30 April 2021
Today marks the retirement from SOAS of our cherished colleague Professor Francesca Orsini. Francesca has been at the forefront of our relationship with South Asia for many years. A literary historian interested in multilingualism, Hindi, Urdu and the public sphere, she has published widely on print history and has been instrumental in redefining several key debates. The quality of her scholarship and the soundness of her professional judgement has been of enduring benefit to all of us at SOAS. Her presence will be missed in many ways.
Francesca first came to SOAS in the 1990s for her PhD, a study which resulted in the indispensable The Hindi Public Sphere: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism (2002). She spent some thirteen years lecturing at Cambridge before returning to SOAS in 2006, by which point her research interests had already extended across languages and through time. Having mastered modern Hindi, she progressively added Urdu, Braj Bhasha and eventually Persian to her repertoire, and her publications and projects diversified to match: her second monograph, Print and Pleasure (2009) explored commercial publishing across languages and genres in north India in the nineteenth century, for instance. But, and beyond the reams of rigorous and important articles to her name, perhaps her most significant contributions are in the field-defining collections she edited. These emerged from grant-funded collaborative projects, and were particularly striking in the way a range of scholars (not always the best of playmates!) came together to shape critical interventions in key areas of study: whether Before the Divide on Hindi–Urdu print cultures (2010), After Timur Left on cultural production in fifteenth-century north India (2014), Tellings and Texts on the links between literature, music and performance (2015), or the forthcoming volume on Hinglish—Francesca’s collaborators all tell a story of intellectual rigour combined with pathbreaking insights and generous hospitality. And her latest 5-year multi-sited project on Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies promises further key interventions into the Eurocentricity of comparative and world literature.
Those same qualities define Francesca as a friend, colleague and for some mentor. That spirit of intellectual inquiry—bordering on indefatigable at times—has always ensured that any seminar she attends will never want for discussion. But if there’s always a question, and perhaps several follow-ups, they were always asked in a spirit of positivity—to explore, develop, collaborate, and improve. Francesca wore seniority and expertise lightly. Similarly, many colleagues will have benefitted from her keen eye for detail as a research mentor, always encouraging others to reach their full potential—firmly, but empathetically. And her generosity towards friends, colleagues, and students is well known.
Not perhaps inclined to administrative roles, Francesca nevertheless occupied several, including Associate Director of Learning and Teaching in the old Faculty system and, most recently, as REF co-ordinator for the Modern Languages and Linguistics unit. Neither among the most glamorous roles, but each approached with that same spirit of commitment and enthusiasm—even in the face of monstrous bureaucracy—that left her colleagues all the better for her having been there.
Such bureaucracy—including that associated with running a large grant—will now become a thing of the past for Francesca. But we know her research and writing will certainly not stop: with many projects in progress, in the pipeline, or even yet to be conceived of, Francesca’s work will continue to enrich our intellectual lives for many years to come.
SOAS South Asia Institute wishes you the very best for whatever is to come next!
David Lunn and Edward Simpson