ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

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


Art and activism in contemporary Dalit and Adivasi movements

Location Arts and Aesthetics Lecture Hall No. 002, SAA-II
Date and Start Time 04 April, 2012 at 08:30


Alice Tilche (London School of Economics) email
David Mosse (SOAS) email
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Short Abstract

Adivasi and Dalit struggle for dignity and recognition has been accompanied by an effervescence of cultural production. This panel explores 'art' as a semiotic and political intervention that refigures existing relations of exploitation generating new meanings, political identities and connections.

Long Abstract

The growth and diversification of social movements and civil society activism for empowerment among those historically marginalised and subordinated as 'untouchable' (dalits) or 'tribal' (adivasis) has been accompanied by an effervescence of cultural production.

Visual art, music, dance forms, artefacts, religious or heroic iconography and mythic representations all connect to a politics of recognition and of rebellion. Assembling semiotic elements (artefacts, images, dance, mythologies) in reconfigured settings — special events and new audiences — specifically decontextualizes them from former relationships of exploitation and caste or gender subordination. As 'art' these performances break the nexus of social relationships and ritual structures, generating new meanings and changing the semiotic process itself in ways that the panel will explore. Dalit or Adivasi 'art' then becomes a field of meaning, authorship and political intent.

The processes of cultural production are differently oriented among Adivasi and Dalit groups and have different social effects, which the panel will consider. Common to all is the production of 'art' (in the broadest sense) as a means (intentionally or otherwise) to forge new non-local relationships, to connect to power through works that travel within national and increasingly international fields of consumption, as well as within local social activism.

But if 'art' is a means of forging effective political identities, it is also implicated in the complex internal group and gender dynamics of Dalit and Adivasi movements in ways that have been subject to ethnographic description.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Dalit performance art, cultural politics and the renegotiation of identity

Author: David Mosse (SOAS)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the social and semiotic processes involved in producing and performing Dalit art, especially dance-drumming. New meanings and modes of signification indicate changed social relationships, but ethnographic work reveals the relationship between Dalits and their 'art' as ambivalent.

Long Abstract

Performing art has an important role in Tamil Dalit activism. Public action of various kinds is invariably accompanied by Dalit 'art' (kalai), especially dance-drumming, on the stage, in liturgy, at rallies and processions, or as part of public protests or direct action. At one level these are performances which celebrate and honour Dalit identity, or are construed as 'weapons for liberation.' The force of such performances especially arises from the power of symbolic reversal, re-mythologising and performatively reinterpreting practices that formerly stood for and enacted subordination within village caste orders. Thus the drum is a transformative sign, theologised as a symbol of suffering and of emancipation. Dalit social recognition involves assembling semiotic elements (artefacts, music, dance, mythologies) in reconfigured settings — special events and new audiences — specifically so as to decontextualize them from relationships of subordination and thus produce Dalit culture and art.

The paper will argue that as 'art' these performances not only symbolise a break with the nexus of social relationships and ritual structure so as both to generate new meanings, but also show a changed semiotic process (from index to symbol, ritual-effect to interpreted meaning). However, the relationship between this art and activism is always uncertain. The tension is partly because Dalit 'art' is either insufficiently or excessively socially decontextualized: either retaining degrading identification with histories of subordination; or depoliticized as a stage performance. The paper explores ethnographically the complex and ambivalent relationship between Dalits (activists and villagers) and their art.

Everyday Aesthetics and Refashioning of Selves

Author: Rajan Krishnan (Loyala College)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores how the capacity of Dalit communities to undertake assertive political action rests not only on their becoming conscious of their social situation but also their potential to effect changes in their life with creative refashioning of selves through every day aesthetic practices.

Long Abstract

As part of the larger study of Dalits in rural settings, a set of encounters with Dalit converts to Christianity brought to light some of the changes that occur in the practices of everyday aesthetic as part of the dynamic refashioning of self through conversion. These practices naturally involve the performative aspects of worship and rituals; however, there are more inconspicuous changes that relate to materials and implements used in everyday life sometimes even unconsciously. The understanding of such effects among non-converts points to the intricacies involved in the making of identity bearing self. The boundaries of self, its capacity to define itself appear to rest upon a whole range of household and personal artifacts. The observation can be usefully explored through the notion of "equipmental whole" in Heideggar's philosophy productively invoked by Valentine Daniel in the context of national belonging.

As a corollary to this, Dalits also find it necessary to estrange themselves from some of the ritual performances that seemingly code their subjugated status through typical acts of ritual inversion. I will use the rituals related to Annanmarsami in western Tamil Nadu and contemporary criticisms of the same by Dalit social movements as instances. What needs to be explored is how and under what conditions the performative aspects and their meanings can be changed within the cultural whole without seeking a total departure. In other words, what freezes acts of interpretation is perhaps the urgency with which alternative belonging through aesthetic practices is sought by developing consciousness.

Dancing Across the Thresholds of Caste: Enacting Transcendence and 'Egalitarianism' in the Western Himalaya

Author: Lokesh Ohri (South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg)  email

Short Abstract

Caste, generally bracketed under the umbrella of exclusion, is enacted in remote Himalayan regions through forced inclusion. Efforts of a group of performing folk artistes from the Kolta community and their attempt to break barriers of caste, while media and communication flows emerge as the non-intentional actors, are analyzed here.

Long Abstract

Until the 20th century, the vast yet remote regions known as Jaunsar, Bāwar, Bangān, Simla Hills, and parts of Rawain, in the Western Himalayas in India, along the headwaters of the Tons River were ruled from temple-fortresses by divine kings, the four Mahāsu brothers being the predominant deities. The cult of Mahasu stands out as volatile and intransigent, monopolised by high-caste, headhunting Hindu Rajputs, proudly independent of their neighbouring kingdoms and colonial powers. Local inhabitants continue to insist on their cultural autonomy, living by the ritual regime prescribed by their divine king, even post assimilation into a secular nation state. Of the social boundaries prescribed by Mahāsu's ritual, caste restrictions on the lowest Kolta caste were perhaps the most impregnable social boundaries. The paper deals with temple ritual of the divine king and cult god Mahāsu, in the remote mountain valleys of the recently formed state of Uttarakhand in India, where a secular and egalitarian legal system clashes with the divine king's ritual dispensation in matters of caste. As media flows reach the god's realm, the cult is rendered increasingly self-reflexive, largely through the agency of a troupe performing folk dances headed by a man from the Kolta community. As folk dancers and the god's officialdom are forced into a situation where adopting a reformist stance is the only option, the god apparently relents, only to reveal it as a tactical retreat, a ploy to stamp the hegemony of caste.

Pithora and the making of Tribal art.

Author: Alice Tilche (London School of Economics)  email

Short Abstract

This paper focuses on the re-evaluation of Pithora paintings, from a divinity with the power to cure, to a form of 'Tribal art' with representative and symbolic function. It interrogates the ethical and political consequences of this shift for Adivasis' struggles for equality and recognition.

Long Abstract

Baba Pithora is an important God among some of the Rathava, Nayak and other Adivasi communities of western India. Through a wall painting and a ceremony Pithora is called to bring protection and prosperity upon a household in the occasion of sickness, scarcity or misfortune. Pithora Paintings are not representations of the sacred, they are themselves sacred entities - Pithora is the God. Today Pithoras are also produced as paintings on canvass and circulate within transnational art markets, museums and networks of indigenous people. They can therefore be seen as commodities, art pieces or symbols of cultural/indigenous identities.

Looking at aspects of production and circulation this paper considers the re-evaluation of Pithora as 'Tribal Art', with a focus on the 'symbolic' shifts that this implies. The paper starts by discussing Pithora in villages in relation to theoretical discussions about aesthetics and the agency of art objects. It then considers the emergence of the categories of 'art' (kala) and 'artist' (kalakar) and its implications, in terms of style, canons of beauty and value, and relations of patronage. Most importantly, the paper examines how the re-evaluation of Pithora as art involves a shift from agency (Pithora as a God) to meaning (Pithora as a symbol of indigeneity), and assesses its ethical and political implications. It considers how, while the painting is to an extent emptied of its efficacy, the question of agency also resurfaces in relation to how art objects can act as agents in attempt to grant equality to indigenous people.

'Feeling of loss': ethnicity, ethnographic imagination and identity work of Mandi youth in Dhaka

Author: Mahmudul Hasan Sumon (Jahangirnagar University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores the festivity of wanna, its revival in newer settings of Dhaka and its import among the urban Mandi youth of Dhaka. It focuses on how such organizing is bringing about a “consciousness” of identity among the Mandis. The case presents us with the opportunity to explore theories of ethnicity, ethnographic imagination and identity in the wake of transnational discourses of indigenous rights in Bangladesh.

Long Abstract

In this paper I explore the festivity of wanna (a Garo harvest festival among the Garos/ Mandis) related to the harvesting season of the Garo/ Mandi people and its import among the Mandi population living in the Nadda-Kalanachanpur-Kuril area of Dhaka. I will try to contextualize the Mandi festival of wanna, how such organizing is bringing about a "consciousness" about identity or the loss of identity among the urban Mandi people living in Dhaka. In addition to drawing from fieldwork based material and observation, I also use some secondary sources of information such as autobiographical literature, poetry and some other writings written and published in Bengali by Mandi activists/ intellectuals and writers to discuss the identity question in relation to their organizing for wanna.

The case I elaborate presents us with the opportunity to explore theories of ethnicity, ethnographic imagination and identity and how this is taking shape in contemporary Bangladesh in the wake of indigenous rights discourses. I try to argue that themes of reviving "our culture and tradition" espoused variously and consciously by a small group of young Garo activists in Dhaka and many of their social activities is linked to the transnational discourses of indigeneity, propounded by institutions like ILO and UN through conventions like ILO 169 and other instruments which gives emphasis on protecting "culture" and "identity" of the indigenous people of the world.

Between the market and Comrade Mao: Newar cultural activism and ethnic/political movements

Author: Ingemar Grandin (Linköping University)  email

Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic research from the 1980s into the present, this is a study of cultural activism among the Newars of Nepal – as an artistic, aesthetic practice that works from song texts, musical resources and non-verbal statements in dress and dance to voice both political and ethnic concerns.

Long Abstract

The Newars are prominent in the ethnic and indigenous (janajati/adivasi) movement in Nepal. With their heartland in the country's capital area, the Kathmandu Valley, their position is contradictory: they are part of the economic, political and cultural elite yet dominated in numerous ways. Still in the 1940s, people went to jail for publishing literary works in Newari, and the Newar struggle for recognition, identity, and cultural survival - often linked with leftist, political movements - has taken many forms since then. Cultural activism is prominent among these forms.

This contribution studies Newar cultural activism as an artistic, aesthetic practice. This practice includes songs, cultural programs, music, dance, theatre, but also media artifacts such as cassettes, cds, video-cds, and recordings and "visualizations" for broadcasting purposes. Not only song texts, but also such things as musical resources and non-verbal statements in dress and dance are meaningful here and important to analyze.

The contribution builds upon ethnographic research from the mid 1980s and into the present day. This period has seen a transformation in political terms from absolutism to democratic republicanism with Maoism as perhaps the most important base for political ideology. But equally important, economic transformations have come to challenge the very roots of the traditional agro-urban civilization of the Newar heartland. In this light, cultural activism is one way to negotiate a position for the Newars and their heritage between the economic forces of the market and the ideological offensive of Comrade Mao's followers.

Kamlari voices and movements: repositioning Tharu indigenous artistic knowledge into global activism

Author: Monica Mottin (London Metropolitan University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores how drama, songs and dances objectify Tharu ethnic cultural identity and how it is synthesized in kachahari natak (forum theatre) to raise awareness against the kamlari pratha (child-labour) among diverse audiences.

Long Abstract

How to explain to the world what it means to be sent away from home as a child worker and becoming victim of exploitation and violence? How break free from the kamlari system of oppression and speak out?

This paper explores how kachahari natak, the Nepali adaptation of Boal's Forum Theatre, has been appropriated by Tharu activists and embedded with indigenous dances and songs into awareness raising and mobilization programmes against the kamlari pratha, a practice common among Tharu communities in the Western rural districts of the Tarai, of sending girls aged 6-16 as kamlaris (indentured labour) to work in landlords' houses or to well-off families in the cities. The Kamlari Natak Samuha is a grassroot theatre group that performs exclusively against the kamlari pratha and enlists former kamlaris as artists. They perform in villages to persuade the parents not to send their daughters away, as well as in Kathmandu to expose the problem to potential employers.

The paper also investigates the processes the group undergoes as they rework their cultural performances to be restaged for urban and multicultural audiences. By exploring the role of drama, songs and dances in the kamlari liberation movement, I want to suggest that indigenous aesthetics not only objectifies ethnic identity in intelligible and portable forms, easily understood by local audiences and similarly exchanged within development project politics. It also offers a space for the reworking of pain. By speaking out against violence in the aesthetic space, the artists try to rework their own lives.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.