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India Research Centre


Dr. Kalpana Ram, Department of Anthropology, Inaugural Director of India Research Centre


Dr. Kalpana Ram has been the Head of the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University from 2007-2010.

She teaches an undergraduate course every other year on India (India: Power and Performance), which focuses on the cultural history of power, with a focus on the performance of power and protest.

Dr. Ram began her postgraduate research in India in the late 1970s as a sociologist interested in local patterns of working class formation, and the challenges they pose to western class theory. She subsequently did her PhD in Anthropology at the Australian National University, where her doctoral research explored the intersection of capitalist transformation, the sexual division of labour and gender relations in a fishing community in Kanyakumari District of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The work entailed also a wide ranging argument about the way in which cultural ideologies about the female body shapes processes that are seemingly entirely 'economic'. The monograph Mukkuvar Women: Gender, Hegemony and Capitalist Transformation (Allen and Unwin 1990, Kali for Women 1991) was published from this doctoral research. It won a place on the 1993 Choice annual list of Outstanding Academic Books.

Her subsequent work has concerned itself postcolonial modernity in India in its broader social and cultural aspects - in terms of social reform agendas undertaken by the state as well as by a range of intellectuals who work in rural Tamil Nadu, from Catholic parish priests and nuns, to social workers, non-government organisations, teachers and doctors. In pursuing the way in which these reform agendas shape and re-shape the lives of rural women, Dr. Ram's research has focused on women in fishing and agricultural labouring communities. Her earlier interest in the female body has led her to focus on two key areas of female experience that are shaped by modern agendas - experiences of maternity and of puberty. During her time as a founding member of the Gender Relations Centre at the Australian National University, she edited, with Margaret Jolly, two influential collections on these topics: Maternities and Modernities. Colonial and Postcolonial Experiences in Asia and the Pacific. (Cambridge University Press,1998) and Borders of Being: Citizenship, Sexuality and Reproduction in Asia and the Pacific. (University of Michigan Press, Michigan, 2001). Her paper on family planning and the Indian state from Borders of Being was selected in 2009 for re-publication in The Routledge major works series, Women in Asia: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies (2009) - these contain '60 academic works that have defined the study of women in Asia over the last two decades'.

Dr. Ram publishes widely on feminist and postcolonial theory, and has edited, with Kehaulani Kauanui, Migrating Feminisms: The Asia/Pacific Region, a special issue of Women's Studies International Forum (1998).

Since the mid-1990s, Dr. Ram's interests increasingly moved in the direction of Indian performance traditions. She became involved both as a pupil and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Kailash Dance Company specialising in the Kuchipudi style, directed by Padma Menon in Canberra. From this experience have emerged a number of papers on the phenomenology of migrancy and of dance, using this experience to tackle a number of areas of social theory. She has subsequently also used this newer interest to explore the performing traditions of the labouring women in rural Tamil Nadu, drawing on her research to contrast the role of dance in the middle class Indian world with that of dance in the ritual traditions of rural men and women. One of these papers ('Untimeliness as Moral Indictment: Tamil Agricultural Labouring women's Use of Lament as Life Narrative', published in The Australian Journal of Anthropology 2007) won High Commendation from the Australian Anthropological Society in 2007.

Current and future research projects

Dr. Ram has just completed a major monograph called Fertile Disorder: Spirit possession and modern projects of subjectivity in the lives of rural Tamil Women, which is forthcoming from University of Hawai'i Press. The book re-examines various projects of modernisation that attempt to re-shape rural women's subjectivity and bodies, but then departs from these projects in order to visit a domain of practices that have been thoroughly marginalised by the discourses of Indian nationalism and modernity - a domain that may very loosely be described under the umbrella of 'spirit possession'. The book explores the questions: what new light does 'possession' shed on the lives of the women it affects? And how might we re-address some of the enduring tensions in social sciences as well as modern emancipatory projects if we embrace the challenges of 'possession', and in particular its way of rendering fluid the borders between the body and entities in the world - instead of dismissing it as 'superstition'?

Dr. Ram's next project will engage more closely with the aesthetic and affective dimensions of Indian modernity - particularly in the role played by dance and music in the middle class experience of 20th century modernity, with a special emphasis on the critical 'Nehruvian' period of Indian modernity.

She is currently co-editing a special issue of The Australian Journal of Anthropology with Dr. Ursula Rao on 'Dissent as a social force'. She has also built up, as part of her research program, a cohort of postgraduate doctoral students working in India on various research areas that develop themes from her own research and take it into new directions:

  • On the experiences of clinical medicine by marginalised social groups - in this case indigenous tribal groups in Kerala - their negotiation with local systems of knowledge and healing; the regional histories of Indian modernity. (Sumant Badami, PhD candidate.)
  • On the experience of reproductive technology in Tamil Nadu; gender and the clinic; feminist theorising of transnational connections and differences between Australia and India as locations for gendered practices. (Victoria Loblay, PhD candidate).
  • On dance, gender, embodiment and migratory flows of practices, a multi-sited ethnography of Kathak in India and North America. (Monica Dalidowicz, Phd candidate).
  • On the phenomenology of voice, sound and re-orientations of body/mind/world: the practices found in Tamil Nadu such as chanting, music and the use of voice in Tamil traditions of rhetoric. (Kara Morcom PhD candidate).
  • Transnational re-orientations of maternity, the changing shape of kinship and reproduction: Surrogacy in India and their Australian 'intended parents'. (Michaela Stockey-Bridge, PhD candidate.)


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