ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

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

(P42)

(Dis-)Locating the political: the aesthetics of self-making in postcolonial India

Location Sankskrit Conference Room
Date and Start Time 04 April, 2012 at 08:30

Convenors

Uday Chandra (Georgetown University, Qatar) email
Atreyee Majumder (Yale University) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

How do we negotiate competing representations of the political vis-a-vis the everyday practices of postcolonial self-making?

Long Abstract

Anthropological engagements with "the political" have attempted to move beyond reified precincts of the state and its institutions to more textured explorations of how individuals fashion, perform and style ideas of community, collectives and citizenship. Yet popular perceptions of "the political" persistently seek to narrow its scope by pitting it against apparently apolitical notions of ethics. How can we better negotiate these competing representations of the political as they are mutually constituted with everyday practices of postcolonial self-making? These are registers of the self that throw light on many complications in the 'subaltern' canvas of postcolonial theory. The aesthetics of postcolonial self-making are thus brought into conversation with creative performances and practices of contemporary publics. Drawing on four disparate contexts in postcolonial India, the papers on this panel explore the location of the political and its relationship to the aesthetics of self-making. Rather than focusing on how people inhabit or adopt existing political ideology in order to serve their interests, the papers examine how ideas of civic humanism, duty, adivasi resistance and gender are creatively fashioned in everyday life. In particular, the papers reveal the relationship between processes of self-making, creativity and individuation and the formation of collectives and community.

Chair: Devika Bordia
Discussant: Lawrence Liang

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Being Human in Howrah: Life of Voluntarism on the Peri-urban

Author: Atreyee Majumder (Yale University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper narrates the life of voluntarism of the citizens of a small town Howrah, in eastern India, where engagement with politics is co-terminous with participation in the arts, philanthropy and various community activities.

Long Abstract

This paper concerns the ethico-political culture of citizens of a small town Howrah, in eastern India. These citizens enact politically meaningful stances, purporting them to be on a wider historical stage. Engagement with politics, here, takes place alongside one's participation in the arts, philanthropy, community activities and so on. Expressions of expectation of the new harbingers of opportunity, find ways into the rhetoric of public-mindedness, collective effort and reflection, voluntarism and protest - a vocabulary that the postcolonial socialist machine has taught its subjects to speak. Protagonists of this life of voluntarism certainly do not see themselves as the small voice of history. They assert their distance from the narrative of the rebellious peasant or tribal subject fighting the oppressors of feudalism and colonial capitalism. They seek to reconcile their daily community activities with religion, ethics, good governance and civic-mindedness. A higher humanism that rises above 'petty politics', is enacted through blood donation camps, little magazines, sports tournaments, artistic initiatives, charity activities, morning marches. Through these activities, a certain 'pristine' humanism is nurtured and practiced. It is pitted in a battle against the domains of politics and market - those which supposedly house self-interest-driven negotiation of the world. It is this ethical divide that forms the focus of the paper, as it narrates the life of voluntarism in a small town in eastern India. This paper draws from ethnographic insights gathered in the course of fieldwork in Howrah.

Bad Atmosphere? Negotiating politics, personhood and place in a low-income Delhi neighbourhood.

Author: Cressida Jervis Read (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

A 'resettlement colony' (slum clearance neighbourhood) is a site suffused with politics. This paper examines the politics and 'non-politics' of personhood and place through the everyday spatial practices of residents, as they have rebuilt their lives in a Delhi neighbourhood settled 35 years ago.

Long Abstract

A 'resettlement colony' (slum clearance neighbourhood) is a site suffused with politics. The target of much development work, residents' relationships with NGOs, politicians and the state must also be cultivated to access public services. Yet, close-living spaces of the colony relationships with ones neighbours must also be attended to. This paper investigates the negotiation of politics, personhood and place through the everyday spatial and aesthetic practices of residents in a Delhi resettlement colony, settled 35 years ago. Understanding place as produced through a constellation of social relations it argues for the day-to-day practices of place-making to be given greater attention as part of the everyday practices of postcolonial self-making.

The Ethics of Duty: Visions of Community and Political Action in Rajasthan

Author: Devika Bordia (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines how a Gandhian ethics of duty and conceptions of a non-centralized polity governed by panchayats inform the styles, sensibilities and dispositions of political leaders in the tribal regions of Southern Rajasthan.

Long Abstract

Gandhian ideas of a non-centralized polity governed by panchayats inform the styles, sensibilities and dispositions of political leaders at the margins of the Indian state. Premchand's short story Panch Parmeshwar exemplifies an imagining of a polity that rests on a spirit of responsibility and friendship: as individuals work through the institution of panchayats for the betterment of their community, their greedy, selfish and corruptible selves are transformed, and they are able to realize the values of satya (truth) and dharma (duty). Applying these ideas to the geo-political conditions of his time, Gandhi privileged the "duties of man" to the "rights of man" in his response to the 1948 United Nations' Committee drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This paper examines how the local circulation of an ethics of duty has informed the self-making of an older generation of Bhil panchayat leaders in Southern Rajasthan who were politically active in the 1950s and 1960s. Leaders of both state and non-state panchayats represented the traditions or the "inner sphere" of their village and fashioned themselves as anti-political actors concerned only with the moral and social uplift of their community. Both tribals and non-tribals mobilized ideas of responsibility and friendship in determining who can most effectively represent and govern tribal communities. The paper concludes by suggesting how an ethic of duty provides legitimacy and shapes the practices of contemporary social and political movements.

The making of the 'self' in the conflicted border zones: a study of the enclave zones of Bengal

Author: Sanghita Datta (Jawaharlal Nehru University)  email

Short Abstract

How do people living on the disputed margins of the Bengal borderland negotiate with their ‘self’?

Long Abstract

Borders divide nations and with that it provides a unique set of citizenship rights to its residents. But what about the people who are living on the margins of disputed lands? India shares its disputed borders mainly with Bangladesh and Pakistan. Bangladesh was carved out of the provinces of Bengal and Assam. The Radcliffe Commission's 'Blunder Line' holds the biggest dispute about the adversarial possession of enclaves. The major bone of contention are the 106 enclaves (locally known as 'chits') of India in having a total area of 20,957.07 acres situated within Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan). Bangladesh also has 95 Chitmahals, with a total area of 12, 289.37 acres of lands situated within the territory of India.

As the dispute remains unresolved, the identity of the people living in these enclaves becomes ambiguous. The problem faced by them is of a different kind altogether. They are neither refugees and nor citizens of any country. Without any official identity, the residents there cannot vote. Successive governments have taken many initiatives to deal with the conflict but their intentions were generally unclear.

This paper is an attempt to analyze that how the very idea of nation is plays a major role in figuring out ones own identity admits various sufferings along the fragmented

border. The inner conflict being the 'no-where people' questions the very essence of the formation of the geographical boundaries that separate two nations but not the people.

Remnants of Revolution: Naxalbari Movement, Revolutionary Subjectivity and the Cultural Legacies of Middle-Classes in Bengal

Author: Samrat Sengupta (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I would talk about the very notion of the ethics of resistance looking into the construction and conceptualization of a revolutionary subjectivity in cultural representation of Naxalbari Movement in Bengal which I would illustrate through a few examples of some cultural productions of the contemporary period.

Long Abstract

In this paper I would talk about the very notion of the ethics of resistance looking into the construction and conceptualization of a revolutionary subjectivity in cultural representation of Naxalbari Movement in Bengal. Taking the clue from Spivak I would try to show that to ask "Can the Revolutionary Subject (read subaltern) Speak?" is not to declare them speechless but to demonstrate why and how the 'place' where one cannot speak produces the subject of revolution out of that speechlessness. Spivak pointed out rightly that the negation of subjectivity as a construction is to bring back the subject from the backdoor. Even if it is a construction - a figuration - it has to have a certain kind of reality effect. To forget the figuration is not to negate it but to render it invisible. To read the revolution of the past I shall assume it at the same time to be dead and haunting the present just as Derrida talks about the presence of the dead other as radical alterity always already within the self. Past revolution in this strategy shall not be an essential category but as fragments existing and haunting the body of the present - it exists in form of remnants - disfiguring history and narrative catachrestically - in excess of definition. I would illustrate this through a few examples of the remnants of revolutionary past in some cultural productions of the contemporary period.

Negotiating the class subject: Marxist-Leninist politics and the iconization of the rural poor in Bihar

Author: Nicolas Jaoul (CNRS)  email

Short Abstract

to follow

Long Abstract

The All India Agricultural Labourers Association (AIALA) was formed in 2003 by the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (Liberation) (CPI-ML Liberation), formerly an ‘underground’ Naxalite party, which adopted legal and democratic means in the early 1990’s. Focusing on its main stronghold in the countryside of Bihar, this article analyses the way the economic struggles, social aspirations and aesthetic values of the rural proletariat are being articulated with the party’s political goal of producing a revolutionary class at the subjective level. These goals are analysed in the context of the party’s evolution towards a mass movement and through a critique of the legitimist and populist approaches towards popular culture. The party’s recent emphasis on symbolic politics indicates a greater inclination towards the popular than implied by the Leninist model of intellectual authority, thus highlighting the cultural negotiations that underlie the making of class subjectivity.

Revolutions within revolutions: women in extreme left movements

Author: Lipika Kamra (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the ethics and aesthetics of self-making among female insurgents in the Naxalite and Maoist movements, and its dialogic relationship with elite and popular representations of these extreme left movements in postcolonial India.

Long Abstract

Since independence, women in armed left-wing movements have been active participants in an ongoing struggle for social change in postcolonial India. Their participation in key revolutionary moments such as Tebhaga, Telengana, Naxalite and contemporary Maoist movements seeks not only to undermine existing class relations in the countryside, but also to transform gender relations in their respective contexts. The image of a female insurgent challenges traditional stereotypes of women as passive and inherently peaceful. This paper examines the ethics and aesthetics of self-making among female insurgents in the Naxalite and Maoist movements, and its dialogic relationship with elite and popular representations of these extreme left movements in postcolonial India. From a close reading of oral histories, media representations, novels, and films, I attempt to point to two contradictory tendencies in women's narratives of revolutionary participation. On the one hand, female insurgents' narratives of agency undermine and unsettle the master narratives and patriarchal imaginations of Naxalism/Maoism. Yet, on the other hand, these women's self-narratives of heroic participation as well as their representations in popular discourses mirror or even mimic elite, masculinist representations of sacrifice and bravery. Gender subjectivities forged in the crucible of these revolutionary upheavals are, thus, marked by a curious set of contradictions that lie at the heart of self-making practices among female insurgents. The ethics of gender empowerment in these "revolutions within revolutions" are, likewise, better understood in terms of their ambiguities and ambivalences than by positing an artificial coherence that seamlessly weaves together the politics of gender and class.

Beyond Subalternity: The Political Aesthetics and Ethics of Adivasi Resistance in Contemporary Jharkhand

Author: Uday Chandra (Georgetown University, Qatar)  email

Short Abstract

This paper probes into the tropes and strategies by which the modes, mechanisms, and meanings of modern state power have been reworked and resisted in two apparently opposed moments of resistance: the "peaceful" Koel-Karo anti-dam movement of the 1980s and the ongoing "violent" Maoist movement.

Long Abstract

Adivasis are typically viewed by scholars, activists, and policymakers alike as primitive subjects trapped within modern state imaginaries. Adivasi politics, therefore, is understood vis-a-vis the dramaturgy of postcolonial tragedy. Such an understanding, I argue, denies any meaningful agency to adivasis, and prevents an exploration of the rich, multi-layered performances of resistance through which adivasi subject-formation is successfully negotiated in postcolonial India. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in contemporary Jharkhand, this paper probes into the myriad tropes and strategies by which the modes, mechanisms, and meanings of modern state power have been reworked and resisted in two apparently opposed moments of resistance: the "peaceful" Koel-Karo anti-dam movement of the 1980s and the ongoing "violent" Maoist movement. In doing so, I show how the aesthetics of power are tied inextricably, albeit ironically, to the ethics of subaltern resistance, each acting and reacting upon the other to define the potentialities of and proscriptions on political expression in the margins of the postcolony.

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This panel is closed to new paper proposals.