Here we present interviews and stories of researches who visit the University of Tartu to give lectures and to conduct joint research projects. The aim is to make UT’s international cooperation on Asia and Asian topics more visible thorough personal reflections.
Audrius Beinorius - visiting professor of East Asian religions
Starting this Spring, Prof. Audrius Beinorius from Vilnius University will hold the position of a visiting professor of East Asian religions at the University of Tartu. He will be teaching the course "An introduction to Indian civilization" during the Spring semester and give occasional stand-alone lectures, two of which will be given already this week.
On this backdrop, we asked Prof. Beinorius a few questions to get a better understanding of his research interests and why is it important to learn about India in the first place.
What brings you to Tartu? What are your expectations for the upcoming year in Tartu?
When I learned from my Tartu colleagues of the plans to establish this position and suggestions to apply for it, my first thought was: it is wonderful, why not to give it a try? Tartu University is a really well known academic institution holding an internationally solid name in many fields and it is my honour, interest and certainly a pleasure to be involved in its activities. I have visited Tartu several times with various academic and personal intentions. For many years, I was in touch with Linnart Mäll, the eminent Estonian scholar of Buddhist studies and Keeper of Oriental studies tradition at UT.
I have rich experience of teaching and pursuing research in many European countries, US, and India, but I have never had such an experience in the Baltic countries. This is my deep regret - we are all more informed of the works of our colleagues in the West while at the same time we are comparatively less familiar with activities of our proximate colleagues, not to mention the need of closer cooperation among us. This motivated me to apply for the newly-created position and it was also the reason behind establishing an academic network entitled the Baltic Alliance of Asian Studies (BAAS) in 2014.
Therefore, I came here, first of all, to broaden my teaching experience and to acquire new knowledge and proficiency from Estonian colleagues, an international staff and, certainly, from curious students of Tartu University. Secondly, to share my own knowledge in the field of South Asian, namely in Indian, studies. This field of studies is more developed in Lithuania than in Estonia. I am very glad to have a chance to contribute to the development of Indian studies at Tartu. Finally, and this is not a secret, to make more Estonian friends, to get closer acquainted with the Estonian spirit, and to explore Tartu’s cultural and social life.
Please tell me about your research. What interests you the most and what have you worked on?
I have a background in Asian and comparative philosophy and religions. Since my first dissertation (PhD), I have migrated and relocated from one topic and even academic field of research to another. Having started with contemporary (phenomenological) analysis of the problem of consciousness in classical Indian philosophy (mostly of Yogacara Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta schools), I later shifted to post-colonial discourse and religious studies (namely Hinduism and Indian Buddhism). That was also the topic of my habilitation thesis - Postcolonial perspective to Indian religious culture. Afterwards, I became more attracted to and inspired by the psychology of religion and cultural psychology (and I do teach this at Vilnius University).
However, for a longer period up until now, I have been dealing with a topic largely ignored in the field. I research the curious topic of historical development of Indian astrology and divination. Keeping in mind the tremendous importance of astrology in Indian past and present society, where it is treated as sacred traditional knowledge lying in the heart of all religious practices, it may look strange and inexplicable how such culturally significant layer of Indian social and religious life has been neglected by the early generations of Indologists. Researching the topic provides us with much intriguing and hidden knowledge about Indian mentality and social relations, traditional psychology and religious practices, cosmology and cross-civilizational history. My research is based on primary Sanskrit sources and I combine it with contemporary anthropological methodologies. The most significant international research grants (US Fulbright, the Royal Netherlands grant of J. Gonda, Japan Foundation, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, etc.) were awarded to me precisely for the investigation of this topic.
What are you working on currently?
I recently became involved in a new project sponsored by the European research foundation and executed by a group of Vilnius University researchers, titled: Between choice and determinism: cultural variations in experiencing and conceptualizing free will, luck, and chance. The task of this project is to carry out a transcultural textual-historiographical and empirical-psychological study in order to reveal the connection between the sustained theoretical-intellectual traditions and ordinary folk conceptions of free will and choice in different cultural contexts - China, India, Mongolia, Thailand, Lithuania, US. Previous studies have not taken into account the cross-cultural element nor evaluated the influence of non-Western intellectual traditions on the everyday practice and conceptualization of free will. Thereby, together with my team, we will seek to include different systems of knowledge and action from different civilizational fields into a fruitful intellectual dialogue. Hopefully something intellectually inspiring will be achieved.
You will be teaching a course on India this semester. Why should we in the Baltics care about Indian history and religions? Why would you encourage students to enroll in the course?
I always stress to students at my home university that knowledge of other cultures and different religions is extremely beneficial existentially as it sharpens our perceptions and deepens our understanding of our own cultural identities, distinctions, and values. It is the most effective tool to get new insight into the way our culture has shaped and determined us. This is the most valuable epistemological profit and reflective implication of Indian civilisation and religion studies.
My personal interest in India started mostly from a religious and philosophical perspective, as I considered Indian religions challenging to our obsolete perceptions and culturally narrow understandings of the "normative" European conception of religion. The very diverse and rich history of Indian philosophical traditions provide us with a different and, I would say, intellectually refreshing vision of many problems and issues raised by Western philosophers and theologians throughout history.
Secondly, India has become a very influential player in the global market and world politics. Beside China, India is the second most rapidly developing world economy. We should ask ourselves - how it happened and why? One prolific way to get fruitful answers is to learn about those pillars that nourish and sustain the vitality and productivity of Indian civilization. And, hence, religion and philosophy are among those substantial supportive pillars of India's culture and mentality.
A third reason, why to study India, is the ongoing process of "easternisation of the West". What we see nowadays in the Western world is the abounding market of popular Yoga practice centres, commercialized Ayurvedic medicine, remedies and massages, an import of commodified spiritual practices, cults, gurus and exotic religions. It is easy to get lost in all this diversity. However, by knowing India better and by appreciating its cultural peculiarities, specific historical circumstances and underlying values, it is easier to make sense of it. I consider this to be a part of my academic obligations.
For these three reason, I encourage students to enroll in the course and attend my other lectures.
In Estonia, we have been having various public conferences about Asia and the need for experts who speak Asian languages and understand the culture. UT is working to open a new MA program for Asian studies. How would you describe the situation in Lithuania? Is Asia a concrete focus of the universities or the state?
Yes, it certainly is. After regaining our independence, Asian Studies were re-established in 1993 with the opening of the Center of Oriental Studies. With the support of Vilnius University authorities, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other partners new undergraduate (BA) programmes in Chinese studies, Japanese Studies, Indian Studies, Arabic Studies, Iranian Studies, and Turkology were implemented. Since 2006, the Center also offers a graduate masters programme of Modern Asian Studies, which focuses on modern and contemporary developments of Asia with an interdisciplinary and transcultural approach. Various Asian topics and issues are dealt with on the PhD level as well, specifically in the fields of Philosophy, History, Ethnology and Philology.
All this attests that in Lithuania Asian studies are considered to have a pragmatic and strategic significance. I am happy and proud that I have been actively involved in this process, including heading the Center of Oriental Studies for over 10 years. By the way, just a week ago, the Centre was reformed into the Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies and is now an integral part of the Faculty of Philosophy of Vilnius University. Besides Vilnius, East Asian Studies are taught at Kaunas Vytautas Magnus University on BA and MA levels.
In your opinion, what are the most important or impactful recent developments in India?
I would mention the radicalization of political Hinduism with support and inspirations coming from the state ruling nationalist Bharata Janata Party (BJP). India is getting divided between two modern trends. On the one hand, a trend towards universalization, which contributes to contemporary global culture and processes. Yet, on the other hand, there is a trend towards exclusive political nationalism on local and national levels. Such political nationalism may inspire friction between the Hindu, Muslims and Christian communities and evoke violence. I consider it a major danger for the future of peaceful, productive and harmonious development of India as a unique multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.
Anything else you would like to add?
I am looking forward to the time I am going to spend at Tartu University, which will create new intensive and inspiring opportunities for experience, learning and sharing.
Professor Beinorius’ stay at Tartu University is supported by the University of Tartu ASTRA Project PER ASPERA, financed by the European Regional Development Fund.
Written by Mart Veliste, 11.02.18
Dong Lisheng - new Professor of Asian Politics at UT
Prof. Dong Lisheng is the new Professor of Asian Politics at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies. He just began is five-year term at the university. With this interview we seek to get to know the professor better and introduce him to the university's community.
You have been in Tartu for three months now. What are your first impressions? What has been most challenging?
The University of Tartu is a higher education institution with rich history in Europe. I got a taste of it when I took part in the opening ceremony for the new academic year. The ratio of 10 per cent international faculty members, as the Rector told us, makes it an international university today. The quiet environment and convenient facilities convince me that this is an ideal venue for teaching and research. Immediately after I received my residence permit, I found the stage Estonia enjoys in the age of IT: not only the university, but also the Estonian government has realized paperless office. I have visited many Western Europe countries, but feel that I might need longer time than expected to adapt to the local life here. Compared to other countries, my first impression from dealings with local people is that things take longer time to get done here.
What made you decide to apply for the professorship here?
At the time I learned of this job opening, I had already made plans for the near future: working as a visiting professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany for six months, to be followed by two years at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. What motivated me to apply was the challenge this newly-created position of Professor of Asian Politics brought about, namely, participating in designing and launching the new MA programme on Asian studies in Estonia. The UT’s long history, world-class faculty and internationalized student body inspire my efforts at creating a prominent profile of Asian politics of the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies in North-Eastern Europe and beyond. The need at a time of such uncertainty for closer ties and understanding between Estonia/EU and China spurs me to make the best use of the most precious resource, all UT faculty members and students related to and interested in Asian studies.
One of my main research interests is comparative politics. With experiences of short- and long-term stays in many West European countries, I am particularly interested in learning more about the transition countries like Estonia.
Please tell me about your research. What have you worked on and what interests you the most?
Before taking up my appointment at the UT, I had worked at the University of Glasgow for two years. There I implemented the project Direct Township Elections in China: Political Dynamics and Governance Outcomes, supported by the EU’s Marie Curie Actions-International Incoming Fellowship. In the recent decade, I have published a series of articles analyzing China’s public policies relating to people’s livelihood such as housing, healthcare, education and migrant workers (peasant-workers). I am the co-recipient of the Pierre de Celles Award for the best paper titled “Imitating the West? – A Survey of Chinese Civil Servants on Public Sector Reform” by the International Association of Schools and Institutes of Administration in 2012.
From 2009 to 2012, I headed three Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) research groups simultaneously implementing: (1) the EU’s FP7 project “Chinese Views of EU: Disaggregating Chinese Perceptions of the EU and the Implications for the EU’s China Policy” (as part of a €1.42-million consortium; concluded in February 2012; the English book was published by Routledge and the Chinese book by Press of Social Sciences of China in 2013; I am the first editor of both); (2) a CASS major research project on e-governance in the developed countries to present recommendations to the Chinese government (book published in May 2012); and (3) a joint project with the Human Sciences Research Council of the South Africa on “The Role of Infrastructure and Service Delivery: Lessons Learned From Good Practice Municipalities In South Africa and China” (fruitfully concluded in May 2012).
To date, my main publications include 20 books and 48 referred articles and contributions to 20 books. For example, I have conducted research on the Asian integration from the perspective of the EU’s model as can be shown by my co-edited book titled EU’s Experience in Integration: A Model for ASEAN + 3?. My latest monograph is titled Public Administration Theories: Instrumental and Value Rationalities. I am the co-editor of Urban Mobilization and the New Media in Contemporary China and China and the European Union.
What are you working on currently?
I am currently carrying out several projects. The first is on the joint effort against the yellow sand storm and smog by China, Japan, Mongolian Republic and South Korea. To date, the questionnaire has been designed and its administrators have been recruited from two universities in Beijing, who have access to students from the four countries.
The second is on the metropolitanization in China. In 2002, I was invited by Prof. Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot, President of Sciences Po Bordeaux, France to join the International Metropolitan Observatory (IMO) research programme. The IMO has been designated as a priority research activity of the Research Committee Comparative Studies on Local Government and Politics (RC5) of the International Political Science Association. In cooperation with Prof. Daniel Kübler of the University of Zurich, we organized two international conferences on the topic in Zurich in 2011 and in Beijing in the following year. We presented a paper in 2015 at an international conference organized by Fudan University, Shanghai and are presently finalizing the article for an international journal.
The third project is to further tap into the dataset I collected for the project on Direct Township Elections in China. I have published two articles in Chinese and will publish another one in English in the Journal of Contemporary China. These articles are based on the datasets of 600 and 900 questionnaires of the Chinese rural residents. By December 2016, I upgraded the dataset to 1500 questionnaires. I will be writing another two or three articles using the dataset.
As a full-time professor you will also be supervising theses. What are the topics that students could approach you with?
I will gladly supervise any Master’s and PhD students with theses on the Asian politics in general and the Chinese politics and government in particular. Students who compare China and Europe are equally welcome. The specific topics may include: comparative public policy and administrative reforms; civil service systems, democratization and party politics, EU and China's mutual perceptions, metropolitan politics and governance, central-local relations, and local governance.
The 19th National People’s Congress just concluded last week. What can we expect from China in the next five years?
Probably the most important decision of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is adding Xi Jinping’s name to the Party’s constitution, elevating him alongside Chairman Mao to the pantheon of the country’s founding giants. The inclusion, along with his guiding philosophy for the nation, cements his place as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades. This provides certainty and predictability to China’s domestic and foreign policy for many years to come. The composition of the new ruling core group, the Political Bureau Standing Committee, is a guarantee in terms of organization and implementation. The founder of the People’s Republic Mao Zedong, and the architect of market reforms, Deng Xiaoping, are the only other Chinese leaders to have their names in the document -- and only Mao was alive when his was included. Where Mao united the country and Deng Xiaoping made it rich, Xi intends to make it strong. The week-long congress at its conclusion on Oct. 24 approved the constitutional amendment to include “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.
When he opened the gathering on Oct. 18, Xi declared that China had entered a “new era” with the ambitious goal of becoming a “global leader” by mid-century. His bold vision comes as he has sought to portray himself as a responsible global leader while President Donald Trump trumpets a nationalist “America First” policy and the European Union grapples with Britain’s exit from its club of nations. Xi's "new era" philosophy seeks to establish a China that plays a rule-setting role in global affairs. This may have a great impact on international politics.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time (in Tartu)?
At University of Glasgow I went to the university's sport's Centre for swimming two or three times a week. Here in Tartu, I still need to find a suitable club with a swimming pool. In Glasgow, as I did not have TV set, I also listened to classic music evereday. Here I watch BBC documentaries during the weekend. I also enjoy taking long walks during the weekends.
Looking forward, what are your own expectations for the next five years in Tartu?
I hope that the MA programme on Asian Studies will be successfully launched and becomes sustainable, for which I will contribute to the extent possible. Meantime, I expect to see my plan to apply for outside funding, especially from Europe, to be executed with a good result.
Gyu-chan Jeon - travelling journalist seeking to elevate himself in a different context
Gyu-chan Jeon is a professor at the Korean National University of Arts; School of Film, Television and Multimedia. There he reads courses on media, communication and culture studies. During the Autumn semester he will be participating in the work of UT’s Institute of Social Studies. We sat down with the professor to discuss his research and stay in Tartu.
What brings you to Tartu?
That is a tough question. I think the answer lies in my quest to to alienate myself from South Korea and to find a totally different context. I first considered going somewhere else in Asia, like Thailand or Vietnam. Tartu appeared on my radar last year when I visited Estonia. I really came to like the country. It seemed nice, safe, and relatively cheap. Tartu is a perfectly suitable place to elevate myself through a very different context, to understand a new location, and to think of new ways of conducting my studies.
What are your expectations for your time in Estonia?
I was very busy in Korea. Besides my teaching job and research work, I also led a quite big social activist organization. I came here using my sabbatical year, which we have every 7th year at K-ARTS. Disengaged from the busy life of Seoul, I want to take a rest. But, at the same time, I want to regenerate different ideas and gain new thoughts so that I can sustain another six years as a teacher and journalist. I wish to walk, read, think, experience and write here. I would like to to meet and talk with people with different minds and ideas. I am particularly interested in the younger students, people with progressive ideas for social advancements.
How have you enjoyed Tartu so-far?
My wife and I are really enjoying it. The size of the city is manageable and we can experience it by walking around. I like that you have four distinct seasons here.
Although Tartu is small, there is a vast diversity here. It is perfect for my research interests. Tourists would only come to see the centre and the romantic looking buildings. As a travelling journalist, I see Tartu as the expression of complexity that the Estonian society has. When I walk around, I turn my attention to various aspects: the contrasts of the rich and poor, the elitist centre and the popular country side, the westernising elements and reminders of the Soviet influence, and so on.
Tell me about your research interests. What kind of a scientist are you?
I do not call myself a scientist. I hesitate to use the word “science.” I rather call myself a journalist. I am not a specialist, an expert. I want to know more about the commonality and universality of the state of things. My research topics are quite various. I am interested in cultural politics over space, historiography and historical memory, and media & democracy.
I see the importance of journalism and media as a public, common site of culture politics. How do people struggle over the production and usage of media culture in their daily lives? Secondly, history. How do we write histories? How do we remember some things while forget or suppress other aspects from the past? Thirdly, I am interested in geography of cities - the way the state and capital control public space and the people living in the urban setting.
What are you working on currently?
When I came here, I thought about continuing with my research on the memory of the Vietnam war. There is an element that has been neglected in South Korea's participation in the Vietnam war. When we talk about war we always think about it from the side of governments and military, but forget the effect it has on women, their lives and their body. Wars tend to mobilise women's sexuality as a resource. Specifically, I have been conducting journalistic investigation on how Korean women were to “serve” the warring patriarchal state during Korea's participation in the Vietnam war.
Clearly, Tartu is not a suitable place to follow this topic. Instead, I am now thinking more about Estonia. Usually I distance myself from mainstream thinking and try to detect problems, uncover the oppressed and neglected side of society. That, I believe, is the way to know, understand, and experience the other place. We must be open-minded to all the histories, to get a more balanced understanding. I want to visit the other sides of Estonia and the Baltic states.
That’s how I became aware of the Nazi concentration camps in Estonia. I was not aware of this before. I was ignorant, so I must know more. I have written a paper on the establishment of the concentration camps, as there is not much discussion about the matter in the usual history overviews. I then wrote another essay on the question of ‘why did Estonians accept or welcome the Nazis when they invaded the country?’ Finally, in connection to the issues of nationalism, national identity and national culture, I am curious about the rebirth of neo-rightist ideals in Estonia. What does that signify to the future of Estonia? All these investigations, I am doing as my own learning and understanding sessions.
You mentioned your interest in national memory. What about South Korea and the memories of Japanese invasion and north-south division?
20th and 21st centuries are the time of memory politics. It is the same in the Korean society. Korea indeed has been a very closed, undemocratic society. The anti-communism associated with the long military regime did not allow different ideas, alternative discourses and progressive ideologies to flourish. There has only been the state's dominant narrative and the winners’ memories. Things have been changing in the past 20 years. We are now cultivating alternative memories by writing the histories of minorities, women and progressive sectors. Korea is now undergoing a very severe struggle over the memories and historiographies of the past – I would even call it a “war on memory.”
While it is true that the relationship between North and South Korea is currently in a critical situation, I would advise never to reduce Korean issues solely to this axis. When I meet people abroad, usually the first questions are related to north-south relations. This only helps to mystify Korea, unaware of the actual complexity. This is the same if people easily link Estonia with the other Baltic states, while ignoring the Northern (i.e. the wish to be a Nordic country) or East-West (re-positioning after the collapse of the Soviet Union) dimension. You also need to see, for instnace, the serious neoliberalism, generation gap, and suicide issues of Korea. Even Korea and Estonia are interconnected through the global capitalist system and US world management strategy. We should keep these complexities in our mind if we really want to understand the other.
Surprisingly, your upcoming lecture will be on a very different topic. What can one expect to learn there?
When I was invited to speak at the Orientalism seminar, I was wondering what I should be speaking about. I decided not to focus on Korean media culture or history, which I am more familiar with. Instead, I chose the topic on arts, which I am interested only as an amateur. So the lecture is titled "The Japanese Ukiyo-e and the European Impressionism, but the Korean Poongsokwha?”
The “Poongsokwha” are 18th century Korean paintings of secular landscapes. I will discuss their relation to the Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings. There is a well known connection between the Ukiyo-e and 19th century French Impressionism. I try to add the Korean element and show how it can be related with the other two. My argument is that the art of Poonsokwha, like Ukiyo-e and French impressionism, is an expression of modern common sensibility to go out and record the transforming urban secular happenings. This is only my hypothesis.
What is the next step after Tartu?
Next semester, after my time in Tartu, I will be moving to Tallinn to join the Asia studies programme in Tallinn University. There I will be focusing more on the trans-Asiatic issues. I will be looking into the Korean diaspora in Estonia. I want to see how “we” come here, “their” nationalized territory in what historical contextuality. I will also explore the popularity of K-pop and K-media in Estonia. I am more interested how the young Estonians see, enjoy and make usage of the outside.
But, to be honest, after staying in Tartu for two months, I would rather prefer to stay in this city instead. I must come back soon.
Written by Mart Veliste, 11.10.17
Gyu-chan Jeon's public lecture "The Japanese Ukiyo-e and the European Impressionism, but the Korean Poongsokwha (風俗畵)? will be held on Wednesday, 11.10, 18.15 at the University mainbuilding (Ülikooli 18), room 228.
Kikee D Bhutia – a researcher-activist and breaker of stereotypes
Kikee D Bhutia is a PhD student at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore (UT). She is also the leading actress in a “Dhokbu- The Keeper”, a Sikkimese feature movie. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Kikee has been in Estonia for almost a year now, arriving first in August of 2016. Although she had never heard of Estonia before, she now feels at home here. Winter cold does not bother her as she is from the Indian state Sikkim, where the weather is similarly chilly and snowy. Surprisingly, Kikee considers the Estonian people to be warm. “People are very warm and helpful when you interact with them. In the cold weather the only warm thing are the Estonian people”, she says with a chuckle.
Kikee can relate with the Estonian people and their history. “Sikkim, where I come from, was a Buddhist Himalaya kingdom until 1975 and my parents were born there. Now merged with Indian Union, the tiny Himalayan state is located between Nepal, Bhutan, and China. 75% of the population is of Nepalese origin, but the indigenous Sikkimese have their own vernacular religion and shamanism. Therefore, different communities with diverse backgrounds have created a kind of a nationalistic identity crisis in the region.” For her, this is like the relationship that Estonians have with their Soviet past and new identity construction and rise of spiritualism since re-independence in 1991.
Researching god-entities of the Bhutia community
Receiving a PhD degree is Kikee’s main objective in Tartu. Her research focuses on belief narratives of God-entities in her home community, the Bhutia, in Sikkim. These are mystical, some even pre-Buddhist, figures. Kikee explains, “imagine a ‘sacred’ tree and that a spirit lives in there.” There are many sacred landscapes in Sikkim that are considered forbidden or dangerous. Kikee is interested in how the belief narratives of God-entities shape day-to-day activities in Sikkim. “For example, if I were to get sick, I would not be taken to hospital directly. Instead a shaman would be called home to conduct healing rituals. A visit to a hospital is used as a last resort.”
Kikee visited Sikkim in February-March this year to conduct field work. “For my research, I travelled around Sikkim, looking for various god-entities and asking the questions where, why and what kind of entities are present in the local belief narratives.” She now has more than 40 hours of interview material. Kikee plans to return to Sikkim in winter as there is not much to do in Estonia at the time. It is also more convenient for her to conduct further research as everyone is home for the winter and it is easier to talk and collect information about local beliefs. She is also considering broadening the scope of her research to compare different communities. “There are similar motifs in the belief systems of various communities. For instance, it is often believed that if a god-entity attacks, you will have a headache or your knee will hurt.” Keep track of Kikee’s academic profile HERE.
“I consider myself a researcher-activist.”
Before starting her PhD studies, Kikee worked over two years as a Research Assistant in Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok (India). The institute was founded in 1950 by the last king of Sikkim for the preservation of the local culture. At the institute, Kikee was involved in various projects including the transcription, translation, and transmission of oral histories and proverbs. “My main work consisted of translating and analysing the origin and usage of these proverbs and idioms. The project, Sikkim's Proverbs and Sayings, has been my main contribution, we have collected over 290 proverbs.” Kikee has also assisted in the production of ethnographic documentaries.
Kikee aims to create awareness through her research. “While I was working at the Institute of Tibetology, my ambition was to make proverbs available for younger generations who are losing the language. Amongst our community, we joke that if we do not talk in our language nor preserve the culture now, then we will soon be showed in museums. The younger generations are inclined to speak English or wear T-shirts and jeans. For me, I would rather wear my traditional attire every day. I want to create awareness that my culture is rich and unique. I feel that we are culturally-spiritually rich and even so rich that we do not understand how do use this resource. “
Starring in a feature film
Kikee used to support her college studies with a bit of modelling and production of video-albums. Through this, she gained popularity in Sikkim. This lead director Dawa Lepcha to approach her with the offer of starring in the new feature film “Dohkbu – the Keeper” . “The topic of the movie intrigued me as it is a story of a god-entity which directly links to my own research. I also have a lot of respect for Dawa Lepcha as he is very hardworking, humble and kind-hearted person and a big inspiration to me.”
The movie plot revolves around an ethnographic researcher who gets lost in the wild and is protected by a nature spirit called “Dhokbu” (“Keeper”). The movie was initially meant for local audiences but has now been submitted to many international festivals. The movie was recently praised at International Cult Film Festival with “outstanding performance” in best cinematography, best director, and sound design. The movie will be screened at the Estonian National Museum this Friday, 16.06.17. Kikee and Dawa will be sharing their comments and there is no entrance fee.
What awaits in the future?
People are often puzzled about Kikee’s background. “I am asked; how can a glamorous film actress be involved in boring and mysterious PhD research.” Therefore, Kikee breaks two sets of stereotypes. First, that PhD researchers are serious and dull people wearing glasses and second, that all actresses are shallow and dumb.
Keeping in mind these two different interests and potential career paths, what has Kikee in mind for the future?
“Uncertainty is the best thing in life. The whole world opened to me through Estonia, you know. I wake up in the morning and I cannot believe that I am here. We do not know where life can take us if we have the courage to follow it. That is the beauty of life. We tend to concern ourselves too much with the future and forget to enjoy the present. If you work hard then the roads will open for you.”
Written by Mart Veliste, 13.06.17
Nguyen Van Thai - PhD student of dentistry and a student ambassador
Nguyen Van Thai begun his PhD studies in Medicine at Tartu University two years ago. Thai got interested in the study opportunities here after meeting doctor Triin Jagomägi a couple of times in Vietnam. In 2014 Triin invited Thai to Tartu for three months so that he could get acquainted with the university. Thai was pleased with the experience and began his four-year PhD program in 2015.
However, Estonia was not Thai’s only choice. He sent applications to schools in Australia, England, America, and Japan. The decisive factor for choosing Tartu was the availability of financial support. Thai explains, “the PhD program in Estonia does not have a tuition fee and students get a monthly stipend. The stipend is a bit lower than in other countries but still enough because the cost of living in Tartu is quite reasonable. Thai considers this as a general advantage of PhD programs in Tartu. He adds, “In Tartu, students also have opportunities to apply for grants to go abroad to other exchanges, traineeships, and conferences.”
Beside the economical side of things, Thai praises his supervisor Triin Jagomägi. Not only does she help him academically by encouraging him to take part in different international conferences and oral/poster presentations, but also by forwarding information about food, places to go, and which events to join. For example, Thai has ridden with a lodi (boat) on Emajõgi, experienced sauna therapy with whisking (vihtlemine), and participated in an vastlakukkel (a sweet bun with whip cream) baking event. Triin even took Thai to Lottemaa (a theme park based on an Estonian cartoon). “It is cool that you have your own mini-Disneyland in Estonia”, Thai says.
Thai’s research focuses on treatment outcomes of surgically repaired patients with cleft lip and palate in central Vietnam. Thai and his colleagues went to Vietnam in March 2016 to collect data for his research. During the month-long data gathering trip, they identified dental problems of around 70 patients. In Tartu, Thai works with the gathered data and makes comparisons with Estonian samples. Thai and his colleagues are about to publish an article on the normative nasalance scores of Vietnamese-speaking children. Data on Vietnamese patients has not been published in international journals before. Besides working on his thesis, Thai occasionally assists his supervisor with teaching undergraduate students and conducting seminars with postgraduate students. Thai’s academic profile can be found HERE and his LinkedIn profile HERE.
In the past two years, Thai has adapted to life in Estonia rather well. “I don’t really have problems with the cold, only the darkness in September-December is a bit depressing.” Thai has taken four semesters of Estonian language courses. For Thai, grammar and new words are the hardest things to master. Furthermore, “because most people speak English, you lose incentive to actually speak Estonian. Even if you try to speak Estonian with someone, then they will respond one sentence in Estonian and continue with English”, Thai describes the hardships of the studies.
In his spare time, Thai takes the role of a student ambassador. The objective of International Student Ambassadors (ISA) is to build a bridge between Estonian and foreign students. The organization focuses on prospective students by sharing information about studies and life in Estonia. Thai has written many blog posts about life in Tartu. During the application period to the university programs, ambassadors receive emails from students all over the world. Thai is responsible for responding to inquiries by other Vietnamese students and those who are interested in dentistry, medicine, or PhD studies in general. ISA is also known for organizing different student events. A public viewing of Eurovision takes place already this week.
When asked about his main recommendation to other students, Thai replies: “Rather than complain, try to adapt.”
Written by Mart Veliste, 08.05.17
Visiting lecturer Professor Agnieszka Kuszewska - political scientist and an admirer of South Asian music
Visiting lecturer Professor Agnieszka Kuszewska will be teaching a course on Asian politics (“Contemporary challenges in South and East Asia" SHRG.03.018) at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies. The lectures will be held between the 3rd and 5th of May. The course is open for registration on the study information system.
We asked Agnieszka a few questions to get to know her a bit more.
What brings you to Tartu?
A: I visited Tartu as a tourist in 2016 and I really loved the city. This time I am here though a Erasmus+ programme which intends to connect scholars and enable them to teach at different universities.
What is your main research field?
A: My research field are international relations, security challenges and human rights, especially in contemporary South Asia. I have 13 years of experience at teaching about South Asia - mainly the position of India and Pakistan in international affairs and the history of India-Pakistan relations.
What are you working on currently?
A: The processes of radicalization in India and Pakistan, the analysis of Kashmir conflict.
What can one expect to learn in the upcoming lecture?
A: The course objectives are to give basic understanding of the challenges of contemporary South and East Asia. It introduces various issues in the region, the strategies of superpowers and the problem of radicalization and terrorist threats. It will provide students with a better understanding of the political and strategic map of the world, solutions to international conflicts, and provide them with scenario building abilities. It is aimed at fostering a problem-solving attitude and the ability of analytical thinking.
In your opinion, what are the most important/impactful recent developments in South or East Asia?
A: The escalation of the situation in Kashmir, jingoistic policies of India and Pakistan, and terrorist threat.
In Estonia, we have been having various public conferences about Asia and the need for experts who speak the languages and understand the culture. The universities are now opening new MA programs for Asian studies. How would you describe the situation in Poland? Is Asia a concrete focus of the university or even the state?
A: South Asian studies are developing particularly at Warsaw University and Jagiellonian University (Kraków). Asian studies covering East Asia and Southeast Asia have already become very popular.
I have heard that South Asian classical and semi-classical music is your passion. Furthermore, you are a foreign contributor for Phaser, a Pakistani music magazine. How did this become your hobby?
A: Many years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. While travelling to South Asia I attended many music events and met some of the most renowned artists. I developed cooperation with the music magazine. I write articles about Poland-Pakistan music projects where folk musicians of both countries play together and record CD’s. It is called Music without Borders. I strongly support the idea of music as the element which should be used in cultural diplomacy in order to build bridges in contemporary world which is becoming more and more radicalized.
Anything else you would like to add?
A: I am really looking forward to meeting the students at Tartu University and seeing this wonderful city again!
Agnieszka Kuszewska is Professor of Political Science at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Institute of Social Sciences) in Warsaw. She is also South Asia expert at Poland–Asia Research Centre, member of European Association for South Asian Studies and a board member of Polish Association of International Relations. Her research and teaching focus on international relations, conflict and security studies, political and social challenges of contemporary India and Pakistan and human rights (especially in Kashmir).
Written by Mart Veliste, 02.05.17
Baburam Saikia - a research scholar's journey from Assam to UT
Baburam Saikia is a PhD student at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. He recently began his four-year program having just arrived to Tartu last August (2016).
Baburam is from North-East India, Assam. More precisely, he comes from the world’s largest river island Mājuli located in the Brahmaputra River with the population of around 170 000 people. But how does one get to Estonia from such a seemingly distant place?
Baburam explains: “Well, I met Professor Ülo Valk at a conference in 2011 while I was doing my cultural studies masters in India (Tezpur University). I met him again in another event in Bangladesh and then the third time when he was doing fieldwork in Assam. Professor Valk is well known in the field of folklore in North-East India, especially in Assam. As I was very much focused on his work, I knew I wanted to come to Tartu.”
Baburam is a native researcher focusing on his own local community and neo-Vaishnavism. Neo-Vaishnavism was introduced to Assam in the 15th century by Sankardeva (1449-1568). Its innovative character sought to create an egalitarian civil society based on shared values of fraternity, equity, humanism, and democracy. An institutional module, which came to be known as sattra, was conceptualised by Sankardeva and later got its distinct form in the hands of his disciples. In Baburam’s words: “I am working on an institutionalised religious and socio-cultural community of Assam which is known as sattra. There are over 600 sattras all over Assam. It is a kind of living tradition and they can be categorized into two types - in one people can get married and live with their families, whereas the others are celibate. Majuli is well known for its celibate sattras.“
Before his PhD studies, Baburam completed an individual research project supported by the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India under the scheme of “Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage and Diverse Cultural Tradition of India’’. Baburam has an insider’s perspective to the topic. He himself became part of the religious community at the age of five when his parents gave him to a celibate sattra. Devotees (who we might call monks in the West) go to villages to see if there are people willing to give their young boys to the sattras. “There is a belief in the villages that if a family is able to send a child to the sattra then it is spiritually good for the whole family”, Baburam explains.
There are many aspects of sattras that intrigue Baburam. “I want to look at tradition from both emic and etic perspectives and to understand the deeper meaning of its beliefs and rituals. How do the belief systems work, why they perform rituals in a certain way, what are the challenges they are facing, and how conscious they are about upholding their tradition in the modern world? I am also trying to find out how do authority and hierarchy work. For example, because of discrimination based on caste, in some sattras, the priests are always chosen from Brahmins. Another aspect is sattra’s recent involvement in the state politics, accepting and propagating Hindu-Nationalistic ideology.” Check out Baburam’s academic profile.
An interesting fact about Baburam is that he has appeared in three documentaries. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), “In Search of God” follows ‘the transformative journey of an American woman who finds deeper meaning in her life after traveling to a mystical island in India where the inhabitants use artistic expression as a means for communing with God.’ Baburam adds: “In the documentary I was acted like a guide to her. I helped her to explore the island and the spirituality there. The performing arts are central to the lifestyle of devotees because dance, drama and music are a part of worshipping god.” The other two documentaries, a French, and a local Assam production, have been about young boys and their initial struggles in sattra. “It is difficult to be away from your parents in such a young age.” Furthermore, in 2013 Baburam was in France for four months where he worked on a theatre project in the Andrey Tarkovsky artistic residencies of the Abbey of Pontigny.
Despite the cold weather Baburam likes Estonia. He hasn’t had the chance to travel much yet, but has fond memories of a winter academy in Viljandi, where he could learn about Estonia and listen to live local music. Baburam also has a good impression of the university. “I would recommend Tartu University to other Indian students as it holds a very rich tradition and the way people work here is fantastic. There are brilliant folkloristic and semiotic scholars in Tartu.” His favourite place in Tartu, however, is Toome Hill.
Baburam intends to take the maximum out of his studies at UT and to use the knowledge back in his home state. “I have realized that I can really improve my critical thinking here. I am here just to learn things and explore myself in terms of thinking. Eventually I would like to go back to Assam and work there.”
He also recommends Assam as a destination to Estonians. “I always believe that it is good to know about different cultures. There are lots of things you learn once you are away from your community.”
Written by Mart Veliste, 03.04.17
Valentina Punzi - researcher of Tibetan sacred geography and a familiar face for UT
Dr Valentina Punzi, a visiting lecturer from “L´Orientale” University of Naples, taught a course on Tibetan Sacred Geography between 6th to 14th of February at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore.
Valentina is a familiar face for the University of Tartu. In 2013, during her PhD studies, Valentina did an exchange semester at the folklore department. She had already met the head of the department, Ülo Valk, before at a conference in 2011 in Bhutan on the topic of sacred mountains.
She says that her brightest memory of her student time at UT was a trip to Elva with her fellow students. “There was a sense of community with the other students of the department.” On a more serious note she adds and that the department also exposed her to critical thinking in general. “It was good to get a methodology course here. I had plenty of data from my fieldwork in China but I did not know what to do with it.”
Ever since her studies here, Valentina has kept in contact with the faculty and its members. It was Valentina´s idea to read a course on Tibet and pay a visit to the department. Valentina´s lectures were focused on Tibetan sacred geography. This was also the topic of her PhD dissertation. “My PhD focused on contemporary social and religious life surrounding a Tibetan mountain god in Amdo (Qinghai province, People's Republic of China), where I did ethnographic fieldwork and a digitalization project for the Endangered Archive Program of the British Library.”
“I was essentially studying how geography and landscape are approached by Tibetans in their religious beliefs, how certain meanings for the local people have changed over time and what has been the impact of the politics implemented by the central government.” She adds, “this research is interesting and relevant because it illuminates different systems of knowledge and cultural diversity.” Valentina´s research and findings can be read in more detail on her academic profile.
Visiting the department was also driven by the fact that the folklore department currently has a PhD student, Kikee D. Bhutia, working on similar topics of geography and pilgrimage in the Indian state Sikkim. Valentina explains “I wanted to meet Kikee and see if there is potential for cooperation. We are currently working on the possibility of having a joint project in the near future.”
After the two weeks visit, Valentina will be returning to Italy where she just started her post-doctorate in September. However, she will keep close contact with the folklore department as they are now working on organizing a joint workshop about demons and other supernatural beings in Asia (to take place at UT in November). Furthermore, the folklore department now has an Erasmus connection with “L`Orientale” which means that we can expect more student and lecturer exchanges between the two institutions in the future.
Written by Mart Veliste, 17.02.17