textiles or other more subtle cultural exchanges.”

Old connections expanding

There have been ongoing links between African and Asia, and especially East Africa and India, for nearly 1,000 years. Recent rapid globalization and the emergence of China and India as economic powerhouses have changed the nature of these relationships, speeded it up and given it a larger impact on the rest of the world.

“These new global networks and how they are being created, give us an opportunity to examine the region in new ways and more holistically,” said Jeychandran, who earned degrees in folklore and art and aesthetics in her native India.

Examining religious exchanges

Jeychandran’s primary research has been in exploring the cross cultural exchanges between India and African, including the establishment of African-based religions in India that came with African slaves brought to India starting in the 9th century.

A chapter of her dissertation focused on memories of African communities in the Indian port city of Kochi.

“My next project aims at studying how shrines for African spirits locally known as Kappiri (black person) are instrumental in restoring memories of forced African migrations to seaports on the Malabar Coast in Kerala, India,” she said.

A cross disciplinary initiative

During her two years at UC Davis, Jeychandran will teach classes, continue her research, work on a documentary about African spirit worship in India and participate in and help organize other initiative programs with initiative co-directors Bettina Ng’weno, associate professor of African American and African Studies, and Smriti Srinivas, professor of anthropology. Jeychandran is being hosted by the African American and African Studies program.

The symposium will include presentations on topics including women’s football around the Indian Ocean, post-colonial reconstitution of space, “Merchants and the Historical Imagination, and Gender and Romance in 19th Century Zanzibar.” The presenters will include scholars from UC Davis, other UCs and other universities. For more details visit Indian Ocean Worlds.  

Jeychandran will facilitate an end-of-the-symposium roundtable with all presenters.

“I will bring together and tease out the core points and see how we can develop new methodologies and open up new discussions," she said.

“We have a very diverse group and anyone in any area would benefit from taking part,” she said. “This is a real cross-disciplinary inquiry.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science