ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

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

(P18)

Framing the northeast: visual practices in Northeast India in the 19th and 20th centuries

Location Arts and Aesthetics Lecture Hall No. 002, SAA-II
Date and Start Time 05 April, 2012 at 08:30

Convenors

Joy L.K. Pachuau (Jawaharlal Nehru University) email
Debojyoti Das (Birkbeck, University of London) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The panel will bring together a set of innovative papers that will try to unpack visual politics through photography, museum displays, new media technologies and digital dissemination in the context of Northeast India in the 19th and 20th centuries

Long Abstract

Much of the studies on Northeast India, few and far-between as they may be, are written textual narratives based on different forms of colonial records. An aspect that has not drawn as much interest is the representation of the Northeast visually. Visual representation came through photographs, museum displays of native artefacts and other objects of material culture. While the materiality of these objects was important to feed the people back home of the various 'races' they encountered and subjugated, such objects also became an important medium through which cultural difference was established.

Visuals, unlike the written text, present a far more communicative text to readers and observers. In the North East visuals became part of colonial ethnographic tradition since the 1870s as topographic surveys become intense to establish control over the frontier. The panel aims to look at various forms of representation and the tropes of visuality through which colonialism was experienced in the region and how colonial coercion was exercised based on racial segregation and ethnic formation of the 'tribe' and 'non-tribe'. In the post independence period these have become established legal categories and have manifested ethnic difference and the construction of the 'other'- hill people as communities without history vis-à-vis the plains. Thus visual tropes have played a critical role in colonial and post independence knowledge production in the region that remains understudied from cross-disciplinary perspectives.

The panel will bring together a set of innovative papers that will try to unpack visual politics through photography, museum displays, new media technologies and digital dissemination.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Framing the Colonial Encounter?: A discussion of Non-British pictorial sources of the Naga created during colonial times

Author: Alban von Stockhausen (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines visual sources on the Naga created by non-British travellers during colonial times. It discusses how these collections differ from the materials collected by British Administrators, and introduces the contexts in which they were created.

Long Abstract

Starting with the first pictorial depictions of the Naga in mid-19th century, most of the published visual materials of their region are related to British colonial rule in India. This paper examines some of the published and unpublished visual sources created by non-British travellers, some of which are hardly known in today's academic discourse. Their contents are often different to the well-known British sources as their creators were not military men or administrators, but missionaries, anthropologists or adventure-seeking independant travellers. But how exactely do these sources differ from the photographs or drawings made by British representatives, and what is their relation to the colonial context?

To approach these questions, two collections will be discussed in more detail: the largely unknown photographic archive of the German anthropologist Hans-Eberhard Kauffmann versus the materials of the Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf. Both travelled in the Naga areas in 1936/37, at times even together, sharing the same informants and drawing from a similar academic background. An examination of their published materials and their general reception in the academic world shows how their differing relations to the British colonial administration influenced their careers even after the end of colonial rule.

Other examples include the visual materials collected by the German-speaking Adolf Bastian, Otto Ehrenfried Ehlers, Lucian Scherman and Herbert Tichy.

Visual Anthropology and the Knowledge of the 'Other': Representing Colonial Subjects through Photography in Naga Hills

Author: Debojyoti Das (Birkbeck, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

The paper focuses on visual representation of the Nagas sourcing from the colonial archives, popular newspapers and illustrated dailies of the late 19th and early 20 century.

Long Abstract

The formal end of British colonization and the emergence of nation-states during the latter half of the twentieth century has in more recent years given rise to a new range of studies devoted to reexamining the history, politics, psychology and the language of colonialism. In the Naga Hills of colonial Assam, textual description through monographs, military reports, memoirs and travel diaries have preoccupied scholarly attention towards understanding colonial situation and power exercised over the Nagas. However, it is only recently that photography and representation through visual art, exhibits and museum displays as powerful project of empire and state making has entered anthropological discourses. This paper, explores in two ways the importance of photography in the representation of the Nagas. First, it demonstrates the significance of analysing the visual images of culture and customs of people about whom limited ethnographic writ ings are available, as is the case of the Eastern Nagas. Second, through studying photographs, the paper examines how photography became a 'governmental technology' to define colonial subject through what I call the 'colonizing camera'. Apart from studying the pictures taken by Professor Christopher Von Furer-Haimendorf (who developed the visual anthropology of the Konyak Nagas) the project will examine popular illustrative newspaper and magazine reports and correspondence by colonial officials in order to demonstrate how photography represented the Naga tribes and conferred social meaning to their 'otherness'- as a wild, barbaric, head-hunters, slave takers and 'nomadic races' practising shifting cultivation.

The Search for 'Idyllic Places' and 'Wild People': Visualizing Nagas Through the Prism of Colonial Photography

Author: A.S. Shimreiwung  email

Short Abstract

This paper interrogates the politics of gaze in the photographic recording of the Nagas by colonial ethnographers during the early part of 20th Century.

Long Abstract

The documentation of living condition of tribes in frontier region of British Empire had become an obsession for Colonial ethnographers, who were looking for the 'idyllic' places and 'warring tribes' dwelling in those parts of the world where Western civilization had remain untouched. Along with the ethnographic study that was conducted by anthropologist and colonial administrators, photography and images about the 'natives' became a dominant form of representations of the 'cultural other'. The Nagas, located in the 'frontier region' of British India, were one of such tribal community that had been massively captured through photography. Photographic documentation about the Nagas has been done as part of the ethnographer's 'private collections' and also as a form of their academic inquiry. Often, ethnographic narratives about the Nagas have been interspersed with photos of the Nagas: images forming a narrative of its own and in conjunction with the written text. The literal and visual narratives, although employed in different medium, have converged in various points pertaining to the representations of the Nagas as 'wild people' living in 'hill areas' of the easternmost frontier. This paper will interrogate the photographic gaze of Nagas during the first half of 20th century and those etic lenses that has been employed by Colonial ethnographers.

Folk-Knowledge, Sacred Landscape and Visual anthropology

Author: Nava Kishor Das (Anthropological Survey of India)  email

Short Abstract

Here, we intend to project, through visual projections, the indigenous perspectives of Naga –Apatani tribes as spread in folk-oral worldview, sacred beliefs, folk knowledge of agriculture, and resulting symbiotic relationships, which proved an impartial picture. Author’s presentation includes depiction of still photos from black and white era and a ten-minute ethnographic film. Film depicts insiders’ perspective on agriculture system, sacred landscape and indigenous knowledge, and people’s agenda of protection of their culture and language.

Long Abstract

The intent to romanticize 'indigenous tribes' (for instance, Naga and Apatani), a potent deal of non-Asian scholarship, by way of producing and publishing pictorial anthology on tribal cultures seems more of commercial venture and less of academy. Distortions and cultural genocide thus impinged on the tribespeople through value-loaded writings and 'prejudiced' photography, showing 'primitiveness', needs to be remedied. Here, we intend to project, through visual reflections, the indigenous perspectives of Naga -Apatani tribes as spread in folk-oral worldview, sacred beliefs, folk knowledge of agriculture, and resulting symbiotic relationships, which proved a impartial picture. It may be argued that indigenous knowledge and folklores, based on the sustainable use of environmental resources using sacred landscapes, are dying fast. Unless these resources are documented, the indigenous peoples and the humanity as a whole may never have the authenticated account of the indigenous heritage. Author's presentation includes depiction of still photos from black and white era and a ten-minute ethnographic film titled 'The Apatani: Sacred landscape and Indigenous Agriculture in Eastern Himalaya' (scripted and directed by author, 2009). Film depicts insiders' perspective on agriculture system, sacred landscape and indigenous knowledge, and people's agenda of protection of their culture and language.

Capturing the 'savage' and the 'civilized': Seeing through the lens of the American Baptist Mission

Author: Suryasikha Pathak (Assam University, Diphu Campus)  email

Short Abstract

Missionary images of the 'native' as 'primitive' and 'savage' was constructed earlier in their writings and later through photographs. These photographs were sent home with letters, shown around and also published in missionary magazines and journals. They were evidence of the struggles of the mission and also results of such efforts. But they were also means to construct a dichotomy between the 'convert' and the 'heathen' and hence between the 'civilized' and the 'savage'.

Long Abstract

Oriental discourses' simplified construction of natives as 'primitives' and 'savage' was further reified and nuanced with the advent of missionary accounts. These images were further strengthened as missionaries started taking pictures from the foreign fields. The success stories of the foreign field were regularly sent home and those were used to evoke social and financial support for the foreign mission cause. The missionary discourses in the late 19th and early 20th century marked out differences between the new converts and the indigenous population. The impact of mission and the missionaries were measured in terms of 'civilization progresses made by both groups. This contrast was represented in the missionaries' accounts of their work among the heathen population and studies in photographs. These photographs published in mission magazines and from private collections are used as a tool of differentiation, and as sources. These photographs were highlighted as a visual evidence of 'civilized' and 'uncivilized' and 'Christian' and 'heathen' dichotomy. Whereas the indigenous population was largely constructed from earlier and current ethnographic accounts, projected as 'savage', 'headhunting', 'primitive', 'naked' and the new converts were presented as 'civilized', 'educated', 'clean', 'clothed'. It served to make the missionaries' work seem like an adventure, a brave struggle not just on the topographical jungle but also metaphorically the jungle of wild 'unbelievers'. It served to shock and also to move the pity and the piety of the post industrial west and re-affirm their belief in the superiority and necessity of such works.

Framing indigeneity and environmentalism among the Lepchas of Sikkim, India

Author: Vibha Arora (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi)  email

Short Abstract

This paper relates the photographs taken by some British Political Officers of Sikkim and travellers in the 19th and 20th century with the contemporary visual representations of the Lepcha tribe residing in Himalayan Sikkim. An analysis of these visual representations traces the continuities and discontinuities in the imaging and imagining of the Lepchas.

Long Abstract

The self-reflexive representation of Lepchas as the indigenous and primordial environmentalists of the Eastern Himalayas in the contemporary period can be traced to some images circulated in the 19th century and early 20th Century. In 1975, the former Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim was merged into India, and in 1978 the Lepchas were granted Scheduled Tribe status by the Indian Constitution. The historic image of Lepcha as a forest-dweller, nature worshipper and as an indigenous architect (as seen in their skills of house and bridge construction) were perpetuated in photographic collections of British Political Officers to Sikkim, some monographs on Lepchas (Gorer 1938) and traveller's accounts (Hooker 1891). Influenced by global discourses of alternative development these images are currently being used to refashion Lepcha self-images as primordial environmentalists.

This paper relates the photographs taken by some British Political Officers of Sikkim and travellers in the 19th and 20th century with the contemporary visual representations including an ethnographic film "Lepcha and their Soamm (bridges)" made by the Lepchas in 2002 and some other recent visual documentation undertaken as part of ongoing resistance to hydroelectric projects in the Lepcha reserve of North Sikkim. An analysis of these visual representations traces the continuities and discontinuities in the imaging and imagining of the Lepchas.

Displayed Carcasses: A Visual Impact of Shillong's Butchery Stalls

Author: Quinbala Marak (North-Eastern Hill University)  email

Short Abstract

Shillong the capital of the state of Meghalaya welcomes visitors into the city with butchery stalls that display carcasses of butchered animals. The first reaction of any foreigner is one of revulsion. What is the idea behind such a show? Is it for reasons of aesthetics and functionality? Or, is it for more? This paper will look into the politics behind such an exhibit.

Long Abstract

When one enters the town of Shillong in Meghalaya through NH 40, one is greeted by butchered carcasses on display along the sidewalks in the locality of Mawlai, the entry port of Shillong. The butchered carcasses comprise of different cuts of meat of the pig and the cow, with pig heads hanging from the side posts of the shops. The initial reaction of a foreigner to these parts is one of utter shock and revulsion. This paper will look into the anthropology of the displayed carcasses and find out the reasons behind such. Whether such a display is for functional reasons alone, or has leanings of aestheticism in it will be discussed. Finally it will conclude by looking beyond the displays into the politics of the social milieu.

Representations of biodiversity in North East India

Author: Ambika Aiyadurai (National University of Singapore)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses how conservationists engage with visual representations to produce specific forms of knowledge. I argue that these representations not only produce new meanings of the northeast but are also problematic as an approach to conservation.

Long Abstract

Northeast India is increasingly becoming an important area for wildlife conservation. The region was declared a 'Biodiversity Hotspot' in the early 2000s and has gained tremendous international attention. The recent discovery of wildlife species from the region has proved the species richness and need for further ecological exploration. This has brought in multiple stakeholders like NGOS, conservationists, wildlife biologists who are constantly producing knowledge through various representations of the landscape. This paper discusses how conservationists as important stakeholders engage with visual representations to produce specific forms of knowledge (numbers, words, charts, maps, photographs). These new images of rare and elusive species in the remote forests are produced with the increased accessibility to high tech equipments. While the forests and the landscape are shown as a pristine and undisturbed, I argue, the local communities are either made invisible or often shown as factors that deplete the natural resources. Nevertheless, these images of biodiversity rich forests and mountains are also produced as potential sites for ecotourism, largely for elite audiences.

Using content analysis of the websites, reports, photographs and GIS maps of the regions, I argue that such representations not only produce new meanings of the northeast but are also problematic as an approach to conservation.

Imagining the nation in Assamese cinema (1930s-1970s)

Author: Anirban Baishya  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the relationship of Assamese cinema from the 1930s to the 1970s with the role of the middle class. Through this it seeks to explore the articulation of an “idea” of the nation—both actively through cinematic practice, and retroactively, through the writing about Assamese cinema.

Long Abstract

My paper deals with the theme of Assamese regional cinema from the 1930s to the 1970s focusing on two main areas. First, the relationship between the Assamese middle class and the particular effects it has had on the shape on the history of cinema in the region. Secondly, the relationship between the rise of cinema in the state and its relationship with "Assamese modernity" which is closely linked to the aforementioned focus on the middle class and the tension between "nation" and "region". My choice of period spans the rise of Assamese cinema since its inception under British rule, to a key phase in Assamese history when the politics of identity began to take an altogether different, aggressive shape. The middle class becomes central here, because the first crop of Assamese filmmakers arose from this very class, a number of them in fact being connected in some way or the other to the tea plantation industry. In relation to this, the analysis of two genres, the historical/biopic and the social film becomes important since it is in these that the idea of an imagined "nation" is most explicitly articulated. One key area of concern in writing about Assamese cinema is the availability of films itself—a large number of the films produced are lost. Therefore, the existing writing on Assamese cinema falls within the rubric of memorialization, in which the idea of the nation is retroactively constructed through the act of writing about key figures and films.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.