Tamil Scholar Bernard Bate passes away


Bernard Bate, a widely known linguistic anthropologist whose research spanned both Tamilnadu and Sri Lanka, passed away at 55.  He received his PhD at the University of Chicago and taught at Yale before taking up an appointment in the joint NUS Singapore – Yale program.  His sudden and unexpected death occurred in California, where he was a Stanford University Humanities Center Fellow. Based upon fieldwork in Madurai, Barney’s book Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic: Democratic Practice in South India (Columbia University Press 2009) analyzed the 20th century fetishization of the pseudo-archaic “platform Tamil” performed by politicians in Tamilnadu such as Karunanithi and Jayalalitha.  Going beyond a purely linguistic framework, he also described the visual and theatrical dimensions of Tamil political campaigning with its iconic poster “cutouts” and hyperbolic imagery, including an astonishing effort to portray Jayalalitha as an avatar of the Virgin Mary.

Barney’s long-term interest in Tamil oratory led him on an AISLS fellowship to Jaffna in 2005, where he explored the surviving archival record of 19th century Tamil Christian sermons, looking for evidence of their later impact upon the development of 20th century secular oratory. At the time of his death, he was preparing for additional research in Sri Lanka with local collaborators and friends. Perhaps as much as his research, it was his warm and loquacious personality that many of us will remember, as well as his astonishing – and clearly pleasurable – fluency speaking in Tamil.  A short example of the latter can be seen on this YouTube clip:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVFxJOMsQvo    A very nice tribute to the career of Barney Bate can be found at:  http://savageminds.org/2016/03/11/vale-bernard-bate/  His loss will be mourned by South Asianist scholars and friends everywhere.  For Sri Lankan scholarship, his passing also represents the closing of a research path that showed every indication of success.

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