Left to right: Professors David Brick, Daud Ali (speaker), and Thomas Trautmann.

In April 2023, the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan hosted Daud Ali, from the University of Pennsylvania, for their Thomas R. Trautmann Honorary Lecture on Bhoja Among the Gonds: Place, Memory and the Afterlives of Kingship in Medieval India. 

The lecture, part of an ongoing annual series, honors Thomas Roger Trautmann, an American historian, cultural anthropologist, and U-M Professor Emeritus of History and Anthropology. He is a leading expert on the Arthashastra, the ancient Hindu text on statecraft, economic policy, and military strategy. Trautmann has mentored many students during his tenure at U-M, and his studies focus on ancient India, the history of anthropology, and other related subjects. 

“If I attempted to provide an adequate account of Tom Trautmann’s scholarship and his impact on the study of South Asia, we would have no time left, so I’m going to force myself to be brief,” said David Brick, U-M assistant professor of Sanskrit, in his introductory remarks of the honorary lecture. “Over a long and illustrious career spanning seven decades at the University of Michigan, Tom has produced a staggering number of works and covered seemingly every period of Indian history.” 

The main lecture with Daud Ali considered the social memory of the eleventh-century medieval king Bhoja, widely known as a learned author, patron, and adventurer across communities in South Asia. Bhoja, unlike other kings, is not primarily associated with a 'heroic' tradition of memory in early modern India. Ali’s talk explored Bhoja’s life and actions as remembered by communities of nomads, Adivasis (collective term for the tribes of the Indian subcontinent), and others with seemingly little or no connection to the highly textualized memories preserved among societies. 

“Studying Bhoja has been such a daunting project for me,” says Ali. “There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t learn something new. It’s become more of an exercise in limiting the information I present.” 

“Though Bhoja’s stories are in many Indian languages, this discussion is focused on Sanskrit,” added Ali. “In these works, Bhoja is considered both a great patron of the arts and a latter-day heroic king who is marked by boldness and generosity.” 

Ali’s talk focused on Bhoja’s legacy among travelers and forest-dwellers to suggest several important conclusions about collective memory, kingship, and history that have not been addressed by existing scholarship.

Daud Ali is an associate in the Department of South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his BA at the College of William in Mary in religious studies and English literature. He earned his MA in history of religions and a PhD in history at the University of Chicago. Ali’s research has focused on mentalities and everyday practices in pre-Sultanate South Asia. He has published works on monastic discipline, mercantile networks, historical writing, and inscriptions, but his most enduring work has been on the culture of aristocratic society in early medieval India.