How a Conference Made Me Ponder . . . (about the appropriateness/inappropriateness of the title of my thesis).
(UPDATED - 2ND JULY, 2006)
The India-UK Academic Network has produced the University of Calcutta and the University of Leeds link whereby there have been academic exchanges between the two universities. My Ph. D. supervisor, Dr. Santanu Majumdar, visited Leeds last year in June and presented a paper on Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. In October of that year Professor Tapati Gupta and Dr. Sinjini Banerjee visited the English faculty of Leeds University and spoke on Jatra and Indian cinema respectively. On the return visit three lecturers have come to Calcutta. Dr. Jay Prosser presented a paper at the International Seminar organized by the Department of English, University of Calcutta, on January 10 and 11, 2006. The topic of the seminar was “Imperial Constructions and Indigenous Self-fashioning”. Noted academicians who participated in the seminar were Prof. John Drakakis (University of Stirling), Prof. Indira Ghose (University of Berlin), Prof. Tirthankar Bose (Simon Fraser University) and Dr. Jay Prosser (University of Leeds). Dr. Prosser’s paper, presented on the second day of the seminar, was titled “Baghdad Bombay Britain: Jewish Immigrants from Iraq to India” and it had a lot of autobiographical elements, tracing his maternal grandfather’s Jewish roots and the family’s path of migration from Baghdad. It showed how personal history could be a part of social discourse. Dr. Prosser did not say much but through the slides he showed and the songs he played (his grandfather’s renditions: the British national anthem, two old Hindi movie songs and, presumably, a gazal) one could see, hear, and understand more.
On the first day of the seminar Prof. Tirthankar Bose had presented his polemical paper titled “Shaking the Scene: Education and the Bengali Theatre” where he questioned the very notion of self-fashioning when he pointed out that the best the Bengali theatre achieved in the colonial days were the staging of Shakespearean plays. I am sure he meant that there was no indigenous self-fashioning in the Indians’ adoption of Shakespeare for their stage but it was definite a kind of self-fashioning. Coming back to Dr. Prosser, I find that his grandfather’s multiple self-fashioning was also not of the indigenous variety and neither is Dr. Prosser’s research an attempt at his own indigenous self-fashioning for he has self-fashioned himself as a British by nationality (his father being English) and a Buddhist by religious practice. The absence of the concept of “indigeneity” in the papers of Prof. Tirthankar Bose and Dr. Jay Prosser in a seminar whose topic spells out “Indigenous Self-fashioning” was an indication of what was to come at the Colloquium the following day.
At the Calcutta-Leeds Conference, moderated by Mr. Tim Gore of the British Council, Prof. Krishna Sen (a gem of a person) tossed the very term “indigeneity” on the round table for the panelists to dissect. The topic of the Colloquium was “Developing the term ‘Indigeneity’ as a critical tool for culture studies”. There were six speakers, three from Calcutta and three from Leeds, scheduled to speak alternately. The first speaker, Prof. Sona Roy, stressed on the inclusiveness of Indian culture and gave examples from Tagore and others. Dr. Jay Prosser, the next speaker, depicted the etymological meaning of the word “indigene” as native and explained it in the American context. The slide shown by him of a Chicana artist’s painting of an Aztec pointing at the first settlers in America was self-explanatory. He ended his presentation by playing a medley of three songs by Lila Downs: “Pastures of Plenty”, “This Land is Your Land” and “Land” which were quite illuminating. The third speaker was Prof. Sanjukta Das who started her presentation by narrating her experiences of teaching English to students who can barely write two correct sentences in English. She quoted Gareth Griffiths and raised a number of questions, the most pertinent of them being that of language. She gave the example of Ruchir Joshi’s novel “The Last Jet-Engine Laugh” with its varied English dialects of English (Gujarati, Bengali; sometimes whole passages are in the vernacular but printed in the Roman script) which was found unpalatable by many English –speaking readers. The next speaker was Dr. Ananya Kabir who took the Greek writer Tacitus’s works as the base for developing her arguments. She spoke of the migration of the Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) to Britain and how the prime colonizer Britain is a fractured nation in terms of indigeneity. She also spoke about the land revenue system of the British in India and ended her speech by highlighting the alarming threat that the tsunami posed to the indigenous tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The next speaker, Prof. Sanjukta Dasgupta, took the cue from her and said that how the government policy has denotified a number of nomadic tribes of India. She depicted the condition of the schedule tribes and how Mahasweta Devi’s works have brought their lives into focus. She also quoted from Amartya Sen’s book “The Argumentative Indian” to explain the term “nativism”. The last speaker, Dr. Brendon Nicholls, spoke of indigeneity in the African context. He took the film “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, about the bushmen of Africa, as the vehicle for his arguments.
In the last part of the conference the panel was thrown open for questions and debates. Prof. Krishna Sen gave her own example of being a Bengali nurtured by the nuns of Loreto and yet not having any identity crisis, not feeling herself as a hybrid and definitely not a tribal. She raised the question of what sort of indigeneity implies to her. Prof. Sudeshna Chakravorty (Oh what accent! Oh what fluency!) said that colonialism brought the indigenous populations of India together as a single nation. But more importantly she gave the example of how Scotland, which no English army could bring to submission, joined with Britain to have a share of the spoils of the British Raj. Thus colonialism acts both ways – uniting the indigenous people of Britain as well. Prof. Tapati Gupta opined that instead of indigeneity, cultural studies should be encouraged so that the dangers of politics, racism and the likes do not creep in the discourse. Among others, Dr. Santanu Majumdar and Dr. Nandini Bhattacharya also voiced their opinions. The last remark on which a consensus of sort was reached by the panel was made by Prof. Indira Ghose that instead of concentrating on indigeneity one should rather concentrate on the community.
The conference ended after about three hours of brainstorming – but the conference on developing the term “indigeneity” ended on the alternative (no pun intended) term “community”. In the so-called post-colonial, post-modern, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world community is a kaleidoscope of autochthonous and migrant populations. Hence, one cannot divorce the term completely out of reckoning. What I find is that the term “indigenous” is already getting a new connotation in the globalized world. It is no longer synonymous with “native”, but rather interestingly, it means “born of the native” as if it has taken a step further (perhaps into a new generation; something like Indian-born American, Bengali-born Indian, Maori-born New Zealander or Scottish-born British) than being merely native. “Indigenous” has become a progressive term and “native” a regressive one. “The Return of the Native”, the title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novel, indicates an intricate link between the terms “native” and “return” implying a sort of coming back. Prof. Sanjukta Dasgupta had mentioned that 1994 to 2004 was declared by the UN as “The Decade of the Indigenous People”. Moreover one hears reports of aircrafts, satellites, rockets etc. being developed indigenously. Has anyone ever heard of a “native satellite”? It sounds more as an oxymoron than anything else. Thus it is seen that between the words “indigenous” and “native” the former is finding more currency in today’s world especially because it is not necessarily interpreted in the context of binarisms. In fact indigeneity is used more as a holistic term than a divisive one. When a country indigenously develops something that benefits both the rich and the poor it is hailed collectively. Hence, indigeneity if used in this sense as a tool for culture studies will definitely make more sense and would prove to be a development. And now this brings me to ponder on the title of my Ph. D. thesis – “The Alien into the Native”. Should it be changed to “The Alien into the Indigenous”?
** The web journal Cerebration.org, sponsored by The Caspersen School of graduate studies, Drew University (Madison, New Jersey, US), is seeking submissions for its February-March issue. **