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IRWGS Essay Prize Winners Announced!

Congratulations to Poorvi Bellur (CC ’19, History), winner of the 12th annual IRWGS Women’s and Gender Studies Award for “Disjointed narratives: Tracing the history of purity, nationalism and gender in South Indian dance in the early 20th century,” and Sandra Goldstein Lehnert (CC ’19, Comparative Literature & Society), winner of the 24th annual IRWGS Queer Studies Award for “Sex, Text, Self: Euphuism and Re/Con/Figuration in Lyly’s Gallathea.”

We interviewed the students to learn more about their work and their plans for the future.



1. What inspired you to focus on your topic for this submission?
I have been a student of Bharatanatyam (a form of Indian classical dance) since I was a child, as was my mother before me. Professor Anupama Rao’s class ‘Gender and Empire’ introduced me to the world of postcolonial discourse on the politics of ‘purity’ in the so-called classical arts and the deeply entrenched systems of power and erasure in the art form I inherited. I am still in love with Bharatanatyam for all its fierce grace, however, this paper allowed me to critically interrogate a part of my own cultural and spiritual upbringing. Another reason I decided to focus on this topic is my fascination with performance as an archive of subaltern histories. ‘Classical’ approaches to historical research blind us to the rich treasury of stories and histories held within the archives of performance, of theatre, music, and dance, archives that catalog the histories of the periphery which is a history I hope to explore in the future as well.

2. How have you been able to integrate your interest in women’s studies in the work you have done here at Columbia/Barnard?
This paper emerged from a class that was my introduction into the world of gender studies at Columbia. While I never took any gender studies classes, I found myself in history classes that encouraged us to read popular texts against the grain, plumbing the silences and negative spaces. In each of my classes here at Columbia, whether it was a core class like CC or a senior History seminar, I find myself going back to my first encounter with gender theory in that I do not take gaps in the narrative for granted. I recently came across an absolutely brilliant essay by Professor Saidiya Hartman on searching for female slave narratives in an archive of violence, and this quote has remained burned into my brain and summarizes my musings on the power of gender theory: “And what do stories afford anyway? A way of living in the world in the aftermath of catastrophe and devastation? A home in the world for the mutilated and violated self? For whom—for us or for them?”

3. What are your plans for the future?
I will be spending the summer in Oman on the Critical Language Scholarship, after which I will be traveling to the UK as a Carman Fellow to undertake an MPhil in World History at Cambridge University. I see myself with a career as an educator, with one foot in the classroom and the other firmly planted in the archive.


1. What inspired you to focus on your topic for this submission?
There’s nothing I love more than when I first read a piece of Renaissance literature and it makes me rethink the possibilities of gender/sexual ontology. These are the texts where, when I tell someone about it, their response often is: “Really? People wrote about stuff like that?” And for me, Gallathea is one of those texts. It is a play in which two “girls” (“boy”-actors, in staging), disguise themselves as “boys,” fall in love, then one of them (we don’t know which) is transformed into a boy. A whole range of genders, sexes, and sexualities emerge— and from just two characters! This play is infinitely fascinating both as a scholar of literature and of gender and sexuality, and I find myself returning to it over and over again.
I originally read this play in the class Renaissance Literature & (the History of) Sexuality, taught by Professor Julie Crawford. I developed this paper in this class through the topics discussed in this class, as well as another class I was taking at the time with Professor Oliver Simons called Literary Theories. The intellectual work in this essay in highly indebted to these professors.

2. How have you been able to integrate your interest queer studies in the work you have done here at Columbia/Barnard?
I am a major in Comparative Literature & Society, with a special concentration in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality studies.
In my studies, I have focused upon the formation and transgression of gender and sex, primarily in Italy and England, the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. I say “formation” because during this period one does not so much find stable conceptions of gender/sex, but rather conflicting logics debating upon the stage of the body, attempting to define and limit its bounds. Out of such an understanding I particularly enjoy studying “transgressions”—what I hesitate to yet desire to call early modern queerness—where bodies know, act, and transform in ways that work against these definitions and limits. Plus, I find studying the development of gender and sex in the West valuable for two main reasons: first, because it works to denaturalize hegemonic, colonially-imposed binaries of the body that we often take for granted, and second, because logics of gender/sex are foundational to the advents of Western capitalism, imperialism, and supremacy.
I have found this area of study constantly rewarding in terms of providing me with various and often unintuitive logics of gender. The reality is that gender and sex have constantly been contested, constantly queered, both in literature and in reality (if those two are so easily divisible—and I doubt that they are!). Plus, studying such ways of being allows me to look at myself in new ways. In fact, it only ever opens up new possibilities for me for being myself.

3. What are your plans for the future?
I am graduating this month, and will be applying to graduate schools this fall in some combination of comparative literature, Renaissance studies, and gender & sexuality studies. Wish me luck! 🙂


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