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Becoming a Martyr in Early Modern South India: The Memory of Tēvacakāyam between Jesuit Mission and Tamil Popular Culture.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TamCatHoly (Becoming a Martyr in Early Modern South India: The Memory of Tēvacakāyam between Jesuit Mission and Tamil Popular Culture.)

Reporting period: 2020-09-01 to 2022-08-31

This project explored ideas and practices of Catholic martyrdom and self-sanctification in early modern South India, in the context of the mission established by the Jesuits in Madurai and the surrounding Tamil-speaking region in 1606. Unlike previous narratives centred around the missionaries, this project focused on how Tamil converts reshaped ideas and practices of martyrdom, sanctity, and the miraculous, in order to accommodate their new faith within local, social and cultural orders. How did they recognise, and relate to Catholic saintly figures and their powers? What were the tools and strategies at their disposal for becoming martyrs and saints themselves?

At the center of my reflexions have been two figures. First of all, Joao de Brito (1647-1693), a Portuguese Jesuit killed by the "little king" of Ramnad in 1693 and declared a martyr in 1851. Then, the Tamil layman Devasahayam (1712-1752), a high-caste Nadar soldier who converted to Catholicism in 1745, and was later imprisoned, tortured and killed by the king of Travancore. In the project, I have analyzed their biographies, the hagiographic texts written on these two men both by European missionaries and by local Christians in popular Tamil genres, as well as local historical records and Church documents produced around their canonisation processes.

The goal has been to connect the history and culture of small Tamil locales to the global history of Catholic missions on the verge of modernity, and to explore the complex evolution of religious and regional belonging against overly simplified received notions of Catholic and Tamil identity. Indeed, the project has shown how local converts saw martyrs as spiritual masters - both missionaries like Brito and local figures like Devasahayam - and how they elaborated ways to channel and appropriate their spiritual power in order to articulate it locally.
The unfolding of the project was strongly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the academic year 2021-22, fieldwork and archival research were impossible, since institutions were closed and traveling to India was not allowed. At that time, I focused on revising my dissertation for publication, and by the fall of 2021 I submitted the final version of my book manuscript to Brill. The book came out in open access in May 2022.

Starting from the fall of 2021, I consulted regularly archives in Paris, especially the National Library of France, and in Rome, especially the Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu and the Vatican Apostolic Archive. This research focused on the figure of Joao de Brito, and the main result will be an article (forthcoming in the history journal Annales HSS) on the way his catechists remembered and appropriated his figure in order to claim the role of local religious leaders.

In May 2022, I could attend the long-delayed ceremony of canonisation of Devasahayam in the Vatican, where I could speak with several Tamil devotees and officials implicated in the canonisation process. In July 2022, when I was finally able to do a month of fieldwork in India, I also traveled to several sites connected to the figure of this saint in southern Tamil Nadu. So, I am currently writing an article based on these ethnographic data alongside the archival and textual sources I have analysed in the course of last year.

During my stay in Tamil Nadu, I presented my book to an audience of Tamil students over the course of three evenings. This event was recorded and is now available on a Tamil YouTube channel for everyone who wishes to listen to the discussion. I also held one public presentation of the new project for the residents of the Jesuit house Dhyana Ashram in Chennai, an event organised by my long-term collaborator Fr. Anand Amaladass SJ.

Finally, throughout my fellowship tenure, I also continued to participate in online and in-person conferences, whenever possible; and I have organised an international conference that will take place on November 7-8 on the issue of memory and the mission, which will offer a larger contextualisation to some of the issues I have been exploring I the framework of the project.
This project has first of all studied hitherto little-known archival documents, both historical records and unpublished Tamil literary texts on the life of Catholic saintly figures still preserved only as palm-leaf manuscripts. This in turn has allowed to enlarge our understanding of the local dynamics of the Catholic missions in the early modern period, focusing on the relationship between saintly figures and Tamil laymen in charge of the administration of Catholic communities. By throwing light on how local unordained men and women understood spiritual charisma, appropriated it, and used it to construe a local authoritative identity in the eighteenth century, the project offers new answers to why people converted, and how did that work in the practice of social everyday life.

The project further brought to the fore the long history of Christianity in the Tamil regions, and how this religion has been appropriated and reworked by local actors over time. This seems particularly important at a time in history when religious pluralism is suffering hard blows almost everywhere, and even in India where it is difficult to reconcile it with a nation-building project, as it is articulated today.

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