Narratives of Belonging in Borderlands Through Perspectives of Indigeneity and Visual Representations

Title: 1142 | Narratives of Belonging in Borderlands Through Perspectives of Indigeneity and Visual Representations
Area: South Asia
Stream: Anthropology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Suryasikha Pathak, Assam University, India (organizer, presenter)
Kaustuv Saikia, Directorate of Museums, Government of Assam, India (presenter)
Shaheen S. Ahmed, Monash University, Australia (presenter)
Madhumita Sengupta, Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, India (chair, discussant)


The advancement in visual technologies and its subsequent use in anthropology has been able to construct an ethnographic observation with modalities that have denied the ethnographic present and ignored the historical context of its own processes of production. Consequently, series of representation(s) were generated which contradicted the historical reality under which those representations were produced. There emerged a convention which generated imagery which supplemented the already predominant positivist textual trope of exclusively stereotyping non-western and indigenous communities.
Visual markers of culture were entered into a shared, observational, contextual, liminal space - of representation which were a product of decontextualized social and cultural elements which negotiated through the meanings of social events and processes for the 'observer' and the 'observed'; the 'photographer' and the 'photographer'; the 'curator' and the 'curated'.
This panel aims to engage with the concept of indigeneity with a triad of perspectives. The first would be from the lens of ethnographic/anthropolical constructions. The second is assertions of indigeneity and identity through political movements and a sense of belonging to the soil. The third would be through the legalistic framework of indigeneity in terms of constitutional definitions and definitions provided by world bodies like the United Nations. This triad of analysis might overlap in the individual papers in the proposed panel. This panel aims to look at the constructions of visual markers that got associated with the concept of indigeneity with the politics of Assam, both colonial and postcolonial.

Panel Abstracts:
Capturing the "Savage' and the "Civilized': Seeing Through the Lens of the American Baptist Mission
Oriental discourses' simplified construction of natives as 'primitives' and 'savages' was further reified and nuanced with the advent of missionary accounts. These images were further strengthened as missionary started taking pictures from the foreign fields. The success stories of the foreign field were regularly sent home and those were used to evoke social and financial support for the foreign mission cause. the missionary discourses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century marked out differences between the new converts and the indigenous population. The impact of mission and the missionaries were measured in terms of 'civilizational progresses' made by both groups.This contrast was represented in the missionaries' works among the 'heathen' population and studies in photographs. Photographs published in mission magazines were used as a tool of differentiation. These photographs were highlighted as evidence of 'civilized' and 'uncivilized' and 'Christian' and 'heathen' dichotomy. Whereas the indigenous population was largely constructed as 'savage', 'head-hunting', 'primitive', 'naked', the new converts were presented as 'civilized', 'educated', 'clean', 'clothed'. Images also upheld the notion of unity of the Christian identity as opposed to heterogeneous 'tribal' identities of various communities. It served to make the missionaries' work seem like an adventure, a brave struggle not just on the topographical jungle but also metaphorically the jungle of 'wild' unbelievers. It served to shock and also to move the pity and the piety of the postindustrial west and reaffirm their belief in superiority and necessity of such works.

Displaying the Indigenous: Museums and the Politics of Viewing in Northeast India
The Museum imagined and represented the colonized within a restricted frame of reference to create organized classifications. The Museum has the potential to influence public memory and represented official narratives about 'tribes' and 'communities'. These narratives manifested encounters of the 'colonial' and 'national' memory building projects. This process is rather an attempt to preserve living peoples in an ethnologically reconstructed image of the past as if the people's interpretation of their own social history has no meaning.The generalized traditional caste-based understanding of the peoples of India was somehow not befitting the colonial understanding of the people in Assam. The presence of a vibrant and relatively powerful 'tribal' culture and population further complicated the situation. Anthropology was the saviour here for the 'ethnographic state' which effectively stratified the society as 'castes' and 'tribes' opposed to each other which eased British governance. This stark division also meant that colonial initiative of signifying selected objects of art and archaeology as evidences of a perceived high culture with indo-Aryan, pan-Indian routes encouraged the Assamese gentry to detach themselves from the visual marker of 'primitivity'. This paper aims to illustrate that representations of ethnographic difference created by colonial anthropologists and administrators in characterizing certain communities as 'wild', 'savage' and others as 'civilized' acquired a visual culture through museum displays which continued to place communities in confined glass cages of designated sphere of attributed ascribed to them thereby robbing them of their own agency.

Locating the memory of the Assamese Muslim Woman as a Social and Cultural Citizen in Popular Cultural Representations
When Ina Blom (2017) makes the argument that society is memory and memory is about recognition and identity, I am compelled by my subject position to figure out the location of the Assamese Muslim Woman in the political, social and cultural discourse of Assam. This process to locate the positionality has been affected by a glitch. The glitch is in the non-representation of the native and the local in popular culture, media and even literature. This is quite an unique case of the visible being rendered invisible. This ' absent-presence', to borrow from Derrida is something of an essentialization of the visula representations when we speak about Assamese Muslims. Derrida famously said, "There is nothing outside the text" in his important work, Of Grammatology (1997) while engaging with the dialectics of the present and the absent. If the visual is the text, then where is the Assamese Muslim in a everyday discourse? Just as visibility and the voice of the subaltern groups have become the focus of postcolonial studies since the emergence of the subaltern studies group, the visibility, memory and social identity of the Assamese Muslim is a pressing question in our contemporary times

This panel is on Wednesday - Session 03 - Room 4

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