ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 3rd-6th April 2012

(P05)

Aesthetics of conversion

Location CSSS Class Room No.103, First Floor, SSS-II
Date and Start Time 04 April, 2012 at 08:30

Convenors

Vibha Joshi (Tuebingen University/University of Oxford) email
James Staples (Brunel University) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Paper presenters are invited to consider play surrounding the idea of 'conversion'. What kind of aesthetics accompanies, or is thought to accompany such change?

Long Abstract

Paper presenters are invited to consider play surrounding the idea of 'conversion'. Conversion can be seen as change from one use, function, or purpose to another; change that occurs with adoption of a new religion, faith or belief; or from one practice to another such as the shift from bio-medicine to so-called alternative therapy or healing. What kind of aesthetics accompanies, or is thought to accompany such change? There is a complex here in which aesthetics, materiality and meaning have overlapping significance for people who convert. Within this complex, we can ask: How much does this aesthetic transformation affect self images? How are changing notions of materiality related to conversion? As outlined in the call for panels, what is the place of the aesthetics of conversion in the 'processes of production and contexts of meaning, performance and (re)interpretation' in everyday local settings, in perceptions of the body or in the design of buildings and cloth?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Demonstrating Christian aesthetics in a South Indian leprosy community

Author: James Staples (Brunel University)  email

Short Abstract

When the leprosy-affected people I worked with in South India converted from Hinduism or Islam to Christianity at the same time as being treated for their disease, they underwent a whole series of changes to their lives that went beyond the spiritual and which incorporated the aesthetic and the material. A change of religion not only meant a change of identity that enabled those I worked with to renegotiate how their disease status identified them, but it also had implications for how they dressed, what they consumed, how they decorated and occupied their houses and communities, and how they moved and presented themselves to the wider public. With conversion, in short, came a new Christian aesthetic that differentiated my informants from the Hindus and Muslims they lived in close proximity to. This paper sets out to document the aesthetics of conversion in this case and to explore what an analysis of these aesthetics might tell us.

Long Abstract

When the leprosy-affected people I worked with in South India converted from Hinduism or Islam to Christianity at the same time as being treated for their disease, they underwent a whole series of changes to their lives that went beyond the spiritual and which incorporated the aesthetic and the material. A change of religion not only meant a change of identity that enabled those I worked with to renegotiate how their disease status identified them, but it also had implications for how they dressed, what they consumed, how they decorated and occupied their houses and communities, and how they moved and presented themselves to the wider public. With conversion, in short, came a new Christian aesthetic that differentiated my informants from the Hindus and Muslims they lived in close proximity to. This paper sets out to document the aesthetics of conversion in this case and to explore what an analysis of these aesthetics might tell us.

Aesthetics of Community: Ritual and identity in Brazilian Pentecostalism

Author: George St. Clair (London School of Economics)  email

Short Abstract

The development of religious subjectivities through structured ritual action is often described as an individual process of becoming. In this paper, however, I show how the distinctive aesthetic environment of an avowedly anti-materialist church leads intstead to a developing sense of group complicity.

Long Abstract

The development of religious subjectivities through structured ritual action is often described as an individual process of becoming. In this paper, however, I show how the distinctive aesthetic environment of an avowedly anti-materialist church leads instead to a strong sense of group complicity. The Congregacao Crista, Brazil's oldest Pentecostal church, eschews all forms of material idolatry, and maintains an antiquated aesthetic and highly conservative customs, including the strict separation of women and men. In the congregation I studied within the mega-city of Sao Paulo, the peculiar, anachronistic environment of church practice provided a distinctive aesthetic experience for the participants which contrasted sharply with their mundane lives. Among believers, joining this chuirch primarily implies conversion to its idiosyncratic customs, and it involves an unfolding awareness of being part of a separate, saved comunity.

Designing a play for 'conversion': learning to perceive Krishna

Author: Marje Ermel (Estonian Institute of Humanities, Tallinn University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will explore the layered meaning of sound and body in the play of 'conversion' among the Krishna devotees in Estonia. The paper will argue that both bodily practices and sound play an insightful role in constituting the aesthetics accompanying the change in perception of self and place.

Long Abstract

How does it happen that 'the same' place does not sound the same? How does it happen that my 'body ' and 'self' does not feel the same as before? This paper will explore the meaning of body and sound in the play surrounding the idea of 'conversion' among Krishna devotees in Estonia.

The notion of body has a contradictory meaning in the discourse and practice of Krishna devotees. In order to develop Krishna consciousness people have to realize that they are not 'these bodies' but 'pure souls'. However, in order to reach this stage of realization they have to follow certain bodily practices in order to acquire particular knowledge and purify their senses for experiencing Krishna as well as their own 'pure soul'. This paper will explore specific bodily practices that enable a person to 'learn' to perceive in a particular way and to change the perception of body and self. I will argue that these practices help to understand the particular aesthetics that is thought to accompany such change in perception.

I will also argue that sound plays a significant role in the aesthetic transformation affecting the ways of perceiving one's self and place. In Hare Krishna discourse sound is believed to have a major impact on the process of purifying body and senses. I will argue that a Krishna devotee can be seen as an acoustic designer who, through singing, is simultaneously designing and perceiving a particular place, or designing and perceiving a play for 'conversion'.

Different aesthethics for different religions: the case of the Afro-Brazilian religions in Portugal

Author: Clara Saraiva (CRIA Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia and CEC UL)  email

Short Abstract

Afro-Brazilian religions are expanding in Portugal. One of the factors that attracts the Portuguese is the aesthetics of such religions: the idea of incorporating an orixá and dress in the orixá´s beautiful clothes is something everyone longs for. How and why does this happen?

Long Abstract

The expansion of the afro-Brazilian cults (Umbanda and Candomblé) in Portugal in the last 20 years has been immense, and every six months a new temple opens up. Although Brazilians constitute the major group of immigrants in Portugal (ca. 25% of the total immigrant universe), it is the Portuguese that are attracted to these cults. The only Brazilians present are individuals with special ritual duties, such as the pai or mãe de santo, the heads of the temples. One of the factors that attracts the Portuguese is the aesthetics of such religions: the idea of incorporating an orixá and dress in the orixá´s beautiful clothes is something everyone longs for. The careful aesthetics of the ritual is complemented with a careful management of emotions, that individuals nevertheless feel are much more loose here than in the traditional Catholic rituals. How do these two ideals of a different aestheics and of a different emotional model interact in this new scenario of the expansion of the Afro-Brazilian religions in a previously Catholic country? This paper will expand on issues of transnationalism and religious migration, exploring also what is the meaning of aesthetics in different religious views.

Motifs and aesthetics of Christian conversion among the Naga of northeast India

Author: Vibha Joshi (Tuebingen University/University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

Taking into account that the Naga peoples of northeast India are now predominantly Christian, the paper will explore what conversion to another religion entails in terms of material cultural aesthetics.

Long Abstract

The Naga peoples of northeast India are now predominantly Christian, with a small percentage continuing to resist conversion. The paper explores how Naga conversion to another religion affects their aesthetics of material culture. Using evidence from 19th century museum collections, archives and contemporary ethnographic fieldwork, the paper shows how new converts abandoned customary sartorial rules relating to animism. Among the Sumi, for example, early Christian converts started to wear status cloths without carrying out the associated rituals. At the same time the new converts were caught between the disagreements among British colonial officers and American Baptist Missionaries as to what were appropriate clothes and accessories for particular occasions and activities. Recently however, alongside old cloth designs signifying national identity, new cloths commemorating Christianity have been designed which include motifs representative of animistic and warrior past. The two kinds of cloths and designs are a representative play on the relationship between Christianity and nationalism.

Warli Paintings: Tradition and Change

Author: Ashwini Shelke  email

Short Abstract

Warli Painting is an integral part of the wedding ceremony among the Warli Tribe’s located in Northern Maharashtra and Southern Gujarat. This paper attempts to understand the impact of changing religious practices on the art form.

Long Abstract

Art among the tribal societies in India is ubiquitous. Its antecedence can be traced right from the Paleolithic age as seen in the cave paintings of Bhimbetka. In the last couple of decades the Tribal Art and Culture has gained immense popularity worldwide, in India too many of the Tribal Art forms have gained immense popularity in the recent times. The Warli Painting is a case in point. This paper studies the Warli Paintings in their traditional form and the changes it has undergone over time. The Warli paintings are traditionally wall paintings which are commonly known as 'chauk', and were painted only by the married women or the 'savasini'. These chauk's were a part of the religious ritual at the wedding ceremony, symbolic of the goddess of fertility. These paintings are a magico-religious phenomenon, which express the faith and belief of the Warli community.

The Warli's revere animate and inanimate objects, thus they worship several Nature Gods. However over a period of time, one can see the influence of other religions such as Christianity and Hinduism on the Warli Community, as a result of which several Warli's have undergone conversion. This change in religion is clearly visible in the paintings made during the time of marriage, where the traditional practise of painting the chauk has not been forfeited, but rather is adapted into the fold of Christianity and Hinduism leading to symbolic changes in the paintings. Thereby, changing the process of production and the meaning of the art form.

The aesthetics of conversion to school education in rural Chhattisgarh

Author: Peggy Froerer (Brunel University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is about this process of ‘conversion’ to a pro-schooling perspective, the aesthetics that have accompanied this process, and the significance that this phenomenon has had for both those who have converted (Christians and Hindus alike) and those who have not.

Long Abstract

In Mohanpur, a mixed Christian/Hindu adivasi village in rural Chhattisgarh, formal education was introduced three decades ago with the construction of the village primary school. For two decades following this, schooling held little value for most local people, as it was perceived to offer little in the way of practical returns. In the past 10 years, there has been a significant shift in people's perspectives on the utility of schooling, which is broadly linked to government campaigns that promote education throughout India. It is also related to initiatives taken by the Church and the RSS.

This shift from anti- to pro-schooling can be viewed as a kind of 'conversion' that is underscored by the adoption of a new set of beliefs related to the positive valuation of education. In association with these beliefs, schooling has come to be viewed as valuable, but mainly in terms of locally-defined forms of utility (literacy, marriage) - not in terms of the potential for economic gains. Accompanying this conversion is a kind of aesthetics, which sets 'converts' apart from 'non-believers'. This aesthetics is manifested by dress and comportment, but it also takes less material forms that are manifested by confidence, self image, and the propagation of a particular kind of world view.

This paper is about this process of 'conversion' to a pro-schooling perspective, the aesthetics that have accompanied this process, and the significance that this phenomenon has had for both those who have converted (Christians and Hindus alike) and those who have not.

Aberration as the Norm: Conversion and issues of Representation in Nineteenth Century Bengal

Author: Dhrupadi Chattopadhyay (Heidelberg University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper attempts to show how the biographies and autobiographies of first generation converts in nineteenth century Bengal in effect came

to create normative individuals in a climate of 'representational excess' where they were often viewed

as 'aberrations'.

Long Abstract

Christianity arrived at the shores of Bengal with its colonizing masters and since then it has always

been a 'natural' suspect. Nineteenth century with its premium on print had given birth to a new and

powerful voice of dissent in the form of the satire. This new form,which heavily relied on 'aberration'

for humour, in its myriad forms established Christianity as an undesired departure. These

representations in the climate of political excess constantly reproduced itself. Subsequently, in the

literary marketplace of the day 'the onslaught of Christianity' was debated and consumed relentlessly.

This 'representational excess' was largely incommensurate with the actual number of conversions. This

paper will seek to examine a few autobiographies and biographies of first generation converts in

nineteenth century Bengal in this context-sensitive inter-texual realm. How do these tellings and retellings

respond to the construct of the 'Christian convert' as the 'aberration'? In their response in the

form of biographies and autobiographies do the converts instead create a narrative that gives a

normative character to the Christian neophyte? Most importantly does this 'representational excess' in

effect create a dialogue between two apparently disjointed forms of the satire and the

biography/autobiography?

The aesthetics of superiority : Conversion narratives as performative acts in a climate of religious competition

Author: Tabea Scharrer (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

On the basis of Islamic conversion narratives it will be shown that in the Eastern African climate of religious competition between Christianity and Islam conversion narratives not only serve as an enactment of a truthful conversion but also as the very means in this competition.

Long Abstract

While doing fieldwork on Islamic missionary movements and their followers in Kenya and Tanzania between 2004 and 2007 I came across highly standardised narratives about becoming Muslim. These were told by converts and non-converts alike and are similar in their argumentative structure to one very visible form of Islamic missionary work - the public comparison of the Bible and the Quran. Following the ideas of the South African Ahmed Deedat groups that call themselves Wahubiri wa Kiislamu (Muslim Bible Preachers) or Islamic Propagation Centre organise these kind of public debates, that almost seem like staged spectacles, on a regular basis to demonstrate the superiority of their religion. These public representations take place in a climate of religious (and also political and economic) competition between various Christian and Islamic movements and in societies where Muslims form an influential minority. The audience for this narrative of superiority however is not necessarily the 'Other' but often the own group, no matter if the narrative is told by converts as an enactment of their conversion or converts and non-converts alike as a means in this competition. However in both cases the way Islam is thought about and therefore the (self-)image of Muslims is recreated time and again through narrating as a performative act.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.