Bruce E. Johansen, Isaacson Professor in Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, recently returned home from India after he was received as one of a dozen special guests from the United States, Canada, and Australia at a conference on the history and literature of indigenous peoples and dalits (untouchables). The conference convened December 14-16 at Acharya Nagarjuna University in Gunter, Andhra Pradesh state, India, about 250 miles north of Chennai (formerly known as Madras) on the Bay of Bengal.
The university is named after Acharya Nagarjuna, the principal founder of the Madhyamaka path of Mahayana Buddhism. Acharya Nagarjuna University is known for its endorsement of human-rights activism, especially for indigenous and dalit peoples at the bottom of India’s caste system. The conference had the attributes of a cultural festival and a political rally as well as an academic meeting. The campaign for improvement of dalit status (they comprise one-sixth of India’s 1.2 billion people) has similarities to the United States’ civil-rights struggle.
Johansen presented brief opening remarks at opening ceremonies December 14, attended by roughly 600 people. He also presented a plenary paper, “What Has Been Will Be: Native American Contributions to Democracy, Feminism, Gender Fluidity, and Environmentalism,” December 16. The conference, including a brief description of Johansen’s paper, was reported in The Hindu, a nation-wide newspaper, December 16 and 17.
The conference, which was attended by several hundred scholars from several nations, with 250 presented papers, was widely covered in the press, in Hindi as well as English. The special guests were accorded celebrity status, and asked for several hundred selfies and “snaps” (photos). Johansen’s paper also was published in an Indian journal, The Cultural and Literary Nationalism of Fourth World.
Johansen, who has heretofore maintained that he has two left feet and dances like a duck, was asked to “grace the base” (e.g. come to the stage) with other special guests, during a performance Monday evening by Kaladashini, an AGU dance troupe. He was then engaged in a solo by one of the principal dancers. He followed the dancer’s moves at an accelerating pace, then began to lead. At the end of the performance, Johansen’s dancing partner hoisted him into the air, and kissed him on the cheek, as the performers and an audience of several hundred cheered. Next, Raja Sekhar, lead coordinator of the conference (an English professor and administrative officer at AGU), hoisted him into the air, to grand applause.
Aside from aiding in discovery of his formerly dormant dancing talents, Johansen welcomed the opportunity to eat curry and chutney for breakfast (and all other meals).
Johansen also was collecting research for publication on air pollution in Delhi, which, according to the World Health Organization, is the worst in the world. While he was there, the Delhi airport closed briefly for smog, and the city’s Supreme Court outlawed the registration of large SUVs and cars with large diesel engines, maintaining that living in Delhi is like living “in an open gas chamber.”