Faculty Highlight: Tyler Williams

Q: Congratulations on being awarded the AIIS Edward Cameron Dimock Jr. Prize in the Indian Humanities for your work If All the World Were Paper: A History of Writing in Hindi. Can you provide a brief summary of the book and its desired contribution to the field? 

If All the World Were Paper tells the story of how the vernacular languages of north India—languages that are now collectively call ‘Hindi’—came to be written down and fashioned into a medium of literature, scholarship, and scripture in the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries. In the book, I argue that the material form of writing and books, including writing script, book format, binding, and various other elements, contributed to the establishment of new genres and performance practices. Working across genres like the versified romance, the devotional hymn, the pedagogical tract, and the scriptural anthology, I try to demonstrate the connections between genre, performance mode, the material form of a text, and ideologies of writing and literacy across various literary and religious traditions. I open and close the book with reflections on the current archive of handwritten books in northern India and the ways that it reveals (or obscures) important information about the literary and religious past.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in North Indian language and culture?

I began studying Hindi in my first year of college, after having read Forster’s Passage to India and Hesse’s Siddhartha. I simply wanted to be able to speak to people if I ever got the opportunity to travel to India. Twenty-five years later, Hindi is a full-time job.

Q: What does this prize mean to you? 

I’m honestly humbled by the award; what I mean is that the AIIS is made of great scholars and the fact that they found the book valuable and that they think that it is of a similar caliber to the books that have previously received the award—that is both tremendously validating and at the same time motivates me to make sure that the final publication is deserving of colleague’s time and attention.

Q: What challenges, if any, did you face throughout developing your book? 

I am grateful for the support of AIIS, Fulbright, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and indebted to many institutions and communities in India for making this work possible in the first place. I studied several hundred manuscripts over several years for the purpose of this research; that meant spending many hours in libraries, archives, universities, temples, shrines, and homes, reading and documenting and learning. It also meant getting to know the various communities—professional, religious, local—that preserve and take care of this important heritage. There are always practical and logistical challenges but these communities help you to overcome those challenges.

Q: More broadly, what are your research interests and how have they developed over time? 

I began by studying the Hindi language, then became interested in the literature and scholarship composed in that language. I was lucky to be able to study at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I really dove into early Hindi while learning about history as well as contemporary politics and student movements. My main areas of research are early modern India, book history, aesthetics, and the senses. Interestingly, these foci have led me to study the literary and religious culture of merchants, which form the subject of the book on which I’m currently working.

Q: What advice would you give to students and researchers interested in studying North India? 

There are vast areas of subject matter still untouched, so don’t limit yourself to known or canonized topics. Spend as much time as possible in the region and, if you work with texts, as much time as you can in the archives. Every archive has a story to tell but it takes time to hear it.

Q: How has your membership with COSAS helped you to develop your award-winning work?

COSAS has not only supported this research directly—through travel grants and research funding that I used while working in India—but also indirectly by making it possible to hold events and invite scholars to UChicago that have influenced my work in one way or another. Many folks in the COSAS community have given me invaluable feedback and guidance. I’m grateful for it.