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Plenary Interview: Amrita Dhar

Interview by: Ben Broadribb (BritGrad 2021 IT Coordinator)


One of the best part of attending BritGrad is the opportunity to gather insight from those already in the field! Our next plenary interview is with Amrita Dhar, who shares with us the importance of Disability Studies in early modern research, her passion for mountaineering, and her thoughts on the benefits of presenting at BritGrad!


See her full bio here!


You’re currently completing your first monograph, Milton’s Blind Language, for which you were awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship – congratulations! Can you tell us a bit more about the project and the experience of writing your first monograph?


Thank you for the kind words. Yes, it has been wonderful, these last few months, to get into fellowship mode and writing.


Milton's Blind Language is a study of the workings of blindness towards the making of Milton’s poetry in his years of partial and complete loss of sight: so, all of Milton's psalm translations in his years of going blind, his later (and superlative!) sonnets, and, of course, the famous last poetic works, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. This project comes out of a long enchantment with Milton's final poetry, which has always struck me as profoundly non-normative in its mnemonic and associative capacities. I find fascinating, for instance, Milton's ability to train a reader of Paradise Lost to read/listen with the kind of attention that is rewarded hundred of lines later with a resonant word or verb or image; his deeply moving autobiographical invocations, where his lived reality of blindness is presented in so many words to his readers/listeners; his use of his blindness as a reason for organising the verse as he does, even as a compositional strategy, the very thing that re-confirms his commitment to poetry (something that we see in his psalm translations); his harnessing of the social support and amanuenses that allow these works to be recorded in the first place. (For, of course, Milton never wrote a line of Paradise Lost. His amanuenses did.) I'm really excited to read this very canonical verse through the lens of disability studies, which allows us to see, as many "traditional" readings don't fully enable us, the many practical and emotional labours of Milton's making of poetry as a blind man. I want my book to make it impossible for readers of Milton to either heroicise his blindness or to forget about it. I want my work to help readers of Milton take full measure of this centuries-long-celebrated poetry as the labour and commitment of a blind poet.


One of your specialisms is Disability Studies, with a second monograph Regarding Sight and Blindness in Early Modern Literature: Crossings of Disability, Race, and Empire in the works. What drew you to this important research area, and how do you think Disability Studies can illuminate the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in new ways?


I hope to answer at least a little bit of that last question at the conference! I shall talk about "Two Blindnesses on the Shakespearean Stage" and explore, with all of you, something of what the work of staging blindness does for the interpretive work of theatre itself. Of course, there are so many other ways in which Disability Studies stands to illuminate and re-energise the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I am thinking of recent work by Katherine Williams, Genevieve Love, Allison Hobgood, David Wood, Susan Anderson, Simone Chess, Justin Shaw, and Lindsey Row-Heyveld, among others. Elizabeth Bearden does not primarily work on drama, but her insights into genealogies of disability in early modernity are themselves reasons to delve into prose treatises and pamphlets, and the literature of travel and encounter.


I actually came to disability studies through Milton, through blindness, through Paradise Lost. As I was saying in response to the previous question, it really was that gorgeous, powerful, almost vertiginous verse that first allowed me to stop and think about possible registers of poetic composition that simply cannot be accounted for in and through the consideration of a purely sighted imagination.


My next monograph project, Regarding Sight and Blindness in Early Modern English Literature: Crossings of Disability, Race, and Empire, aims to trace attitudes towards sight and blindness in early modern English literature to examine the relationship between, first, the cultural production of disability, and second, the intertwined phenomena of early modern global contact, race-making, and anxieties over identity, migrancy, and belonging. Primary sources for this study include canonical and marginal plays, remarkable and unremarkable poetry, broadside ballads, manuscript accounts of visual affliction and proposed remedies, printed and manuscript medicinal and culinary recipes, and religious and social tracts and sermons. Once I've got the Milton monograph manuscript off my desk, I am headed to the Huntington Library in California for some digging in the archives for this project!


You’re also a climber and mountaineer, with plans to complete a further monograph, A Social History of Indian Mountaineering. Where does your passion for mountains and climbing come from, and does this area of interest ever intersect with your early modern research?


Thank you for asking this question! I think there is very much an intersection of my early modern research with my work in world mountaineering literatures. The things that I think about always are embodiment and language. That's what makes me a scholar of disability studies, of early modern literature, and of mountaineering literatures. And while it is hard to be sure of this – because Milton was without doubt my most urgent reason for wanting to go to grad school – it is possible that I started noticing what I did in early modern literature precisely because of all the priming I had throughout my childhood and adolescence in the mountains and while engaging multiple literatures of the mountains. All my childhood vacations were spent walking/scrambling/trekking in the Himalayan mountains, mostly in Garhwal and Kumaun and in my home state of West Bengal in India. Last year, I was asked by students at my university about this, and I wrote up a bit of the story: https://english.osu.edu/news/obsession-story-amrita-dhar-and-rock-climbing.


You’ve studied at universities in India (Jadavpur), the USA (Michigan) and the UK (Cambridge). That’s an impressive international list! What have been the benefits (and also the challenges) of studying and researching in different parts of the world?


It is perhaps only now that I fully realise what a gift it has been to get to study in three continents. At the time, I enjoyed it, all of it, very much, but now I know how fortunate I have been to have this experience. I come from a family of very modest financial means, and absolutely the most important thing that happened in the course of my education was my acceptance into the state-funded, state-subsidised, Jadavpur University in West Bengal, India. The Department of English at JU is a special place. Our teachers encouraged us to read widely, think even more widely, and write, write, write. It was my training at JU that qualified me for a full-support scholarship at Cambridge, for my MPhil, and then at Michigan, for my PhD. Cambridge was a huge change from Jadavpur, and I was on a very steep curve of learning, often out of my depth. But it also felt good to be challenged and to find out for myself what I cared about, and why. Michigan was another change. But Michigan's graduate programme in English is very well structured and funded – the real credit for this belongs to the graduate student union; graduate students across the university are unionised – and it was again a good challenge to find my feet and my stakes. Everywhere, the advisors I worked with were game-changers. It is important to have good teachers and mentors. So, for me, the benefits of all this transcontinental education absolutely outweighed the challenges. And at the end of the day, I always think: well, how else should a rather poor girl with her little budget in rupees ever have seen other parts of the world but through these travels in education? Milton has been a kind of passport.


For many postgraduate researchers, BritGrad will be their first experience of attending and presenting at an academic conference. What are your most memorable experiences of presenting your research as a PhD student and early career researcher, and what advice would you give this year’s BritGrad delegates?


Gosh, one of my most memorable experiences of attending an academic conference is of one where I ultimately could not attend! The Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting that year [in 2013] was happening in Toronto – and I remember applying and waiting and waiting for my visa (I needed one to enter Canada, although, while at Michigan, I wasn't all that far away from Toronto at all!) and ultimately watching the conference dates come and go by. Although I had by then already completed all the pre-conference work set by the SAA seminar. Talk about the challenges of international student-ly presence! But the seminar I was in was convened by the wonderful and generous Sujata Iyengar, who, when she started to work towards a collection post-conference, included my work in it. And that turned out to be my first publication. (https://www.academia.edu/16142630/Seeing_Feelingly_Sight_and_Service_in_King_Lear)


I don't know that I would give much advice to the wonderful presenters at BritGrad. If one is enjoying oneself, learning things, meeting people, talking to people, and going home with lots to think and write about, well, that's a good conference! I know there is reason why we don't talk very much about enjoyment and exhilaration and sheer jump-out-of-bed excitement when we talk about the experience of grad school, academic conferences, writing and publishing, and so on – but those are the things that got me through the last decade and more, and the very things I would most want all postgraduate researchers to have.

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