[CSH Lecture Series #8 – ONLINE] Reading Tamil Catholic literature in the Eighteenth Century (M. Trento)

[CSH Lecture Series #8 – ONLINE] Reading Tamil Catholic literature in the Eighteenth Century (M. Trento)

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Margherita Trento


Reading Tamil Catholic literature in the Eighteenth Century

The session will be online via Zoom on 1st March 2021, 5:00 pm onwards:


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Jesuit missionaries who arrived in India in 1542, sponsored by the Portuguese crown, became major cultural agents of change through proselytism along the east coast and in the interior of the Tamil Nadu. Always in small number themselves, by the eighteenth century they had founded many churches and congregations of Christians, mostly led by local laymen working as catechists. Even though missionaries aimed to convert all layers of the society, their efforts were particularly targeted towards these literate and important members of the community, who were to carry out their mission on a capillary level.

Their teaching took the form of oral sermons and catechetical instruction as well as written catechisms and devotional books. In the early eighteenth century, missionaries also begun to write poetry that would convey Catholic messages according to Tami literary conventions. It is at this moment, I argue, that Tamil Catholic literature entered for the first time the Tamil literary sphere, and lay catechists were its main intended readers. In this presentation, I will discuss why the focus on reading is helpful to understand the relationship between the mission and local social and cultural concerns. I will further explore possible strategies for recovering a history of the practises of reading, and of the readers of Tamil Catholic texts in the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century century.

The first part of the presentation will focus on literature, especially on the epic poem Tēmpāvaṇi, the masterpiece of Tamil Catholic literature written by Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi (1680-17470). I will analyze the literary conventions and innovations at play in the Tēmpāvaṇi from the point of view of the eyes meant to read the text, and explore their possible modes and habits of reading. These were, I will show, the eyes of the catechists and Catholic laymen close to the mission. Moreover, I will explore the circulation and reception of the Tēmpāvaṇi as it emerges from different sources, from the paratexts accompanying manuscripts of the poem to catechist family histories, and the role the poem played in the creation of a cultural and social identity for the catechists.


Margherita Trento is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie research fellow at the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud (CEIAS) in Paris. Her current project, located at the crossroad of history, literature, and ethnography, explores ideas and practices of martyrdom and self-sanctification in early modern South India. Before joining the CEIAS, she was a research fellow the University of Naples “L’Orientale” in the framework of the ERC project ŚIVADHARMA. She received her PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago in March 2020, with a dissertation on the social, cultural and literary history of Tamil Catholicism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

She has authored articles on the cultural history of early modern South India, including “Translating the Dharma of Śiva in Sixteenth-century Chidambaram: Maṟaiñāṉa Campantar’s Civatarumōttaram” forthcoming in May 2021, and “Śivadharma or Bonifacio? Behind the Scenes of the Madurai Mission Controversy (1608-1619)” (2018). She is currently working on her book manuscript, titled Writing Tamil Catholicism: A Social History of Persuasion and Devotion in the Eighteenth Century.

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