LONG READ | Beyond History, Against the Present: Preliminary Thoughts on Re-imagining ‘South Asia

Original graphic from The Sunday Observer

Keynote address delivered at the conference, ‘Connecting South Asia’ organized by the Theertha International Artists’ Collective and the Colombo Institute at the Post Graduate Institute of Archeology, Colombo, 28th September 2012. The speaker is Chair and Professor at Department of Sociology and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New Delhi.

In my mind, delivering a keynote address in a conference that has as its theme the stated objective of ‘connecting South Asia and dynamics of art and culture in the region’ poses significant challenges. This emanates from a number of anxieties: though we flippantly use the term South Asia and I work in an entity that calls itself South Asian University and numerous cartographic renditions of this supposed reality exists, I am not too sure what it means when situated in the context of the region’s past as well as its present. If I remember right, it is not by accident that a Maldivian diplomat observed in the 1980s that there should be  South South Asia to refer to the geo-cultural areas beyond southern India including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He was attempting to make a distinction between these and the Hindi-Urdu-Nepali Speaking northern part of the Indian sub-continent.

For the moment, even if we take South Asia for granted, we know quite well that it “is an area that has been perpetually in a state of flux from mythic times right up to the more chaotic present, where most countries share overlapping histories and experiences of culture, coloniality, grappling with post-colonial pains and political chaos and are constantly negotiating the global economic and cultural agendas within their own national perspectives” (Perera 2008). When Buddhism was at the height of its development it crisscrossed what is known as South Asia today from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, not to mention India itself and ventured beyond the region into the Far East. Though it transgressed borders many times in this reach, it did not encounter anything like today’s militarized borders of nation states.

Even before these  historically recorded events, and steeped well within mythic times, according to the narratives from the pages of Ramayana, King Rawan simply hopped on to his prehistoric aircraft, flew to Bharath and came back to Lanka forcibly bringing Sita with him. Not very different from the kidnappings and forced disappearances in contemporary Sri Lanka politics. All Lord Ram had to do was to get the help of Lord Hanuman and cross the ocean with the aid of a bridge built through divine intervention, cross mighty mountains, all in a leap or two and rescue the divine damsel in distress. Again, as mythological as all this might be, borders were crossed and re-crossed without much of an issue giving birth to ideas and beliefs that have survived the vagaries of time not just in our region but even as far away as Bali, Thailand and Cambodia.

Since at least the 16th century the poetry and music of Sufis in the region spread across the region and beyond, in the process paying no significant attention to existing borders, and the influence of this cultural package could be felt and seen in places known today as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But by now, the Sufi heritage despite its cross cultural appeal and historical longevity is under attack in Pakistan and Bangladesh in the name of the purity of religion and does not exist in Sri Lanka even as a distant memory. But it is still very much thriving in India as even a cursory visit to places like Nizamudin Dargah in New Delhi as well as the popularity of Sufi music among audiences beyond the community itself would indicate. Since the 1930s and right up to the early 1970s Radio Ceylon’s Hindi service reached all the way from non-Hindi speaking Colombo to the Hindi-speaking heartland of North India to make its presence felt not simply on real-time via short-wave radio frequencies but also through the latter day audio cassette revolution.

Compared to these and countless other examples, the fluidity in the travel of ideas and manifestations of culture and practices in mythic and historic times is far less fluid in our own times, despite the massive changes in transportation and communication technology and rhetoric like ‘knowledge hub’ that one hears often in Sri Lanka from politicians while the intellectual space and the public sphere continues to shrink at an alarming pace. This has to do with the expansion and entrenchment of nation states in our region and the fundamental inability of our leaders to think beyond the limitations of the ‘nation’ despite its obvious dysfunctions. As many of us know by experience, we have become imprisoned and restricted by an unhelpful and uncreative visa regime in this region.

So it is within these mythic memories and historical and present realities that we meet today in Colombo to converse with each other within a conference that should have happened two years ago, but could not due to some of the reasons I have just outlined. And even today it is happening not because of any largesse found within the region, but due to funding received from long-term associates in Europe.  That too, thanks to their guilt over the colonial past and an enduring interest fired by a seemingly missionary-like zeal to impact policy and political discourses in post-colonial times. The irony of this situation should not escape our conscience.

In this context, South Asia is simply an abstract idea that has not been seriously explored intellectually though it has been used and abused politically. The fact that a land mass-under this title exists in conventional maps even though some of its borders are contested is beside the point. For me, South Asia still needs to be imagined and rescued from the hallucinations of present day divisive politics endemic in the region. So I will use the term South Asia today only as a vague geographic term that needs to be concertized in intellectual and political terms in times to come.

On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that “despite the emergence of political structures such as SAARC, we do not have regular and serious forums for South Asian scholarship to showcase our own research and our own thinking. Even now, nearly half a century after the process of official decolonization began in the region, much of the analyses and pontifications on our problems, situations, histories and dynamics emanate from Euro American academia; this is certainly the case when it comes to conceptual formulations and theoretical approaches from the Euro‐American zone that are being employed in exploring the region’s social and cultural complexities often without much self-reflection” (Perera 2008).

“Most things from cultural theorizing to formulating development strategies percolate from these usual centers of knowledge often based on experiences exterior to our own, and these are later circulated everywhere via journals and books as authoritative texts that also come from the same centers — In many ways, it seems to me that ‘Provincializing Europe’ as Dipesh Chakrabarty famously argued, and I might add ‘provincializing North America’ too has not really taken root in our region despite the rhetoric” (Perera 2008).

“We have to constantly ask the kind of basic questions that Chakrabarty raised in his book and many others have elaborated since: can European thought be dislodged or decentered from the center of historical practice in non-European places such as ours and what are the consequences we have to anticipate when cultural practices from our part of the world are translated into categories of social science which derives their own power from a completely different historical and political lineage? Of course, I am not promoting a sense of naively simplistic nativism — This is also not a simple matter of shunning thought from these established centers of knowledge be they in Europe or North America” (Perera 2008).

On the contrary, I am urging quite earnestly for a robust engagement with these issues within South Asia on a consistent, dynamic and larger scale. “After all, South Asia has its own cultural dynamics, its own triumphs and failures or alternatives of democracy, their own versions of modernity, chaos and order sitting side by side” (Perera 2008). Do we always have to fly all the way to London, Berlin and New York to debate these issues? This conference therefore I hope would indicate one step in this direction, and hopefully it will not be the end of the line at least as far as Sri Lanka’s own suffocating intellectual climate of the present is concerned.

It is in this context that I suggest that if we are keen to see the emergence of a dynamic cultural and intellectual environment in the region, delinked from the shackles of religion, ethnicity, caste, nationalism and parochial local politics and expansionist global agendas, we necessarily have to move beyond history but with memories of that history that are useful in our minds; and we clearly have to attempt this against and in spite of the multiple parochialisms, hierarchies and hegemonies of the present. If I am to place this within the Buddhist sensibilities I was brought up with, which my generation has now conveniently forgotten, this outlines the necessity to be ‘patisothagamin’ or simply swim against the tide. The theme of  my presentation, ‘beyond history and against the present’ finds its genesis in this context.

How does one do this? To begin with, let me ponder over for a few moments how we might re-imagine South Asia which might help create a more robust intellectual climate on the one hand and where derivations of culture might go beyond simple aesthetics of pleasure into discourses of social-history, memory and an active engagement and interrogation of politics, on the other. In this very preliminary exercise, I will focus on a handful of regional examples that I am familiar with.[1]

One project that immediately comes to mind because it consciously transgressed the contested and militarized national borders between Pakistan and India at a time of extreme political anxiety is the public art collaboration, Aar Paar project. Despite heightened political anxieties, the project made aesthetic intrusions into selected public spaces in the two countries irrespective of the rhetoric of the two states and their various political bandwagons.  The project was conceived and coordinated by the Karachi-based artist Huma Muji and Mumbai based artist Shilpa Gupta both of whom initially met in New Delhi in an art exchange program in 1999. Aar-Paar, literally means “this side, that side” in Hindi as well as in Urdu. Interestingly however, in both languages it could also refer to a decisive battle. The project initiated a cross border conversation between two cities, Mumbai and Karachi.

The project was initially lunched in 2000, and continued into 2002 as a second phase. It was formulated in the back-ground of the Kargil War in 1999 and the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. Artists from both countries were invited to contribute digitally created photographic or graphic artworks that could be exchanged via email between Karachchi and Mumbai focused on the theme ‘search for peace and understanding.’ They were then mass produced in each city using inexpensive offset printing technology. These prints were put up on walls alongside commercial advertisements, political posters and film posters, shop fronts and street corners.  They were also distributed inserted within newspapers, and some were given as handouts in public spaces. Altogether, there were 21 posters that were mass-printed and distributed.

The second project I want to briefly place in context is the Aham-Puram exhibition spearheaded by Theertha International Artists’ Collective in Colombo through a long term collaboration with a group of artists based in Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Unlike Aar Paar, Aham- Puram did not cross borders of nation states digitally, but physically transgressed equally entrenched and ethnically and politically marked, defended and militarized local borders.  Aham-Puram literally means ‘Insider/ Outsider’, and is a concept borrowed from Tamil Sangam literature, particularly of the second century AD.  The exhibition was held in 2004 at the reconstructed public library of Jaffna whose imposing original structure was burned down by Sinhala hooligans in 1981 marking one of the most significant moments in the long-term mismanagement of interethnic relations in the country. It contained contemporary art from southern Sri Lanka and was conceived to document how southern Sri Lankan artists, most of whom were Sinhalas dealt with issues of conflict, destruction and anxiety, thereby indicating similarities in suffering, anxieties and fears across ethno-cultural and geo-political borders. In addition, it was meant to open up possibilities of art-making that could transform the experiences of the north into new expressions capable of challenging the conventions and boundaries of art. 27 artists from the south participated in the exhibition and contained 72 artworks. It was a very ambitious and challenging project as it was not easy to transport 72 artworks through numerous Sri Lankan military and LTTE check points in contested areas through an active war zone though a faulty and uncomfortable cease-fire was in place at the time.

On top of that, many of the artworks really did not seem like artworks to the average person including the military and LTTE sentries who were keen to inspect them. This was five years before the civil war finally ended; cooperation and logistical operations of this kind had not been attempted before in recent memory, and therefore the event had no precedence as such.

What do these projects indicate when seen from the realm of possibilities within the larger space where we live and work and in our times? In both cases, contested national borders in the former and contested local borders in the latter were transgressed in order to ensure that ideas and manifestations of culture could flow across. In doing so, there was no dependence on or expectations from state structures. Rather, both efforts were undertaken despite, and in spite of hurdles put in place by virulent forms of nationalism sponsored by nation states as well as other actors. What is important to me here is that small groups of citizens opted not to take ‘NO’ for an answer and attempted to explore a set of realities important to them.

I am not advancing a simplistic idea that art or any other form of culture could transform politics as popular logic often presented by politically active artists themselves would articulate. In fact, I agree with Masahiro Ushiroshoji’s  caution against the naïve assumption that art alone can achieve an understanding of other cultures and values or in itself  can heal disjuncture in relationships between societies and people (quoted in Turner 2005: 5). Preziosi and Farago also argue for the rethinking of the power of the artist when they note that “the agency assigned to the artist could vary according to who is speaking, to whom and to what purpose” (2012: 28). Nevertheless, I strongly believe that art and other forms of culture as well as knowledge in the formal sense has a crucial role to play in the realm of politics, in the domain of discourse and within the vistas of our conscience if conceived seriously and produced squarely in the context of the spatial and temporal circumstances of the moment.

So the examples I presented earlier did not obviously transform the larger politics or the intellectual discourses in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka; but in the processes that were conceived and implemented, through the tools that were formulated and the technologies that were adopted to overcome entrenched ground difficulties and attitudes, contested geographies were redrawn and re-imagined, and the flow of ideas across boundaries was made possible, at least momentarily. In what was literally and metaphorically a liminal moment, a few fragments of what we flippantly called South Asia was thought of differently. And what was imagined in that moment was far more palatable than the existing reality.

More importantly, these events indicate the extent of possibilities that exists if the region is to be re-imagined. For me, they map out the landscapes of hope. Surely, we cannot expect such imagination from the political leaders of our region as well as from the nature of hegemonic politics that are presently in place in all the countries in the region.

I think this state of affairs nudges us in another somewhat connected direction. That is, to think about how locality, place and the nation is located and understood in the production of knowledge as well as culture. Though the examples I referred to earlier found as their point of departure political specificities of three countries, those specificities are not strictly local in the sense that they are not confined merely to the peculiarities of places narrowly defined. It is in this context that Rustom Bharucha observes in his book, The Politics of Cultural Practice, “while India is the ‘lens’ through which I see the world, it is also the stimulus that brings together any number of sites that are embedded in an intricate network of social, historical, political, and economic contexts at once localized and mediated by global and national agencies” (2001: 3). And he further notes that these sites are not “predetermined cultural realities but constructions that are held together not so much by what is ‘given’ in any culture, but by what is ‘invented’ through their negotiations of specific interventions, assaults, inputs, and collaborations” (2001: 3).

When perceived from the perspective of these sensibilities, though the civil war in Sri Lanka primarily emerged as a result of the country’s inability to manage its interethnic relations, its subsequent militarization and the devastating end had much to do with India’s monumentally visionless projection of power across national borders, China’s crude interest in acquiring military and political assets far beyond its borders irrespective of local consequences, global trade in arms that had no reference to ethics, and the entire post 9/11 discourse against global terror as scripted, narrated and acted out by the United States’ and the European Union’s political interests.

On the other hand, the political wilderness in the hegemonic thinking of India-Pakistan relations that often seems impossible to overcome stems from the fundamental inability of both countries to grow out of the pains of the partition. But isn’t that inability as local as it may be, also fueled by global power structures from the time of the cold war to the much more chaotic present whose foreign policy agendas were driven to find allies and enemies in different confrontations both military and ideological?

In this overall context, Nikos Papastergiadis observes in his book Spatial Politics: Art, Place and the Everyday, that “artists have always had a strong interest in representing the experience of being in a specific place and responding to current political issues” thereby self-consciously referencing the local (2006). Though difficult to generalize beyond a point, this is what so called political artists including the individuals involved in the examples I have provided had aimed to do.

Nevertheless, Papastergiadis notes further, that “the idea of representing a local place or reacting to political issues can no longer occur in isolation from global concerns” (2006: 3) while “they [meaning the artists] are often very protective and committed to these places they are also deeply aware of their links to global debates and part of international dialogues on the meaning of their practice and its relevance to others” (2006: 3-4). So it is no accident that many of the artists involved in both art events referred to earlier were members of globally linked networks which ensured the flow of not only ideological tenets in aesthetics and politics but also structures of knowledge on methodological skills, technologies and material.

So consciously or unconsciously, these kinds of events which might take as their point of departure something seen and experienced as local, can only be understood more fully within a global or regional setting thereby fundamentally destabilizing what we simplistically think is local. For me, these kinds of moments are road signs that might show us how our region might be re-imagined.

This brings me to the last point I want to make today, which has to do with the nature of formal knowledge we produce in our academic institutions and their references to the lived experiences in our region. I find an unhealthy disjuncture between the two. I am not denying the fact that so called local research, some of which is somewhat serious but much of which are simple descriptions of events are not published and redistributed in our region. My concern has to do with inadequate theorization and conceptualization based on local and regional experiences that may allow us space to interrogate everything from the dynamics of contemporary international relations to identity politics. Whenever I said this in the past, a number of colleagues accused me of harking back to a nativism of a bygone era. This was not my intention then, and it is certainly not my intention now.

Though I find Baratamuni’s Rasa Shastra and Kautilya’s Artha Shastra fascinating as texts, and sometimes even useful in contemporary but limited aesthetic and political contexts, history and the past cannot be seamlessly reestablished in the present. However, is it not possible to think creatively in sociology and international relations, just to take two disciplines I have thought about in this context in recent times? Is it not possible for us to move away from the hegemonic pre-occupation with post-Bismarck diplomacy and predictable conflict resolution theory in international relations thinking in the region? Can’t we re-visit our overdependence on Marx and Foucault as well as an almost pathological obsession with caste, class and now gender in sociology and social anthropology? Is it impossible to find new objects to interrogate which might allow us to rethink our theory as well as the nature of research and knowledge themselves?

In this context, I have often wondered why visual culture and particularly painting, sculpture and installation in our region have not moved beyond art history into areas such as international relations and sociology. To explore this context, let us for a moment consider politics of art as a wider intellectual discourse.  All of us I am sure are quite conversant with the fact that in terms of most conventional systems of reckoning, the correlation or the critical relationship between art and politics is not always clear; often it could be tenuous.

At the same time, simply because socio-political calamities prevail at a particular time and place, that alone does not necessarily mark the emergence of politically expressive art or works that present some form of critical engagement. In fact, precisely due to such calamities and the diminished sense of safety such times might usher in, art could become much more apolitical or even aesthetically sedate.  Susan Landauer notes that periods of cultural and political ferment do not necessarily lead to the production of art “affectively addressing that ferment (2006: 1).  It is in this context that she refers to the lack of politically engaged art among the avant-garde in New York in the 1960s when multiple political crises were impacting not only the United States, but the world in general (Landauer 2006: 1). It is their lackluster response to the Vietnam War that moved Susan Sontag to describe their approach as an “aesthetic of silence” (quoted in 2006: 1).

These kinds of restrictions have been evident not only in the United States, which Landauer refers to but also in many other parts of the world including in our own region.  It is in this context that the work of many contemporary artists in the region has often been labeled as not authentic, anti-national, pro-western and so on within a restricted discourse of nationalism and authenticity. Nevertheless, many well-known contemporary artists in the region have produced work with a certain degree of criticality even if some of them may not consider themselves to be  political artists as such. Sheeba Chachi of India, Naiza Khan and Asma Mundarawala of Pakistan, Begum Lipi Thayeb of Bangladesh, Sujan Chitrakar and Asmeena Ranjit of Nepal and Jagath Weerasinghe, Pradeep Chandrasiri and Chandragupta Tenuwara of Sri Lanka are some of these among many. Caroline Turner’s 2005 book, Art and Social Change paints an extend canvas of this very interesting scenario throughout the wider Asia-Pacific region.

The point I want to make is that art of this kind invariably goes much beyond what is conventionally thought of as art, and this kind of work makes better sense when located in the specificities of their production rather than by merely focusing within the frame.  It is in such a context that Peter Selz observed when referring to German impressionist painting, the need to focus on ideological currents of the time rather than a  mere contextualization within a discourse of formalism  when attempting to situate art within the larger context  of evolving politics (Selz 2006: 25). This consideration impacts art everywhere at all times.

If we accept the reality of this context and the discursive possibilities it offers, is it not possible that Aar Paar and  Aham-Puram projects and others like that could allow us to envision how diplomacy in our time and our region might be refashioned? Is it not possible that the same projects and their contexts might provide us insights on how theories and methodologies in conflict resolution and transformation might be re-thought and localized? Why is it that sociology in our times is so manifestly fearful of research categories such as visual culture which by and large remains with practitioners, in commerce, in the discourses of art historians or simply as a means for aesthetic pleasure?

Cannot contemporary art offer avenues towards comprehending violence, nationalism and the politics of memory in our times as a handful of sociologists, particularly in India have attempted to do? It seems to me that the problem lies within the sedate and almost regressive structures and hierarchies of our academic institutions within which new methodologies and areas for research as well as theorization is actively discouraged; this is also the reason why the domains and methodologies of research and writing considered sacrosanct by the old guard and their contemporary followers are so religiously reified and protected.

To be quite frank, I don’t think main stream social sciences in our region have even thought of exploring what art actually seem like in contemporary contexts. It seems to me that the  title of Donald Preziosi’s and Claire Farago’s recent book, ‘Art is Not What You Think It Is’ (2012) could work as provocation to regional social science enterprise to critically reassess their research objects. They also suggest something interesting that might be quite useful as an idea if practitioners of social sciences in our region opt to revisit what art is, what it does and what it could do in our localities. According to them, art of the future should be imagined as “embodied knowledge practice that is flexible and susceptible to further re-articulation and redefinition” (2012: 160). But they are realistic enough in accepting that “articulating art-making practices as embodied forms of cognition will not in itself solve the dilemmas of the current commodified art system. But such a re-conceptualization of what art does and what that doing itself does, offers a responsible way forward on many fronts” (Preziosi and Farago 2012: 160-161). I hope some of those present here today might direct their work and thinking along these lines in times to come.

This then is part of the reality within which we live and work today in someplace vaguely and flippantly called South Asia. For me, there is much in our circumstances that need to radically change. This is what some of us are trying to do in an entity called South Asian University against many odds. Now, after about one year, surviving multiple crises and many battles that typify the retardation of higher education in our part of the world, we think it is possible for us to introduce interdisciplinary courses by the departments of International Relations and Sociology on such ‘weird’ themes such as the social history of jazz and the politics of food with a focus on our region and beyond. This is mostly because there is no old guard as such and no burdensome institutional traditions of regression within the Faculty of Social Sciences even though beyond it, the specter of conventionality looms high like a familiar and omnipotent but inconsequential poltergeist.

When we think of the region, there are moments in our collective histories that might give us ideas in the present; but clearly, we have to move beyond history. The present on the other hand, is an unending source of anxiety though not necessarily without hope as our experience at South Asia University would indicate. But it should be equally clear that we cannot take the present for granted but often need to move against its hegemonies. So for me, the path towards re-imagining our region and its intellectual traditions is necessarily beyond history and against the present.

Thank you very much for your time and patience.

References

Bharucha, Rustom, 2001. The Politics of Cultural Practice: Thinking through Theatre in the Age of Globalization. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Landauer, Susan, 2006. ‘Countering Cultures: The California Context.’ In, Peter Selz, Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond. San Jose: San Jose Museum of Art.

Papastergiadis, Nikos, 2006. Spatial Aesthetics: Art, Place and the Everyday. London: River Oram Press.

Perera, Sasanka, 2008. ‘Preface.’ In, South Asia Journal of Culture. Colombo: Colombo Institute for the Advanced Study of Society and Culture.

Preziosi, Donald and Claire Farago, 2012. Art is Not What You Think It Is. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Selz, Peter, 2006. Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond. San Jose: San Jose Museum of Art.

Turner, Caroline, 2005. Art and Social Change: Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific. Canberra: Pandanus Book.


[1] The information below on the Aaar Par and Aham-Puram projects are from a keynote address delivered by Anoli Perera in Bangalore in 2008.

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