Amy Allocco presents invited lecture at the University of Helsinki

Allocco’s invited talk at the University of Helsinki is the last of five she has presented about her current project, "Domesticating the Dead: Invitation and Installation Rites in Tamil South India," this academic year.

Amy Allocco, associate professor of religious studies and the director of Elon’s Multifaith Scholars program, was recently invited to present a research talk at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

Her lecture, titled “Ritual Relationships with the Dead in South Indian Hinduism,” focused on the broad range of ways that Hindus in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu interact with their dead relatives. Within this ritual repertoire, Allocco’s lecture highlighted ceremonies designed to invite the dead back into the world and install them in their family’s home shrine as protective household or family deities. The goals of these invitation rituals, which have attracted little notice from anthropologists and other researchers, run counter to the dominant scholarly understanding of Hindu relationships with the departed, which draw on high-caste perspectives presented in Sanskrit texts that emphasize separation from the living.

By contrast, Allocco’s long-term ethnographic research was carried out among middle- and low-caste Hindus whose views and practices diverge sharply from these textual prescriptions, particularly in terms of their desire for conjunction with the dead, who are invited back into the home in complex and dramatic two-day ceremonies which are presided over by ritual drummers.

Allocco was invited to Finland by Xenia Zeiler, associate professor of South Asian Studies in the Department of Cultures at the University of Helsinki. An expert on digital Hinduism, Tantra and goddess traditions, Zeiler applied for a grant from the university’s Faculty of Arts to bring Allocco to Helsinki as a short-term visiting researcher to discuss potential future research collaborations and to present a research talk. Allocco and Zeiler are developing a joint grant application and a proposal for a full-day conference symposium as a result of this collaboration.

Allocco’s invited talk at the University of Helsinki is the last of five she has presented this academic year about her current project, "Domesticating the Dead: Invitation and Installation Rites in Tamil South India." She presented the first talk, titled “‘Tell Us Your Name and Do as We Say!’: Concealing and Revealing in the Making of Family Gods in Tamil Nadu,” at the Conference on the Study of Religions of India at the University of California at Davis.

In October at The Annual Conference on South Asia in Madison, Wisconsin, she presented a second paper, “Ten Years, Few Certainties: Interpretive Ambivalence and Gendered Tensions in Death, Deification, and Domestication Narratives,” drawn from her ongoing ethnographic fieldwork in Tamil Nadu’s capital city of Chennai.

It was included in a four-paper session focused on the productive potential of “interpretive ambivalence” in scholarship on religion in South Asia. Collectively, these papers argued for locating and highlighting multiple possibilities in the process of interpretation rather than adhering to a single interpretive strategy for indigenous claims made in literary texts and ethnographic narratives and resisting academic inclinations (or expectations) to resolve ambiguity or contradictions.

Then, in February, Allocco presented an invited lecture titled “Dealing with the Dead in Tamil Ritual: Desire, Dialogue, and Deception” at the University of Oslo, where she also participated in a dissertation defense as one of two outside evaluators. Along with Richard Davis, professor of religion and Asian studies at Bard College, Allocco served as an external examiner and committee member for Ina Marie Lunde Ilkama’s doctoral dissertation, “The Play of the Feminine: Navarātri in Contemporary Kanchipuram.” Allocco presented her invited talk for faculty and graduate students in the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages in advance of the two-day dissertation defense.

Following her work at the University of Oslo, Allocco presented a plenary address for a conference on the theme “Multipli’City of Spaces: Religion, Culture, and Urbanity in India” held at the University of Madras in Chennai, India, in February. Her address, “Making the Dead Visible in the City: Urbanization and Hindu Ritual,” focused on the ways that migration and urbanization have instantiated ritual change, pushing some rituals to honor deceased relatives that were previously performed in domestic spaces and on private agricultural lands out into public and temple environments.

Allocco’s mentee, Lumen Scholar and Elon College Fellow Anya Fredsell ’18, also presented a paper at the conference. Fredsell, who majored in religious studies at Elon, is conducting ethnographic research on yoga traditions in South India this year on a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Fellowship and will be joining a graduate program in Global Religions at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology this Fall.

In addition to the five presentations directly connected to her current ethnography on ritual relationships with the dead in Tamil Hinduism, Allocco also delivered several other papers this academic year, such as “Establishing Connection, Navigating Difference, and the Contours of Slum Religion” which was presented in a session sponsored by the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, this fall.

Allocco’s presentations also fell within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), such as the talk that she co-presented with Elon faculty members Eric Hall, Brian K. Pennington and Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Bergen, Norway: “Cultivating a Culture of Learning: Mentoring Undergraduate Research in Global Contexts.”