‘“Here be Dragons”: Monsters, Mermaids and Myth in Southeast Asia’ (Wednesday, 11 April 2018)

Speaker: Prof Barbara Watson Andaya (Professor of Asian Studies, University of Hawai’i)
Date: Wednesday, 11 April 2018
Time: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
Venue: AS8, Level 6, Conference Room (06-46)

Synopsis

The oldest known representation of the New World, discovered in 2013 and dated to 1504, is engraved with immaculate detail on two conjoined halves of an ostrich egg. Apart from the names of countries and regions, it includes only one short phrase, Hic Sunt Dracones, “Here be Dragons”, which appears in the vicinity of Southeast Asia. This presentation uses this rare object to consider the ideas about the inhabitants of the sea environment that Europeans brought to Asian waters, particularly the notion that the oceans were teeming not only with monsters and underwater dragons, but also with humanoid creatures, mermen and merwomen. It will discuss the ways in which these ideas interacted with indigenous beliefs in sea beings, some of whom were kindly and well-disposed, and others distinctly malevolent, and ask why belief in such beings has persisted, even to the present day.

About the speaker

Barbara Watson Andaya is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i. Between 2003 and 2010 she was Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and in 2005-06 she was President of the American Association of Asian Studies. In 2000 she received a John Simon Guggenheim Award, and in 2010 she received the University of Hawai‘i Regents Medal for Excellence in Research. Her specific area of expertise is the western Malay-Indonesia archipelago, on which she has published widely, but she maintains an active teaching and research interest across all Southeast Asia. Her publications include Perak, The Abode of Grace: A Study of an Eighteenth Century Malay State (1979); To Live as Brothers: Southeast Sumatra in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1993); and The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia (2006). Her most recent books, in collaboration with Leonard Y. Andaya, are A History of Early Modern Southeast Asia (2015), and a third edition of A History of Malaysia (2016). She is also currently working on a book on gender and sexuality in Southeast Asia and another on religious interaction in Southeast Asia.

‘To Keep or Not to Keep: King Bhumipol’s Funeral Meru Platform’ (Wednesday, 14 March 2018)

Speaker: Prof M L Pattaratorn Chirapravati (Head of Studies, Arts and Humanities, Division of Humanities, Yale-NUS)
Date: Wednesday, 14 March 2018
Time: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
Venue: AS8, Level 6, Conference Room (06-46)

Synopsis

Traditional Thai royal funeral (Meru) platforms are built of wood and adorned with beautiful Hindu and Buddhist mythical beings. The Meru platform represents the center of the universe in both Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies. Typically, following the funeral, the platforms would be torn down and the wood given to temples or recycled for other uses (e.g. sold to Chinese merchants for building ships). Funeral materials are considered inauspicious and so are not kept or reused. On October 26, 2017, King Rama IX (King Bhumipol Adulyadej, r. 1946-2016), who passed away on October 13, 2016, was cremated. His Meru structure was the largest in Thai history. For the first time, it was built of steel and wood. The royal coffin, in which the body was seated straight up with the hands folded in a veneration hand gesture, was only used symbolically; instead the king’s body was laid in a rectangular coffin. The decoration of the Meru platform was not only embellished with traditional religious themes, but also images inspired by the King’s royal projects for Thailand. The funeral materials will be kept and a museum built. What of this will be preserved and why? What else have been changed and since when have they changed? This paper covers the transformation of funeral procedures that occurred during the reign of King Bhumipol as well as the new designs of the Meru structure and decoration.

About the speaker


Professor M L Pattaratorn Chirapravati obtained her PhD and MA in Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University in 1994. She graduated with a BA in Art History (first class honours) at Silpakorn University (Thailand) in 1982. Professor Chirapravati specialises in Southeast Asian art and visual culture. Prior to joining Yale-NUS as a Visiting Professor, Professor Chirapravati worked as a faculty member of California State University, Sacramento, in the Art Department and has served as both the Director and Vice Director of the Asian Studies Program (2007-2016). She has been a member of the Southeast Asian Council (SEAC), one of four regional councils operating within the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) since 2014. She was an assistant curator of Southeast Asian art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (1997-2002) and later co-curated two major art exhibitions there of Thai and Burmese art entitled The Kingdom of Siam: Art from Central Thailand (1530-1800) and Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma (1775-1950). Professor Chirapravati has published on ancient Buddhist art and Southeast Asian visual cultures. She works on religious icons and the interpretation of religious practices and texts from art work in Southeast Asia. She is also interested in the political usage of images and identity. Her major publications include: ‘Thai Funeral Culture: Studies of Images and Texts in Thai Art’ (forthcoming), ‘Divination Au Royaume De Siam: Le Corps, La Guerre, Le Destin’ (Presses Universitaires de France, 2011) and ‘Votive Tablets in Thailand: Origin, Styles, and Uses’ (Oxford University Press, 1997)

‘“Moreness” in Motion: Toward an Anthropology of Intensity’ (Wed, 7 February 2018)

Speaker: Dr. Andrew M. Carruthers (Max Weber Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Southeast Asian Studies, NUS)
Date: Wednesday, 7 February 2018
Time: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
Venue: AS8, Level 6, Conference Room (06-46)

Synopsis

Indonesia’s Bugis people are a mobile, seafaring ethnic group who have long migrated to neighboring Malaysia in search of kelebihaŋ or “moreness.” Nominalized from Malay lebih or “more,” “moreness” is the meta-quality of being “more” in some respect or capacity. It is a quality that Bugis predicate about some (unstated yet semiotically salient) quality whose perceived intensity exceeds imagined typicalities. In three expository sketches, this talk examines the relation between “moreness” and mobility among a people in motion. Throughout, I argue that discernments, evaluations, and characterizations of “moreness” are causally linked to Bugis patterns of movement, and hinge upon acts of “grading” — a process prior to measurement or counting whereby semiotic agents evaluate the qualitative intensities that suffuse everyday life, characterizing them as “more” or “less” relative to a ground of comparison or “point of departure” (Sapir 1944). First, I attend to “moreness” as an object of aspirational desire, describing how “moreness” materializes across entities and events. Second, I approach migrants’ clandestine border-crossings as movements across virtual thresholds, examining how borders qua “thresholds” serve as points of departure for processes of commensuration. Third, I address practical challenges faced by the Malaysian state as it seeks to police so-called “illegal” Indonesian immigrants whose habits of talk and comportment are “more-or-less the same” (lebih kurang sama) as those of “genuine” Malaysian citizens. These three sketches serve concluding observations about “intensity” as a mediating concept and object of ethnographic analysis, and what an anthropology of “intensity” — of the “mores” and “lesses” of everyday life — might look like.

About the speaker

Andrew M. Carruthers is Max Weber Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at NUS. A linguistic and sociocultural anthropologist specializing in Indonesia and Malaysia, he studies the relation between language, mobilities, and infrastructures as a source of insight into the ways people navigate shifting and potentially hazardous terrains in their everyday lives. His essays have appeared in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. He holds an A.B. (magna cum laude) in Anthropology and Southeast Asia Studies from Cornell (2009), and an M.Phil. (2012) and Ph.D. (2016) in Anthropology from Yale.