ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

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


Art & religion: beyond-representation in the representation of the beyond

Location Sankskrit Conference Room
Date and Start Time 05 April, 2012 at 08:30


Douglas Farrer (University of Guam) email
John Whalen-Bridge (National University of Singapore) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel discusses art, performance, & enchantment vis-à-vis theories of agency & skill applied to artworlds & artworks however defined. Interrogating representation & the beyond facilitates the study of mystical power & numinous experience, whether in spiritual resistance or spiritual domination.

Long Abstract

What basis does artistic enchantment provide for understanding the numinous? What are the implications for theories of agency—or skill—in opening the gateways to unseen realms? Where artists infuse mystical power into their artworks to transform these mediums of expression into a vehicle for indigenous mysticism and the celebration of god(s), beauty may captivate, inspire, enthrall, and empower the artist, viewer, audience, bearer or wearer. Powers of sorcery, witchcraft, and magic; religious, and shamanic power can be regarded through such frames as artistic (depending upon aesthetics, agency or skill); cognitive (informed by symbol, myth, and perception); performative and charismatic (with liminal ritual harnessed to mystical power); and embodied (viz. mana and tapu). The "technology of enchantment" and the "enchantment of technology," from the anthropology of art, may be augmented from the anthropology of performance with "the performance of enchantment" and the "enchantment of performance." The performance of enchantment refers to techniques du corps, hexis, or skills, honed to such a degree through practice, rehearsal, and execution that they take on a magical appearance, to create an uncanny effect upon the audience. Correspondingly, the enchantment of performance refers to mystical procedures used to draw power from the unseen realm. How do artistic practices and artworlds, not limited to architecture, painting, sculpture, music, literature, poetry, calligraphy, incantation, jewelry, weaponry, martial arts, dance, theater, puppetry, body-paint, tattoos, wood and shell carving, mazes, and sand drawings operate as forces of domination or as sites of spiritual resistance to hostile or colonial forces?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Aesthetics of space: Delhi and the sufi view

Author: Sameena Siddiqui (Jamia Millia Islamia)  email

Short Abstract

The paper aims to examine the concept of ‘space’ and ethical experience from a sufi perspective and analyze its impact on Delhi as an urban landscape.It seeks to discover the dynamics of this legacy in the spiritual as well as the temporal sphere. The paper examines the impact of Sufi ethical experience in redefining aesthetically conceived territoriality and in reinventing collective identities of pre-colonial and colonial Delhi .

Long Abstract

The paper examines the sufi sense of relating 'space' with ethical experience and its translation into aesthetically conceived territory or wilayat.A study of the historical evolution of Delhi's physical space reveals significant linkages with its growth as an important sufi centre.The presence of three leading chishti saints in Delhi,viz: Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya and Nasiruddin Chirag Dehli established its position on the sacred geography of South Asian Islam. However this presence was not exclusively 'muslim space'. The paper examines the impact of Sufi ethical experience in redefining aesthetically conceived territoriality and in reinventing collective identities. Sufi presence in Delhi was marked by infusion of culture and ideas, which can best be understood as a regrouping of sub-cultures .This distinct pluralistic kaleidoscopic culture also infused the sufi concept of wilayat . Rooted in social realism the 'secular' inclusivity of this sufi urban culture pervaded the popular psyche thus imparting it a socially constructed legitimacy and psychologically accepted right to power. The paper examines its impact on the concept of 'power' and 'legitimacy' as evident in the morphological setting of Delhi's space. The paper will also explore the effect of the British colonial restructuring of the 'power' equation of Delhi as defined by the perceptions of 'space', of 'legitimacy' and of 'power'. Tearing away of this deeper 'space-fabric', and its effect on Delhi's socio-religious pluralism as defined by the aesthetics of 'space', will be analyzed.

"Mary at the Ethnic Frontier": Marianism Among Vietnamese in Vietnam, the U.S., and Cambodia

Author: Thien-Huong Ninh  email

Short Abstract

This paper traces the dissemination of various forms of Marianism (in terms of beliefs, practices, and visualization) and how it has mediated ethnic collectivity among Vietnamese living in Vietnam, the U.S., and Cambodia. It argues that Marianism was not synonymous with ethnic identity until re-connections among Vietnamese Catholics in these countries within the past 15 years. The paper reveals that the trajectory of this shift was uneven across the three places because of local ethnic reception and global economic forces.

Long Abstract

Knowledge of Our Lady of Lavang was confined to Vietnam until the global dispersion of Vietnamese Catholics following the 1975 communist takeover of the country. In the U.S., they remained fearful of ethnic dilution within the contexts of multiculturalism and isolation from the homeland. As a result, they sought to distinguish their cultural Catholic heritage and history through the Marian image. In 1996, "Our Lady of Vietnam" was sculpted in the image of a Vietnamese woman, dressed in the Vietnamese national attire and adorned by a Vietnamese traditional headpiece. In 1998, the statue of Our Lady of Vietnam returned to Vietnam and served as a model for Our Lady of Lavang. Since then, the Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of Lavang has been embraced by Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world.

However, Vietnamese Catholics in Cambodia have been isolated from this flow of exchanges. Within the anti-Vietnamese hostility environment in the country, Vietnamese Catholics have to suppress their ethnic identity. They could only worship the universal ("white") representation of the Blessed Mary and the Khmer ("dark brown") version of her.

These options expanded in 2008, when a steel statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was lifted from the Mekong River by non-Catholic Khmers. Vietnamese Catholics named her "Our Lady of the Mekong River." As her popularity swelled through loose networks with co-religionists in Vietnam, her image gradually became increasingly identified with Vietnamese ethnic identity in order to attract financial support from Vietnamese Catholics in the U.S. and other developed countries.

"Empty Your Cup: Anti-Colonial Humor in Khyentse Norbu's The Cup"

Author: John Whalen-Bridge (National University of Singapore)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation looks at the orchestration of only apparently disjunctive topics—religious devotion, comic materialism, and political activism—to show how Khyentse Norbu's The Cup combines them into satisfying whole.

Long Abstract

The joke about The Cup is that it is about football rather than religion, and this comic displacement generates thoughtful cinematic representations of religious ideas and practices, even while seeming to undermine religious beliefs. The film seems to focus on the worldliness of supposedly spiritual monks as opposed to Tibet's political situation, but the film actually addresses this relationship in a number of key scenes. This presentation looks at the orchestration of only apparently disjunctive topics—religious devotion, comic materialism, and political activism—to show how Norbu combines them into satisfying whole.

Under the Light of the Imperial Parasol. Politics and Religion in Mughal Imperial Portraits

Author: Nicoletta Fazio (University of Heidelberg)  email

Short Abstract

This paper analyses in what ways artists working in the Mughal kitabkhana and their royal patrons 'collaborated' to create powerful images of the power embodied (the emperor's body) via the integration of religious symbols within the secular aesthetics of politics.

Long Abstract

Despite its delicate nature and its minute dimensions, the art of miniature in the Islamic world was nevertheless considered a potent tool to make statements of great impact in the political arena. Primarily, it worked as a space of negotiation for the construction and affirmation of dynastic legitimacy and royal power. However, it also served as a stage for the aesthetic creation (and the recreation) of the image of the perfect ruler; the physical place where secular authority and religious charisma ideally met and conflated. This phenomenon is particularly evident in Mughal painting and, precisely, in the artistic production from the time of Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) onwards, when the practice of portraiture and single flyleaves assembled in the form of albums assumed a preeminent role within the royal kitabkhana. Among the numerous portraits executed under Jahangir, the emperor's allegorical portraits retain a relevant place for their complex iconography and the conflation of secular and spiritual symbolism. The emperor's body, emblem of the worldly authority, is exposed, transmuted, encircled with a mystical aura and, most important, associated with highly revered sufi figures to create a striking, yet ambiguous, image of the power embodied. The viewer is enchanted and fascinated by the symbolic and strictly hierarchical composition and the delicate, serene, colour palette, finding himself captured in the middle of a polyphonic and polymorphic discourse. This paper analyses in what ways artists working in the Mughal kitabkhana and their royal patrons 'collaborated' to create powerful images of the power embodied via the integration of religious symbols within a secular aesthetic system.

"Representation to 'Re-Presentation' : A Sociological Analysis of the Santhal Scroll Paintings and Performance, and their Relation to the World of Magic and Religion"

Author: Urmi Bhattacharyya (Jawaharlal Nehru University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the depiction of religious and supernatural themes as found in the picture-storytelling tradition of the Santhals, in parts of West bengal and Jharkhand, and the power of this art form to define religious beliefs and practices in the tribal society.

Long Abstract

This paper is an attempt to explore the performance tradition of storytelling through scroll painting or 'pata-chitra' as practiced by the Santhal population in parts of West Bengal and Jharkhand. This unique practice of scroll painting and narration, performed by a specific community of people known as the 'Jadu-Patua', primarily deals with themes pertaining to the supernatural and the world of the deceased, whereby the skilled artists who are also regarded as magico-religious priests in the tribal society, exercise their domination in the world of spirituality or the Unknown, by their captivating performance. By the act of performance, involving the display of illustrated scrolls or sheets accompanied with narrative poetry or songs, this artwork goes beyond representation, to defining and describing the world of magic and religion. Through the use of cultural symbols, myths, and the entire act of performance, the 'Jadu-Patuas' thus claim their superiority in terms of knowledge about the 'Other' world.

The primary objective of the paper is therefore to emphasize on how religious, supernatural, and magical power, is portrayed and transmitted through this particular practice of picture-storytelling in the tribal society. The other objective accentuates on the role of the artists in their power and capability to transform these works of art into mystical and powerful tools, informing and influencing the people in the tribal society in terms of their ideas and their knowledge about the world that is completely unknown to them.

Religious devotion and the political: the honour dispute revisited

Author: Aya Ikegame  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the possibilities for re-valuating certain devotional expressions as political. By investigating several cases of honour disputes amongst Hindu mathas in Mysore princely state in the early 20th century, it will question the construction of community and democratic representation.

Long Abstract

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many mathas were involved in fierce conflicts concerning the use of royal symbols. The types of palanquins, colour of umbrellas, ornaments, and drums used by gurus in the procession stirred antagonism amongst different groups of devotees. Although these groups can be described using any of following adjectives: sub-caste, sectarian, professional, local and kin 'communities', in reality they were a mixture of all of them. This type of conflict, the 'honour dispute', has been treated as a mere local caste issue and is not necessarily seen as a part of any democratic process or 'proper' political engagement. Groups of devotees were capable of organising large-scale processions attracting several thousands. Yet, Indian political elites and social scientists of the twentieth century have not regarded these activities as political or even modern. This paper will revisit several cases of 'honour disputes' in Mysore princely state, a southern part of present day Karnataka.

In recent years, the mathas in Karnataka have received renewed attention as they have emerged as alternative providers of social welfare (education, health, social justice). Not only traditional matha-oriented groups (Brahmins and Lingayats), but many caste groups including OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis also began to establish their own mathas from the 1990s onwards. The aim of this paper is to revisit the moment when the mathas redefined themselves as an alternative institution to the state and to examine how people exercised and articulated their political subjectivities through devotional and aesthetical forms of expression.

Reading and writing in absence : The donors' plaques

Author: Baishali Ghosh (University of Hyderabad)  email

Short Abstract

The donors’ plaque in the religious architecture is the sign whose visit is present in absence. The writings on the stone slab, as visual provoke a dialogue that allow the dead (in whose name donation is made) and the donor to be launched into a discourse. The paper discusses the ethnography of memory in relation to the researcher, the donor, the dead person, viewers and so on.

Long Abstract

The donors' plaque in the contemporary Bengali religious architecture in India is the sign which acknowledges the two persons in their absences - the dead relative (in whose name the money is donated) and the donor.

This paper probes such donor plaques in Karcha Kobi Govida Dham, West Bengal state, India. The architecture was built by the migrant bengalis from Bangladesh in 1980s with the support of the ruling communist government. The first part of the paper investigates the dual identity of the architecture. It traces how the management of the building and users maintain double consciousness toward the Govinda Dham, vacillating between belief and hard-headed materialism and address the functionality of the architecture in between cultural centre and temple. The second part of the paper deals with discourses developed around the donor plaque - what kind of memory drives the person to donate money and put a plaque in the name of a dead person? Why and in what extent does the donor desire to mention his / her address in the plaque? Why does he / she want to put other family members' names in the plaque? When does the person decide to bring up the amount of donation in the plaque, simultaneously in general public? What kind of relation these plaques share with the architecture aesthetically? The third part of the paper discusses the ethnography of memory in relation to the researcher, the donor, the dead person, the plaque maker, the daily user and viewer.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.