Category Archives: Skin

Performance Art or Protesting Act?


Performance Art or Protesting Act?

Johny ML


Blackening her face for 125 days was a new aesthetical mode that artist P.S. Jayamol adopted to create a social critique on the discriminated ‘living’ experiences of the Dalit communities. But it seems to have almost backfired on the face of the artist herself. The onus is now on Jayamol to defend her ‘creative social experiment’ which was lauded as a piece of performance art by local as well as international media.

Jayamol’s ‘performance art’ was almost a reaction toward the infamous ‘Rohit Vemula’ incident at the Hyderabad University. Taking ‘black complexion’ as a definitive marker of the Dalit identity, the artist had embarked on her ‘social experiment cum performance art’ by smearing her face and the exposed parts of hands and feet with removable black paint whenever she ventured out of her home/studio.

However, the argumentative Kerala intelligentsia, especially the Dalit intelligentsia, came out strongly against the artistic ‘co-optation’ of the Dalit issues by using her ‘upper caste’ body as a point of departure and made the artist accountable for such superficial ‘sabotage’ of a Dalit ‘agitating and theorising’ spaces. On the other hand, a major section of the artist community questioned Jayamol on the very idea of ‘performance art.’ Their contention was that the artist herself wasn’t clear about whether it was a piece of performance art or a social experiment. They also raised questions via social media regarding the aesthetics of ‘black’ and the politics of the performing body or that of the body in ‘performance.’

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Kerala is no longer the same. The issue of ‘black’ taken up by Jayamol could’ve been lapped up by the intelligentsia had it been done a decade before. Today, the Dalit intelligentsia doesn’t allow any such ‘integrationist,’ ‘patronising’ and ‘co-optation’ moves from anybody. For the spokespeople of the Dalit sections in Kerala, no discursive space that has exclusionary tactics or inclusive approach for the sake of democratic norms is acceptable. What they want today is ‘debate’; they no longer want to be spoken at or spoken to. The clear and precise political positions of the Dalit intellectuals have categorically made it clear to Jayamol that while they accept and appreciate her ‘artistic performance,’ the very idea of sabotaging the discursive space that they’ve been creating for so many decades now cannot be allowed for whatever reasons, including the aesthetical ones. The colour Black is not the only marker of a Dalit or a Dalit’s experience. Black is a general marker for Indians, though the upper castes don’t accept this until they face discrimination at the hands of the real White within the country or elsewhere. While Black being a universal derogatory marker of the evil, marking a Dalit or a Dalit experience with the colour black is almost a reductionist approach. According to the Dalit intelligentsia, blackness has transcended to various daily experiences of the Dalit even in their interactions with patronising integrationists.

It would be a reductionist argument if I say that only a Dalit has the right to speak about the Dalit experiences. However, empathy can’t be a replacement for the real experience. Jayamol’s contention regarding her performance is that it was her position/status as a woman that made her at par with the black skinned Dalit. Though we could argue that women are gendered Dalits, there is a Dalit discourse within the gender discourse itself. Feminisms all over the world have debated the multi-layered experiences of women in various social strata and have come to a conclusion that white feminism can’t speak for black feminism; similarly white upper class feminism can’t speak for the white labour class feminism. Even within Black communities such debates prevail. Jayamol has failed utterly while conceptualizing her performance art, as she hasn’t understood the nuances of Dalit and feminist discourses. Simplistic equations like Dalit= black and Dalit= woman made her almost a laughing stock within the cultural communities all over the world. However, I won’t say that Jayamol as an artist doesn’t have the right to ‘perform’ or ‘conduct’ social experiments on caste system in Kerala using a ‘color’ as a marker. While she has the right to do so, she should also be aware that the word ‘color’ or ‘colored’ itself is a marker of race or caste (in India’s case) and it isn’t just white against black, it is white against all the other colors. In Indian context, it is Brahminism against all other castes created by Brahminism itself.

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When art is treated as a ‘reaction,’ not really as ‘response’ or ‘assimilated experiential responses filtered through intelligence and feeling via adequate methods and materials,’ many Jayamols would happen in our society. Such reactionary artists, as they are driven by the urgency to ‘react’ rather than to respond intelligently, fail to understand the gravity of the situations. The failure that happened to Jayamol’s art project is because of her ‘reactionary’ approach. This performance was a ‘reaction’ to Vemula’s suicide. Her concerns were extended to the unfortunate incidents like ‘Ooraly’s arrest’ and the ‘rape and murder of Jisha.’ Reactionary artists often grab the opportunity of famous as well as infamous social happenings and attach their ‘art-ivism’ to such developments. That’s why Jayamol’s performance looks like a tacky social experiment meant for a ‘desired result’ masquerading as a piece of performance art process. The reactionary verve of the artist blinded her in seeing how artists like Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abromovic and so on used body as a performance tool much before the social experiments intend to shock and eke out a reaction from the ‘shocked’ or ‘offended’ or ‘don’t care’ audiences.

Jayamol isn’t alone. Reactionary art is the latest fad in Kerala where people are looking for publicity by attaching themselves to the latest social events that demand intellectual solidarity from different sections of the society. This is an outcome of the Kochi Muziris Biennale that has been promoting an art culture which is predominantly spectacular, and supporting capitalist art with a rebellious streak. While claiming its leaning toward political art, Kochi Muziris Biennale runs with the pray and hunts with the hunter.

Before I close this article, I would like to tell the artists in Kerala and elsewhere that art is political only up to the level of the political integrity of the artist himself or herself. Painting Mahatma Gandhi with a blackened tooth or talking about Dr. B. R. Ambedkar doesn’t make an artist political. Mere sloganeering and claiming of a political voice or space also doesn’t make an artist political. Even the party affiliation of the artists does not make them political. Picasso was a Communist Party card holder, but apart from the forced reading of ‘Guernica,’ we don’t identify Picasso as a communist. Reactionaries are never political. Whether they are visible or invisible, accepted or rejected, accommodated or thrown out, Dalit political discourses have been there for over a century now in India, and a reactionary artist just cannot snatch that space for whatever reasons. As a Dalit scholar and leader had put in one of the television debates, ‘Jayamol can wash the black colour by evening, but what about us who can’t wash it off and also have to hand it over to the successive generations like a pollutant?’

(Photos: Kalakakshi/Facebook & See-ming Lee ??? SML via Foter.com / CC BY-SA)

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ചായം പൂശിയ ഐക്യദാര്‍ഢ്യത്തിന്റെ ചെമ്പ് തെളിയുമ്പോള്‍

Why this Indian woman is using ‘blackface’ as solidarity

Here’s Why This Young Artist In Kerala Is Covering Herself In Black Paint For 100 Days

Paint Me Black


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    Johny ML

    Johny is a New Delhi-based art historian, critic, curator and writer.

     

 


 

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13 Racist Quotes Gandhi Said About Black People


Not All Peaceful: 13 Racist Quotes Gandhi Said About Black People

All quotes are direct quotations from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. They are taken from his writings and statements during the years he spent working as an attorney in South Africa, before he went back to India in 1915 to fight for independence. Note: “Kaffir” is an offensive term in South Africa considered on par with “n*gger” in the U.S., though in Gandhi’s time some historians claim it was considered more neutral.

Gandhi in his 20s
Gandhi at 19

Indians Dragged Down to the Kaffirs

Before Dec. 19, 1894: “A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”

Gandhi in South Africa
Gandhi in South Africa

Kaffirs Pass Their Lives in ‘Indolence and Nakedness’

Sept. 26, 1896: “Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

Young Gandhi (1)

Kaffirs Would Not Work

Oct. 26, 1896: “There is a bye-law in Durban which requires registration of coloured servants. This rule may be, and perhaps is, necessary for the Kaffirs who would not work, but absolutely useless with regard to the Indians. But the policy is to class the Indian with the Kaffir whenever possible.”

gandhi lawyer

Indians ‘Infinitely Superior’ to the Kaffirs

Before May 27, 1899: “Your Petitioner has seen the Location intended to be used by the Indians. It would place them, who are undoubtedly infinitely superior to the Kaffirs, in close proximity to the latter.”

Boer War, Indian Ambulance Corps (Gandhi is in middle row, fifth from left)
Boer War, Indian Ambulance Corps (Gandhi is in middle row, fifth from left)

Indians Shouldn’t Be Taxed Like Kaffirs

May 24, 1903: “The £3 tax is merely a penalty for wearing the brown skin and it would appear that, whereas Kaffirs are taxed because they do not work at all or sufficiently, we are to be taxed evidently because we work too much, the only thing in common between the two being the absence of the white skin.”

gandhi with friend

Indians Forced to Live with Too Many Kaffirs

Feb. 11, 1904: “I venture to write you regarding the shocking state of the Indian Location. The rooms appear to be overcrowded beyond description. The sanitary service is very irregular, and many of the residents of the Location have been to my office to complain that the sanitary condition is far worse than before. There is, too, a very large Kaffir population in the Location for which really there is no warrant.”

Gandhi with friends
Gandhi with friends

Calamity Coming for Johannesburg

Feb. 15, 1904: “I feel convinced that every minute wasted over the matter merely hastens a calamity for Johannesburg and that through absolutely no fault of the British Indians. Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian Location should be chosen for dumping down all the kaffirs of the town passes my comprehension.”

Gandhi in UK
Gandhi in UK

No Mixing Kaffirs With Indians

Feb. 15, 1904: “Of course, under my suggestion, the Town Council must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.”

gandhi smile

Kaffirs Less Advanced

Sept. 9, 1906: “Even the half-castes and Kaffirs, who are less advanced than we, have resisted the Government. The pass law applies to them as well, but they do not take out passes.”

Gandhi (right) with brother
Gandhi (right) with brother

Even a Kaffir Policeman Can Accost Indians?

June 4, 1907: “Are we supposed to be thieves or free-booters that even a Kaffir policeman can accost and detain us wherever we happen to be going?”

Mahatma+Gandhi+

Kaffirs Can Be Pleased With Toys and Pins

Feb. 2, 1908: “The British rulers take us to be so lowly and ignorant that they assume that, like the Kaffirs who can be pleased with toys and pins, we can also be fobbed off with trinkets.”

Gandhi+spinning

Kaffirs Are Uncivilized Animals

July 3, 1907: “Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised – the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals. Each ward contains nearly 50 to 60 of them. They often started rows and fought among themselves. The reader can easily imagine the plight of the poor Indian thrown into such company!”

Marche_sel

Indians Must Stay Away From Kaffir Women

Dec. 2, 1910: “Some Indians do have contacts with Kaffir women. I think such contacts are fraught with grave danger. Indians would do well to avoid them altogether.”


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Misogynoir: Where Racism and Sexism Meet


Misogynoir: where racism and sexism meet

 | Monday 5 October 2015 

Activists argue that the prejudice against black women is ignored by mainstream feminism. But what are the corrosive stereotypes feeding it?


Serena Williams … victim to Twitter trolls.
 Serena Williams … victim to Twitter trolls. Photograph: IBL/REX Shutterstock

Last week, London nightclub Dstrkt was accused of turning away two young black women for being “too fat” and “too dark”, prompting a swift, strident response on social media. The club was quick to deny the allegations and the council equally quick to express its concern. News outlets went into overdrive, to find “voices” to give the incident context. In the Guardian, one writer explained that young black people often resort to unlikely methods to get into certain clubs – the kind, like Dstrkt in Soho, that aren’t really about the music anyway – while in the Independent, DJ Edward Adoo discussed the pervasive racism of London’s nightclubs as a matter of fact.

But what is alleged to have happened at Dstrkt isn’t just about race; the accused promoter is black. It’s about gender too. Discrimination, prejudice and unchecked fear aimed specifically at black women now has a name: misogynoir.

The term was coined in 2010 by gay black feminist American academic Moya Bailey, who defined it “to describe the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual and popular culture”.

Since then black women – and some men – predominantly on social media, have taken ownership of the term, using it to describe prejudice experienced in a range of contexts.

“Misogynoir provides a racialised nuance that mainstream feminism wasn’t catching,” says black feminist commentator, Feminista Jones. “We are talking about misogyny, yes, but there is a specific misogyny that is aimed at black women and is uniquely detrimental to black women.”

She says it is both about racial and gender hatred and can be perpetuated by non-black people and by black men – it is the latter, Jones says, she experienced the most often. “In my campaigning on street harassment, I have been targeted because I am a black woman who is vocal. They don’t go to anybody from Hollaback or Stop Street Harassment [campaigns run by white women] … they will say I’m a traitor and call me a tool for white supremacy … just because I’m calling out their very targeted misogynoir.”

It’s not ideal, as the comedian The Kid Mero pointed out last week, “We gotta make up better terms for oppressive shit cuz ‘misogynoir’ sounds like a scandalous Cirque du Soleil Vegas show”. Still, the term has spread to Britain, where most recently, writer Maya Goodfellow discussed misogynoir on the online platform Media Diversified, in reference to the abuse Diane Abbott has received since her appointment as shadow international development secretary. Goodfellow concluded that “a black woman who challenges the status quo and won’t apologise for doing so will always be judged unfairly. Because too many, subconsciously, feel it’s not up to people ‘like her’ to be the voice of opposition.”

Of course, detractors will inevitably counter that bouncers abuse their power all the time and people of all races and gender have at some point been refused entry. And that as a politician, Abbott is fair game for ridicule and scorn. Both of those points are acceptable, but neither explain or invalidate the experiences of hostility that sit at the intersection between sexism and racism.

Diane Abbott … new job criticised.
 Diane Abbott … new job criticised. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

At the heart of this concept are two corrosive stereotypes. The first characterises black people as animalistic, uncontrolled or uncontrollable, and is in part responsible for the concepts of the “angry or strong black woman”. These are used to deny pain and legitimise offence: “Oh, that unfair treatment you’ve received at work? You’ll get over it, you’re a strong black woman.” The second is that black women’s bodies are hypersexualised: the “sexy black woman” is all tits and twerking.

Few people in the public eye seem to have experienced this problem quite as much as Serena Williams. To the United States Tennis Association president, Katrina Adams – and countless others – Williams is the “greatest athlete of all time”. John McEnroe recently described her as “I think, the greatest player that ever lived”. But to the Twitter trolls she’s “a gorilla”, “more manly than any man”. As Marc Bain wrote in Quartz: “Only sexism and racism can explain why Serena Williams doesn’t earn more in endorsements.”

Misogynoir may also explain how American actor Nancy Lee Grahn can praise Patricia Arquette for using her Oscar speech to speak out about gender inequalities, but ridicule Viola Davis for doing the same thing, saying to the former: “Use your win to champion women. Make your moment matter. I like that.” But to the latter: “None of us get the respect we deserve. Emmys not venue for racial opportunity.”

Zalika Miller, Reisha, Tasha and Lin Mei on their way to Dstrkt nightclub in the West End
 Zalika Miller, Reisha, Tasha and Lin Mei on their way to Dstrkt nightclub in the West End Photograph: Lin Mei

It is because mainstream feminism has so often failed to recognise and include the experience of black and transgender women that terms such as misogynoir have been able to flourish in the shadow of feminism’s third wave. Grahn has since apologised on Twitter.

But the intention was never to use jargon to exclude the majority, in order to create safe space for the minority. Instead, argues Jones, the word is supposed to start a broader conversation. “If people want to dismiss it as jargon, it’s because they don’t want to be part of the conversation. [The term] is for everybody. We [black women] can talk until we are blue in the face but if nobody else is listening and nobody else is willing to work to make change, it really doesn’t do much for us.”

But misogynoir simply connects a new generation to the gap in the discourse on rights that abolitionist Sojourner Truth spoke of in her 1851 speech, Ain’t I a Woman. Then she told a gathering of feminists about her own needs that went unmet “betwixt the negro in the south and the white woman in the north, all talking about rights”. It has only taken 164 years to give Truth’s predicament a name. Here’s to hoping we don’t spend the next 164 discussing the term, while continuing to make excuses for the discrimination it describes.


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When India Proposed a Casteist Solution to South Africa’s Racist Problem


When India Proposed a Casteist Solution to South Africa’s Racist Problem

BY  ON 04/04/2016 • DIPLOMACY


‘Private and secret’ memo in the South African diplomatic archives reveals an astonishing proposal that India made in 1949.

Indian settlers in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On October 24, 1949, South Africa’s representative at the UN, G.P. Jooste, sent a ‘private and secret’ memorandum to his headquarters in Pretoria. The opening paragraph of the memo read:

“I have to inform you that shortly after my minute of September 23rd, Sir Benegal [Narising Rau] saw us and explained that his government had authorised this [meeting], at his own request, to discuss the matter with us on a non-committal informal basis. He therefore suggested exploratory conversations.”

My eyes lit up as I scanned through this document at the National Archives in Pretoria. Until then, most books on India-South Africa relations (there aren’t too many) that detail these early years of independence had given me, page after page, a story of massive confrontation – almost mythical in proportion – between India and South Africa in the late-1940s at the UN. So quite naturally, an informal dinner meeting between two top UN diplomats of countries that were at each other’s throats excited me. But as I read on, the excitement turned into bewilderment for Rau had proposed a casteist solution to a racist problem, alerting me to an issue that has been almost singularly stripped from any narratives of Indian foreign policy – caste.

One of the reasons B.R. Ambedkar had cited in his resignation from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet in October 1951 was his exclusion from decision making on foreign policy. In the first couple of decades of India’s independence, the Indian foreign service (IFS) was the most elite of all civil services (which, as a joke went, suffered from Menon-gitis). But beyond the (Brahmin) men (in the first 10 years of recruitment into the IFS, only three out of 62 selections were women), how did casteist ideas filter into foreign policy discourse? In general, what role do caste dynamics play in the formulation of foreign policy? We have never known, because foreign policy as a matter of ‘national interest’ is deemed above domestic squabbles, such as caste. Yet, the fact is, diplomacy is carried out by diplomats, and their social milieu influences not only their views about what constitutes ‘national interest’, but also who constitutes the ‘nation’. No study has ever been done on this, but perhaps this document will prove a valuable entry point.

Let us return to our tale then.

Arrival of the first Indians in Natal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A proposal for caste-based segregation

Less than three years earlier, from October to December 1946, the Indian delegation to the UN, led by Vijayalakshmi Pandit, had carried out a diplomatic David vs Goliath with perhaps the most respected statesman of the world then – Jan Smuts. The man who had “inserted human rights” into the preamble of the UN Charter left New York with “the honour, the power and the glory, all vanished,” wrote a sympathetic biographer, due to an “avalanche of condemnation” heaped on him by the Indian delegation on the question of human rights. Most prominent of these was Pandit herself, who called Smuts out for his hypocrisy on the treatment of Indians in South Africa.

On December 8, soon after an impassioned speech from Pandit, who, with a tear rolling down her eye, had appealed to “the conscience of the World Assembly,” India secured a two-thirds majority on its resolution against South Africa. India’s diplomatic assault had left Smuts to rue: “I am suspected of being a hypocrite because I can be quoted on both sides”. By sheer force of conviction, India had placed the issue of racism on the UN agenda.

B.N. Rau. Credit: Photo Division, Government of India

By late-1949, through a continued strategy of shaming South Africa at the UN, India had been able to secure a preliminary roundtable for talks with Pretoria. Perhaps to create a positive environment for talks, in September 1949 Rau deliberately used a milder tone in his opening statement on South Africa’s treatment of Indians, and let his counterpart, Jooste, know that his statement “may be regarded as a compromise”. A former Indian civil servant who also played a key role in drafting India’s constitution, Rau was India’s permanent representative to the UN. Known as ‘the saint of the United Nations’, he along with Nasrollah Entezam of Iran and Lester Pearson of Canada, formed the ‘Three Wise Men’ group at the UN in those early years. Under Rau, the Indian delegation was once described by Alastair Cooke as “messengers of peace casting sweetness and light around” in The Times.

Rau sought Jooste out for an informal dinner meeting, at the behest of the Indian government, and Jooste was told by Pretoria “to be most careful literally to say more or less what is proposed”.

In the meeting, Jooste, accompanied by his deputy J. Jordaan, kept to his brief, detailing South Africa’s position on the issue. Rau, however, let his tongue fly. Showing a rather “unexpected measure of frankness,” Rau began with confessing, Jooste noted, that ‘the feverish attempts in his country to destroy all caste inequalities were resulting in what in actual practice amounted to discrimination against the erstwhile ruling castes such as the Brahmins, to which he belongs’. Interestingly, this confession came just over a month before the pro-caste equality draft of the Indian constitution was introduced in the constituent assembly. In introducing the draft constitution, ironically, Ambedkar went on to specially credit Rau for his sterling work in preparing the draft.
Going further, Rau stated that “Indians who went to South Africa did not belong to the best type  and that, as in Burma, they may have exploited the local population and given India a bad name”. He added that the way the South African government treated them “might be fully justified and that in fact India would not mind discrimination against our local Indian community if only it was not based on racial lines”.

In his earlier discussions with Canadian authorities, Rau stated, he had proposed that Canada should allow “a small group of select nationals, say 20, to migrate to Canada where after a period of time they would be granted full rights of citizenship”. (Indian diplomats had indeed made such a suggestion to the Canadians, but the figure was 200) Based on this precedent, Rau enquired whether a similar proposal of citizenship to “a small number, say 10, of the cultured and best type of Indians” could work for South Africa “as a token to the world that the racial equality of Indians was recognised” by that country.

The Jooste Memorandum

It is clear from the contextual reference to Rau’s lament about “discrimination against erstwhile ruling castes like Brahmins” that his euphemistic reference to Indians of the  “best type” was really a proxy for the upper castes.

Effectively, what Rau had proposed was that if a small number of upper caste Indians were admitted as equal citizens in South Africa, this would in principle mean that there was no racial discrimination against Indians and give South Africa a way out in rechristening racism as a form of minority protection. Rau’s argument was based on the premise that upper caste Indians constituted the Indian nation in its best form, and thus only they were its true representatives. Lower caste Indians were, in short, not Indian enough, and hence how they were treated did not matter.

Rau assured Jooste that as soon as South Africa did anything to “remove discrimination based on racial considerations,” India would end its opposition to the country. He further added that India was acting as a “bulwark … against Communism in the East” and had taken a leadership position, and hence, “could not accept the position of being the inferior race,” and the South African application of the racial criteria was “playing into the hands of the communists who, today, were representing themselves as the liberators of the oppressed and the champions of freedom and liberty”.

The reaction from Pretoria to this memo was cautious. They refused to entertain the idea of making caste-based, and not race-based, distinctions. Ironically, year after year, it was apartheid South Africa that highlighted, at the UN, India’s hypocrisy on racial issues by deeming casteism as a form of racism.

Casteism in foreign policy

So, how does a historian of India’s foreign policy read this particular memo written by Jooste?

Indians in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One standard requirement would be to find out what Rau had to say about this conversation in his missives to Nehru or the Ministry of External Affairs. Such a letter doesn’t exist in Rau’s papers at the Nehru Memorial Museum Library, neither can one find anything in the National Archives. Short of conclusive proof, we are forced to ask the next best question: how much does one trust the authenticity of another person’s account? If it is a ‘private and secret’ memo of an external affairs department that is crucial in formulating foreign policy, there is a strong case for believing that this conversation actually happened in this form.

Or perhaps Rau was bluffing the South Africans to get a desired deal. We would never know for sure, although such a proposal of entry of just 10 Indians would almost certainly not work, given the strong struggle South African Indians were then waging within that country. Rau, though, had either misquoted or purposely brought down the numbers in the Canadian case from 200 to 20, possibly to make it more acceptable to South Africans.

The ‘small number’ argument had, in fact, also been used by Gandhi in his struggles in South Africa where he had asked for six Indians to be allowed to enter the Transvaal district, as an in principle acceptance of Indians as racially equals to Europeans. But Rau’s emphasis on ‘select nationals’ chosen from the ‘best type’ clearly referred to allowing only upper caste Indians, in order to sideline the racial argument. Although India’s argument on racial discrimination at the UN was only limited to discrimination faced by Indians – not Africans –  in South Arica until 1952, it was broadly justified by arguing that including Africans would step on South Africa’s sovereignty and thus strategically weaken India’s anti-racial struggle. But Rau’s suggestions, clearly, don’t help in using that explanation either, since he believed that racial discrimination in general could continue as long as it didn’t ‘look’ racial towards Indians.

This, of course, gives credence to the argument that India’s anti-racism has always had limited sympathy with Africans, and thus is often hypocritical. But Rau’s diplomacy reveals something more: that Indian diplomacy has also, in ways subtler than stark, used casteist framings. And accordingly, while caste has, justifiably, been scaled up as an issue of national importance, recently its remnants need to be exposed even in the most sacred of our institutions. Foreign policy is certainly one.


Vineet Thakur is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg.

The making of India’s modernity


The making of India’s modernity

Reviewed publication: Arnold, D. 2015. Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226269375


In terms of thematic exploration, David Arnold’s book on technological modernity in colonial India, which covers the period between the 1880s and the 1960s, is seminal. In the current historiography, there is hardly any book which includes sewing machine, bicycle, rice mill, and typewriter in one single account that tells us the story of modern India that unfolded at the intersections of technology, state and society.1

Two important aspects related to the theoretical positioning of the book need brief comments. One relates to the scale of technology; and two, the scale of history and history writing.

Technology: A function of scale & site of social issues

On the first: the book makes a very pertinent claim that “Technology did not need to be big to be significant, audible, visible, and everyday” (10). Arnold claims that much of the existing historiography in South Asia has remained focussed on railways, irrigation (and very recently on telegraph) as main technological movers of the nineteenth century. Against this, he presents his justification of studying “everyday technologies” because “they frequently possessed an intimacy, a companionable association with family life and domestic existence, which bigger machines lacked” (11-12).

Arnold rightly observes that the little that exists on the history of technology, which includes his own earlier works, has remained focussed on big-scale technology. They explore the big politics of imperialism, nationalism and capitalism. There is, therefore, a need to look at small-scale technologies. However, intimacies, domesticities, and other such quotidian markers/formations are not necessarily a function of the scale of technologies. If a group of girls riding on bicycles sang away, quite literally, their free-spirited pedalling across the serene landscape as one towards love and freedom which no one should try to stop (the famous song main chali, main chali from the movie Padosan, 1968) then almost two decades earlier a song picturised in a railway carriage amusingly chronicled the enactment of some other everyday practices such as sleeping, playing cards and not least eating (the song rail mein jiya mora from the movie Ankhen, 1950). Further, Bhojpuri folksongs from the early twentieth century on railways and steamships (the big technologies) very vividly depicted the intimate everyday relationship around conjugality, family life, and domestic existence (or lack of it).

The argument that technology did not need to be big to be significant is absolutely valid, but equally true (and I assume Arnold will agree as he himself uses Nirad Chaudhuri’s reminiscences of the sound of steamers, pp17-18) is that the ‘everyday’ does not need to be necessarily located in something that is plebeian, subaltern, and small. Everyday is not a function of scale. Railways and sewing machines were both part of the same everyday – at individual and social levels. And the colonialists/corporatists displayed the same kind of prejudices in relation to both: as Singer agents thought Indians incapable to use their machines, so did the agents of railway companies a few decades earlier. If Singer claimed to have helped Indians move towards better civilization, so did the power of steam.

Influenced by the ‘social construction of technology’ theory (SCOT), Arnold’s second theoretical intervention is to rescue the social history of these technologies, which were all imported in their provenance, from an instrumental relationship of transfer and diffusion from the West to the East. This relates to the scale of history and history writing in which he admits of not looking at the technical make-up of the machine, but in exploring how they became part of the social and political processes of change in specific localities; how in India they became carriers as well as sites of issues such as race, class and gender (12).

All technologies and commodities covered in this study were global in their reach and introduced in India largely but not exclusively through the network of imperialism, but their ‘creative appropriation’ in different settings gave them context-specific meanings. It is the context of the social which is at the heart of this book, which ties the global, the imperial and the local in an un-formulaic way. Given the ascendancy of formulaic ways of doing global history through connections and comparisons, I find this approach of not letting the ‘social’ go adrift refreshingly important (see the brief comment on 38). Once again, it must be stated that the cultural adaptation of technology is not specific to small or big.

Global technologies & colonial state

The foreignness of these technologies invariably leads Arnold to raise the question of their relation with colonial state power. Most of the big and small technologies were thought of first serving the state power. He says, unlike western societies where commerce, industry, and civil society played a more dominant role in fashioning technological modernity, in India the colonial state remained the leading user and publicist of these technologies (148).

Bicycles were distributed to help policing, typewriters in government offices and courts to speed up administrative work and efficiency, cars and telephones to speed up the movement of administrative personnel and information. The state was not the producer; in fact, within the ironic relationship between imperial protectionism and laissez-faire, American products (Singer sewing machines, Remington typewriters and Ford automobiles) dominated the Indian market. But the state significantly benefitted from this. These technologies strengthened the ‘inner life of the state’. And they did so in phases. During the Second World War, for instance, the expansionary nature of the state in terms of being able to regulate the usages of these technologies was quite marked.

Yet this is only one part of the story. The social and political re-calibration of these technologies to either subvert the state power or to question the existing social identity was equally important and forceful, which Arnold lucidly demonstrates. Women working for communist organisations and low-caste villagers using bicycles, typewriters used for disseminating anti-colonial nationalist aspirations – they all point at colonial control that was leaky if not absent. They all show that the life of technology was beyond the simplistic control of the state. They all indicate that different social groups used these technologies to articulate the idea of modernity and modern self-hood.

Nature of technological modernity

What are the axes and scope of this technological modernity? Exploration of race, gender and class is obviously one way of knowing the nature of this modernity, which this book like many others especially on a colonial society, does. Numbers definitely are not on the side of showing the ‘quantitative’ axes of this modernity. In spite of the rapidity with which these commodities became part of Indian life, they were still used rather sparsely if compared with figures of other countries. Arnold is aware of this dilemma and hence the way out for him is to underscore the social, experiential and utopian articulations of this modernity. The mix of social life captured through visuals, literary works and films is interesting. The articulation of this modernity is tied to the manifold effects these different technologies produced on diverse social groups and classes.

Moving beyond the state and the enterprising initiatives of some Indians selling, part manufacturing, repairing, and assembling these products, Arnold leads us into the world of users and consumers. Did new technology such as sewing machines and typewriters require new skills? Who were the people that moved in to operate them? Did they lead to displacement of existing groups and skills? One gets glimpses of answers into these questions. Bicycles empowered rural folk and elite women; typewriters mainly remained within the confines of Anglo-Indian women in offices and scribal Indian men outside the courts; rice mills took away the work of poor women; and sewing machines tapped into the existing skills of darzis, but also became part of the reformist discourse on ‘new women/new domesticity’ of the late nineteenth century. The last enlarged the scope of domestic work for women.

Yet, many of the answers to the question of modernity are just about at the exploratory level. Bicycle races fitted into the notion of Bengali manliness, but did it also contribute to the emergence of a new sensibility and aesthetics of landscape, space and movement, and if yes, how? Did the new modernity based upon widespread use of sewing machines create a new culture of mass production and consumption? Was it linked to, if any, the emergence of new ‘modern’ fashion? How did the earlier individualized notion of work which darzis performed on the veranda of their masters/employers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transform into a shop based work culture of the later period, in which these people were not the owners of their tools? Did technological modernity bring alienation and firmer labour control? Passages from literary sources on sewing machines (141-42), and work-related changes brought about by rice mills (134-40), are illuminating sections.

Typewriters brought bureaucratic utility and speed; it “transformed bureaucratic work regimes”; transformed the “ways in which novelists, journalists, politicians, and administrators pursued their daily work”, but exactly how is not clear (56-7). I would imagine for a long time the typewriter functioned as a ‘copying machine’ producing the ‘fair’ and ‘official’ version of hand-written letters, petitions, judgements, news, and even academic theses. In fact, this was true for early day computers as well (people wrote on the paper and got it ‘typed’ with the only but significant difference of editing on the screen, which theoretically meant fewer errors in the final print, but only theoretically). It has only very recently happened that the machine has become an accompaniment of the user in the same way as her lunch box or smart phone are. The question remains how did the typewriter change, or not, the processes of thinking, reading, writing, and reporting. Everyday Technology can mark the beginning of a more systematic tapping into sources to unearth the complex social relationships around these technologies.

Conflict and resistance

If modernity is a product of conflictual claim and counter-claim making, then the history of technological modernity should also reflect the same – conflicts between social groups and classes. Arnold says that “there is little evidence of significant cultural resistance to sewing machines” (49), but what about resistance based upon capital and skill? Did the traditional catchment of darzis’ work and clientele suffer because now women started sewing at home (and quite massively, with vernacular magazines publishing essays on how to sew different types of materials) or did the expanding market compensate for it (pp. 50-51)? The competitive clerical job market revolved around the skill of typewriting; what kind of social conflicts did it lead to? Arnold prefers to look at the history of interaction between technology and society through assimilation and acculturation; I wonder if there is more to be said about conflicts and dissonances; to be fair, they are not absent (most directly to be seen in the sections on traffic and roads, 162-64 and 167-71), but not adequately presented either.

Based largely on the biases for big technologies, Arnold revisits the temporal divide of technological modernity in India. For him, seemingly it was not the period of the 1830s-1850s that saw railways, steamers, and telegraph creating a modern India (a bias that has its obvious origins in colonial claims), but rather the period between 1905 and 1914 – marked by the Swadeshi movement – that constituted the technological watershed. Not only had the influx of everyday commodities started in this period but also the imaginaries of modern India. It is this extensive engagement with technology in both its supporting and opposing viewpoints (ranging between Saha and Nehru on one side and Gandhi on the other), that Arnold sees the constitution of modernity. The study of India’s modernity – derivative or otherwise – is being constantly traced from the times of the ‘Bengal Renaissance’ to that of the railways, Macaulay, census, ghore/bahire, and hybrid Bengali cuisines. Now it has reached the shores of everyday machines, technologies and commodities. If it is a mere addition to the set of ideas on how Indians thought of themselves to be ‘modern’, or a potential new framework that would recast the historiographical thinking, is too early to say.

Make in India

Finally, at least in two ways, this book reverberates with contemporary Indian politics over technology, and the social perception of Indian skill, and thus unwittingly adds an interesting historical layer to it. Foreign capital and the current governmental slogan of ‘Make in India’ are not very far from how American firms like Dunlop promoted their products as “made in India, by Indians, for Indians” (100). There is no dichotomy between nationalistic manufacturing boost that this present government is spearheading (with the logo of the lion) and the inflow of foreign capital. In fact, the mechanical robust lion can only survive with a financial begging bowl in his mouth. Arnold’s treatment of the Swadeshi phase shows historical antecedents. Second, from repairing cycles on street pavements to that of fixing typewriters (and in the current age of unlocking and repairing all sorts of mobile phones), this book tells us that there is a serious history to be told about how India has achieved its worldwide status of ‘jugaad economy’. The production of many a commodity was stifled under colonialism – is this the reason that the skill got channelized into fixing, assembling, repairing and selling, but not innovatively producing?


Nitin Sinha, Senior Research Fellow, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin (nitin.sinha@zmo.de).


Occupy Black Lives: TWO MOVEMENTS


OCCUPY BLACK LIVES: NOTES ON TWO MOVEMENTS

January 29, 2016

Stan Grant’s Speech on Racism


Stan Grant’s speech on racism and the Australian dream as part of IQ2 debate goes viral

Updated:25 Jan 2016, 5:20am


A powerful speech by Indigenous journalist Stan Grant in which he says the “Australian dream is rooted in racism” has gone viral.

  • Grant spoke about the impact of colonisation and discrimination in Sydney
  • He said when Adam Goodes was booed “it said to us again, you’re not welcome”
  • Speech viewed more than 736,000 times on Facebook and 15,000 times on YouTube

Grant addressed an audience in Sydney on the impact of colonisation and discrimination as part of the IQ2 debate series held by The Ethics Centre.

The speech was made last year but was published online just a week before Australia Day. It has resonated with Australians, having been viewed more than 736,000 times on Facebook and 15,000 times on YouTube.

In his address Grant was asked to argue for or against the topic “Racism is destroying the Australian Dream”, and said racism was at its heart.

Grant opened his speech acknowledging when AFL player Adam Goodes was “hounded” and booed, and told “he was not Australian”.

“When we heard those boos, we heard a sound that was very familiar to us … we heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival,” Grant said.

“We heard the howl of the Australian dream, and it said to us again, you’re not welcome.”

He said we sung of the Australian dream, “Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free”.

“My people die young in this country,” Grant said.

“We die 10 years younger than the average Australian, and we are far from free. We are fewer than 3 per cent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 per cent — a quarter of those Australians locked up in our prisons.

“And if you’re a juvenile it is worse, it is 50 per cent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school.”

He referenced a famous poem from Dorothea Mackellar, saying his people’s rights “were extinguished because we were not here according to British law”.

“I love a sunburned country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges,” Grant quoted from the poem My Country.

“It reminds me that my people were killed on those plains. We were shot on those plains, diseases ravaged us on those plains.”

Grant has received praise online, including from journalists Hugh Riminton and Fran Kelly, as well as Mike Carlton who described it as a “Martin Luther King moment” on Twitter.

He said he had succeeded in life not because of, but in spite of, the Australian dream.

“My grandfather on my mother’s side, who married a white woman, who reached out to Australia, lived on the fringes of town until the police came, put a gun to his head, bulldozed his tin humpy, and ran over the graves of the three children he buried there. That’s the Australian dream,” Grant said.

“And if the white blood in me was here tonight, my grandmother, she would tell you of how she was turned away from a hospital giving birth to her first child because she was giving birth to the child of a black person.

“The Australian dream. We are better than this.”


 

Ta-Nehisi Coates: ‘In America, it is Traditional to Destroy the BLACK Body’


Ta-Nehisi Coates: ‘In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body’

Ta-Nehisi Coates | Sunday 20 September 2015 


Son,

The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are. I think of that summer that you may well remember when I loaded you and your cousin Christopher into the back seat of a rented car and pushed out to see what remained of Petersburg, Shirley Plantation, and the Wilderness. I was obsessed with the civil war because six hundred thousand people had died in it. And yet it had been glossed over in my education, and in popular culture, representations of the war and its reasons seemed obscured. And yet I know that in 1859 we were enslaved and in 1865 we were not, and what happened to us in those years struck me as having a certain amount of import. But whenever I visited any of the battlefields, I felt like I was greeted as if I were a nosy accountant conducting an audit and someone was trying to hide the books.

I don’t know if you remember how the film we saw at the Petersburg battlefield ended as though the fall of the Confederacy were the onset of a tragedy, not jubilee. I doubt you remember the man on our tour dressed in the grey wool of the Confederacy, or how every visitor seemed most interested in flanking manoeuvres, hardtack, smooth-bore rifles, grapeshot, but virtually no one was interested in what all of this engineering, invention and design had been marshalled to achieve. You were only 10 years old. But even then I knew that must trouble you, and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as Christian charity. But robbery is what this is, what it always was.

At the onset of the civil war, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi river valley and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. The first shot of the civil war was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” declared Mississippi as it left the union, “the greatest material interest in the world.”

Coates with his son, Samori, in the summer of 2013.
 Coates with his son, Samori, in the summer of 2013.

But American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honour and élan. This lie of the civil war is the lie of innocence, is the Dream. Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories. I, like every kid I knew, loved The Dukes of Hazzard. But I would have done well to think more about why two outlaws, driving a car named the General Lee, must necessarily be portrayed as “just some good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm” – a mantra for the Dreamers if ever there was one. But what one “means” is neither important nor relevant. It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labour – it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible – that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And these fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.

It had to be blood. It had to be nails driven through a tongue and ears pruned away. It had to be the thrashing of a kitchen maid for the crime of churning the butter at a leisurely clip. It could only be the employment of carriage whips,tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights or whatever might be handy to break the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation. And the bodies were an aspiration, lucrative as Indian land, a veranda, a beautiful wife, or a summer house in the mountains. For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break bodies was the mark of civilisation. “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is – the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that “below”. That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism. But because they believe themselves to be white, they would rather countenance a man choked to death on film under their laws. And they would rather subscribe to the myth of Trayvon Martin, slight teenager, hands full of candy and soft drinks, transforming into a murderous juggernaut. And they would rather see Prince Jones followed through three jurisdictions and shot down for acting like a human.

Coates during his time as a student at Howard University in Washington DC.
 Coates during his time as a student at Howard University in Washington DC.

It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country. It breaks too much of what we would like to think about ourselves, our lives, the world we move through and the people who surround us. The struggle to understand is our only advantage over this madness. By the time I visited those battlefields, I knew that they had been retrofitted as the staging ground for a great deception, and this was my only security, because they could no longer insult me by lying to me. I knew – and the most important thing I knew was that, somewhere deep with them, they knew too. The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of the world under your control.

I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe themselves white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real – when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities – they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees that is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.

I am speaking to you as I always have – as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologise for human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people feel comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.


This is an edited extract from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published by Text Publishing (£10.99). Click here to order a copy for £8.79