Ph.D. Candidate, History of Religions
Exploring and Imagining Ajanta: The First Ōtani Expedition to India and its Literary Translations by Shimazaki Tōson and Miyazawa Kenji
October 22, 2021
**PLEASE NOTE the special time: 4pm-6pm CST**
Morning at the Cave Temple (Kutsuin no asa 窟院の朝, 1920), by Nousu Kōsetsu 野生司香雪(1885–1973)
This paper analyzes Japanese travel accounts to the Buddhist caves of Ajanta, central India, and their literary reimaginations in the early twentieth century. The wall paintings of Ajanta, rediscovered in the nineteenth century, were at the center of art historical and aesthetic interests of European scholars and of the rising modernist art movements in South Asia. The possibility of learning about early Buddhism and life in ancient India offered by the scenes on the walls also attracted Japanese Buddhist priests and intellectuals, who often travelled together and collaborated with European and South Asian intellectuals and artists. In this chapter, I am particularly focusing on the travel account to the Ajanta caves of Fujii Senshō, a Buddhist priest-scholar who led the Indian section of the first Ōtani expedition (a set of explorative missions to the Buddhist sites of India and Central Asia promoted by the Jōdo Shinshū sect of Honganji). While showing the scientific and secular attitude of the priest toward the caves, I also point out the sensorial impact of the landscape on his observations. I then trace a similar impact on the literary reimagination of this exploration in a short story by novelist Shimazaki Tōson, also noting his use of references to Buddhist sources. The aim of this paper, which is a section of chapter 3 of my dissertation, is to question the analysis of a “secularizing gaze” of art history and aesthetics on Buddhist art, showing instead how aesthetic discourse on Ajanta is more imbued of religious discourse than the travel accounts of Buddhist priests. In addition, the analysis of the literary reimaginations offers a venue to expand the gaze of the modern Japanese explorer from the wall paintings to the natural setting of the caves, also deepening an aesthetic/affect approach to Ajanta. The postcolonial reading of the travel accounts and literary reimaginations also open the chance for further exploration of cosmopolitan or pan-Asian views on Japan-South Asian networks.
Presenter: Paride Stortini is a PhD candidate in history of religions at the Divinity School, University of Chicago, specializing in the intellectual and cultural history of modern Japanese Buddhism in transnational perspective. His dissertation focuses on the exploration of ancient and modern India by Japanese Buddhist priests and intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a venue to analyze discourses on secular and scientific approaches to religion, as well as the construction of cosmopolitan and nationalist identities. He has a second research project on the concept and imagery of Silk Road in post-WWII Japan as an intersection of discourses on Buddhist pacifism and practices of cultural heritage preservation of the Buddhist sites across Asia.
Respondent: Philomena Mazza-Hilway is a Teaching Fellow in the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities. Focusing on modern Japanese literature, her work engages issues of gender, non-human selfhood, genre fiction & minor literatures, and readership. Her current book project, based on her dissertation, examines modern subjectivity in the works of three early twentieth century women writers, arguing that these writers employed strategies of the ‘feminine grotesque’–at once generative and abject– within the written negotiations of their emergent subjecthood. Her second project traces the evolution of othered literary subjects in women’s postwar literature, utilizing their work to interrogate the nature and notion of a coherent, agential subject in modern Japanese literature.