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Eleanor Zelliot (1926 - 2016): Tributes

17 June 2016

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Star Tribune - Obituary

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Eleanor Zelliot

Zelliot, Eleanor October 7, 1926 - June 5, 2016 Eleanor Mae Zelliot was born October 7, 1926, in Des Moines, IA, to parents Ernest Zelliot and Minnie Hadley Zelliot. Growing up, Eleanor and her family, including her older sister Carolyn Zelliot, lived in Des Moines, Boston and Denver. From a young age, Eleanor was eager to explore the world around her. A passionate learner, she earned a BA in 1948 from William Penn College, an MA in history in 1949 from Bryn Mawr College, and, two decades later, a PhD in South Asian regional studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. That same year, Eleanor came to Northfield, MN, where she taught history at Carleton College from 1969 until her retirement in 1997 as the Laird Bell Professor of History emerita. While at Carleton, she inspired hundreds of undergraduate students to think and write about the history of South and Southeast Asia, and to make the most of the rich intellectual and cultural opportunities available to them in India. Generations of students fell in love with the country through her classes, learning to cook and eat Indian food at her house, experiencing Indian culture through the many events she organized, or traveling with her to Pune, India. She developed the ACM (Associated Colleges of the Midwest) India Studies Program in Pune, leading the program four times. A prominent writer who specialized in the history of India, Southeast Asia, Vietnam, women of Asia, Untouchables, and global social movements, Eleanor was considered one of the foremost international experts on the history of the Dalits (Untouchables) of India and their leader, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and, as the first American scholar to pursue a doctorate on Ambedkar’s work, is today considered a pioneer in the field. Eleanor’s historical work on Ambedkar, on the Buddhist conversion of the Dalits for which he was largely responsible, and on the subsequent cultural and literary movements "changed the paradigm" in the study of South Asia. Eleanor was the author or co-author of numerous books and articles, including "Ambedkar’s World: The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement" (considered an essential document for researchers and students of the Dalit movement), "From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement," "The Experience of Hinduism: Essays on Religion in Maharashtra," "Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon," "An Anthology of Dalit Literature," and many others. Although she claimed she didn’t "do religion," she wrote beautifully about the saint-poets of Maharashtra, as well as the importance of Buddhism in the lives of the Dalits. Among her many honors were three American Institute of Indian Studies Fellowships (1963, 1975, 2000), a Fulbright Fellowship (1997), and the 1999 AAS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies, noted for her dedication to teaching and ground-breaking scholarship about Asia. Additionally, she served on the executive committees of the Minnesota Consortium for South Asia, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the American Association of Asian Studies, and ASIANetwork. Eleanor’s strong dedication to social justice was certainly influenced by her lifelong commitment to the Friends (Quakers), through whom she first became a writer, editor, teacher, and went on Quaker mission trips to India in 1952 and the Soviet Union in 1955. It was on that first trek to India that she discovered her love for the country, impressed by India’s complex, colorful and open society. That journey would lead to a lifelong passion and academic pursuit. Eleanor generously gave of her time and attention to her students, colleagues, and friends around the world, offering love, advice, and often a bit of wry humor. She traveled widely, including well into retirement, and continued to write up until her last year. She enjoyed reading, especially mysteries and detective stories, and made a point of keeping up on current events. Eleanor loved her home on the banks of the Cannon River, which she designed to take full advantage of the many flowers and birds and other wildlife that surrounded her, and to provide a retreat for all who visited. Eleanor died June 5, 2016, at her home in Randolph, MN, surrounded by loving friends and family. She was 89 years old. Eleanor is survived by two nephews, Donald Piburn of Grand Junction, CO, and Marvin Piburn of Hudson, IA; a niece, Carol Thonen of Wichita, KS; their families, and many close friends near and far. Memorial services for Eleanor will be held on Friday, June 17, at 9 am in the Carleton College Skinner Memorial Chapel and on Saturday, June 18, at 2 pm at the Cannon Valley Friends Meeting House (512 Washington St., Northfield). Gifts in memory of Eleanor may be made to the Cannon Valley Friends Meeting House or the Eleanor Zelliot Memorial Fund at Carleton College.

Published on June 11, 2016

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Gail Omvedt’s article on Eleanor Zelliot in Marathi language daily Loksatta

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Economic Times, June 11, 2016

Eleanor Zelliot, Dr. Ambedkar’s greatest follower

by Raja Sekhar Vundru

As India and the world celebrated Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary year, Ambedkar scholar Eleanor Zelliot, 89, passed away on June 6 in the US. After Ambedkar’s death in 1956, Zelliot came to India in 1963 as a young historian working on her doctoral thesis on Ambedkar and his movement.

Zelliot was professor of history at Carleton College, Minnesota, but her home was Ambedkar’s world and India. In 1969, when she submitted her PhD at University of Pennsylvania, she was the first scholar to complete a doctoral thesis on Ambedkar. She initially intended to write a political biography of the social reformer and politician. But she went on to study the factors which produced Ambedkar and discovered the way he in turn changed history.

At the time when Zelliot took up studying Ambedkar, most historians were busy with the Indian national movement, the British Raj or the 1857 mutiny. Since then, she never refused arequest from any academic institution, journal or encyclopedia to write on Ambedkar and the Dalit movement. Over the next 26 years, she consistently introduced Ambedkar to western academia so that every scholarly work on caste and politics, religion and politics, Indian political thought and leadership included Ambedkar.

During this period and later, she encouraged scores of scholars from the US and Europe to work on Ambedkar. In 2000, French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot became the first European to produce a work on Ambedkar in French — Dr Ambedkar: Leader of Untouchables and Father of the Indian Constitution.

Understanding the very idea of Ambedkar is the greatest contribution of Zelliot. She studied his leadership, his American experience and its influence on him. By 1972, Zelliot pioneered scholarship on the Dalit movement by diligently analysing and comparing the leadership of Gandhi and Ambedkar. She understood how the Mahars learnt to use the political means to empower themselves and how Buddhism and politics went together.

Studying Ambedkar’s leadership she defined the guiding principles which the Dalit leader consistently followed: only Dalits can understand their problems, only Dalits should lead their movement, and education and politics are means to equality.

Reading Zelliot will grant us the multi-dimensional perspective that is required of Ambedkar, who, today, has become the singular rallying point for Dalits. According to the scholar, Ambedkar, along with Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, shaped 20th century India, which, in turn, has shaped the India we live in today.

Zelliot’s contribution to scholarship, however, goes beyond Ambedkar. She studied the Bhakti saints, women saint-poets and untouchable saints and introduced these historical trends and occurrences for modern historical study. She kept up with the latest happenings in the Dalit movement that included the workings of the Dalit Panthers and Dalit Sahitya and everything in between.

Zelliot worked on Marathi Dalit literature and joined hands with writer Mulk Raj Anand to produce An Anthology of Dalit Literature in 1992. Most of the Dalit Marathi poetry was translated by her in collaboration with AK Ramanujan, Jayant Karve, Gail Omvedt, Sukhadeo Thorat and Vimal Thorat.

Eleanor’s and Karve’s translation of Keshav Meshram’s Marathi poem, ‘One Day I Cursed That Mother-Fucker God’ is chilling: “One day I cursed that mother-fucker god/ he just laughed shamelessly/ my neighbour — a born-to-pen Brahman — was shocked.”

As well as Namdeo Dhasal’s powerful poem: “While I was writing this/three o’clock struck/ though I want to have a drink/ I don’t feel like drinking./ I only want to sleep peacefully/and tomorrow see no varnas.” Zelliot felt that “others will find [Dalit] poetry as filled with life, as meaningful, as wonderfully and sorrowfully human as I do.”

She was reluctant about publishing her doctoral thesis, as she felt that its title, ‘Dr Ambedkar and the Mahar Movement’, was too restrictive for such an emancipatory movement. But it was finally published in 2004.

Her seminal work, published in 1992, is From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on Ambedkar’s Movement. Without reading this book, understanding Ambedkar is incomplete. If one wants to understand what India is today, one has to understand Ambedkar. And no one has studied and understood Ambedkar so well than Eleanor Zelliot.

(The writer is an IAS officer)

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