Virtual Panels Enable Global Connections: Reflections on the 2024 IOWC Conference

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As part of my two month internship with NiCHE, I had the privilege to attend the first day of the “Visual Portrayals of Environmental Crises in the Indian Ocean World, Past to Present” conference that was put on by the Indian Ocean World Centre (IOWC) at McGill University. The conference was held over two days, from May 15 to 16. Both days featured two panels of three speakers and each panel was centered around a concise, but open-ended theme. The two panels I was able to observe were “Making Meanings and Changing Narratives through Photography and Images” and “Representations of Climate Change in South Asian Literary Sources” chaired by Dr. Philip Gooding and Dr. Carleigh Nicholls, respectively. 

This was my first time attending a virtual conference, as well as my first post-secondary scholarly conference. The timing worked out well, as prior to this conference, I had spent some time researching strategies for hosting more sustainable conferences to fit our 21st century world. It was intriguing to then see how this research could apply to reflecting on my own conference experience. The IOWC Conference was held over Zoom, which, according to Concordia University’s Sustainable Event Guide, is one of four video conferencing platforms that is considered to have lower carbon impact. As awareness of digital consumption is finally making its way into mainstream discussions of sustainability, this has never been a more important factor to champion. Furthermore, the digital platform allowed me, a university student in Toronto, to hear from a diverse range of speakers from McGill University in Montreal, Québec, all the way to Shiv Nadar University in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. While the merits of teleconferencing have been long debated, I would argue that the IOWC Conference made a strong point for this interregional format, as the Indian Ocean World itself is vast and varied. 

The first presentation of Panel 1 was Bikram Kershan Pancham’s “With the People Trapped Inside Images: Reading Natal Indenture as a Global Environmental Event,” and I was immediately struck. This presentation focused on identifying the men in a popular selection of photographs of Indian indentured servants in South Africa. The presentation clarified that this group of images is circulated in everything from coffee table books to WhatsApp chats, but the identities of its subjects are rarely mentioned. It seems that beyond the world of scholarship, and the communities who were affected, indentured servitude is a facet of human history that is often ignored or glossed over. The people impacted by this system of exploitation are often reduced to mere statistics, their identities wiped clean in the sanitization of history. Pancham humanized the people in these photographs, laying the groundwork for their memory to be restored, and reviving the individuality that became lost to an all encompassing vision of victimhood and oppression. 

Indentured labourers in Natal Colony, c. 1874, identified in Pancham’s presentation
Composite image of Indian Indentured workers, reproduced as is from the book, Meet the Indian in South Africa: A Pictorial Survey (1949, State Information Office, Pretoria)

For a course at the University of Toronto, I read Saloni Mathur’s “Wanted Native Views: Collecting Colonial Postcards of India” in Gender, Sexuality, and Colonial Modernities.1 The chapter examines Raj-era postcards, notably those of South Asian ethnographic “types,” produced for a market of Western women. The question of agency and consent often emerges when viewing postcards of colonial subjects, as with the photographs dissected in Pancham’s presentation. While existing in separate contexts, these two genres of images are connected by this question. Brown bodies are objectified, stripped of their identities, and presented as, in colonial times, exotic or backwards, and far too often in current times, nameless victims. It is of the utmost importance to retain the humanity of indentured servants by preserving their identities. Moreover, Pancham brought light to a globally underrepresented community that it seems a startling percent of the populations of Western nations are unaware of. It is through work like this that we can begin to properly reconcile with the past and paint more accurate and just pictures in our history books.

Postcard of a woman in India, labelled "Goan Beauty"
Postcard of an unnamed Goan woman, typical of those described by Mathur in “Wanted Native Views: Collecting Colonial Postcards of India”
Goan Beauty, India” by Unknown Publisher is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Following Pancham, Ayesha Maria Mualla presented an account of Frankincense trees in Oman, attesting to the diversity of content at the conference. Panel 1 also featured an in-depth look at cyclones in the Southwest Indian Ocean by the IOWC’s founding director Dr. Gwyn Campbell. The second and final panel I was able to attend highlighted intersections of South Asian rivers with literature and religion, incorporating presentations by Mahdi Chowdhury and Raghunath Arkash. It was refreshing to see such approaches to climate change in South Asia, as Western accounts often fail to represent the nuance of our rivers and their cultural contexts.

In terms of my own experience as an undergraduate student, I found the online structure much more approachable than I would have had this been an in-person event. In addition, the Zoom format afforded a greater sense of flexibility. A multi-day commitment with travel time simply is not possible for most undergraduates; even if it were fully funded, our schedules don’t often allow it. Finally, I’ve found that conferences can introduce students to concepts and ways of thinking that may not be considered in a classroom setting. Coursework can naturally tend to be broad and oversimplified, as complex subjects are condensed into a 12-week semester. The panels I attended covered not only diverse, but also niche, topics that most undergraduates wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to study or gain exposure to in such depth. Conferences of distinguished scholars can certainly seem daunting for undergraduate university students, but my hope is that inclusivity becomes not a trend, but a standard, and as undergraduates, we aren’t deterred from taking up these opportunities when they present themselves.

  1.  Mathur, Saloni. 2005. “Wanted Native Views: Collecting Colonial Postcards of India.” In Gender, Sexuality and Colonial Modernities, 95–115.  ↩︎
Feature image “map from ‘Short Notes on the winds, weather, and currents, together with general sailing directions and remarks on making passages; to accompany a chart of the Indian Ocean. With two illustration’.” is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.
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Lily Kumar

Lily Kumar is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. She is currently completing a specialist program in Art History with a minor in South Asian Studies.

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