hi interneters, its been a long time i know. maybe you've thrown in the towel on me... its been a busy adjustment getting back into school this winter. i just finished my second week of classes. i'm doing three UW classes, all in anthropology (anth of India, anth of the lifecycle, and anth of religion). I'm also teaching 4-5 yoga classes a week, and i'll be adding a few more later next month! add my own yoga practice, lots of reading and assignments, cooking (bread is presently rising on my stove), and time with friends and you get one busy bee.
i'm staying sane through my yoga practice and also geting a bi-monthly massage, which only costs me $12 thanks to my fabulous student insurance plan!
My Indian anth class has been really interesting so far. here's a commentary piece that's due monday.
Your first commentary will be on the subject of “Colonialism”; there are two sub themes: “Knowing India” (the construction of knowledge on India through Orientalism/anthropological discourses); Indian reaction to colonialism via clothing as ‘identity. To guide you in writing the first commentary, consider the following question:
‘India is the West’s other" - relate to knowledge construction on “India” and ‘Indians.” How did this constructed knowledge shape and influence Indians’ self-perception of themselves?
Orientalism is a western-based discourse on India and Asia that prevailed during the colonial period. It was a way of understanding and an attempt to classify a very diverse group of people. Orientalism tended to essentialize and homogenize the very diverse cultures of India and Asia and then pose them in opposition to the “occident” or European culture. Orientalist knowledge and discourse emphasized the differences between the orient and occident in order to provide grounds for subjugation and domination through European colonialism. This process of opposition and distancing is known as “othering.”
Understanding how and by whom knowledge was constructed on India is important in understanding colonial and post-colonial history. As well, the knowledge constructed during these eras continues to play a role in Indian political discourse today. In recent decades, post-modern anthropologists have emphasized the importance of deconstructing knowledge to uncover the individual interests and subjectivities of those involved in creating knowledge. Orientalist colonial administrators, scholars (who often worked for the colonials), and missionaries constructed knowledge on India in order to fulfil their needs. Thapar claims that during the colonial era “scholarly and administrative interests coalesced” (2). Scholars, such as anthropologists and ethnologies were often hired by administrators in order to help them understand in order to rule. Who these scholars were working for influenced the type of knowledge they generated and how it was generated. Many scholars studied Vedic religious texts and gathered knowledge from Brahmins. Brahmins were high class/caste and had a particular view about Indian society that they imparted to scholars did not necessarily represent the beliefs, conditions of life, and understandings for the majority of Indians, yet it was taken to be so by the Europeans. Knowledge from Brahmins was then reinterpreted, translated and given back to Indians with much nuance and understanding being lost in the process. Many of the colonial anthropologists were interested in the comparative study of culture, and the comparisons and generalizations they made contributed to the othering of India.
In her article Das critiques the notions of these anthropologists, particularly Dumont. Her goal is to deconstruct knowledge on India and then reconstruct it using a more comprehensive perspective. Das explains that the Western anthropologist is the Self and they construct the societies they study as the “other”. As the other, India and her people are objectified. In Oriental discourse, Indians were essentialized as over-sexed, immodest, intellectually inferior, and bizarrely spiritual. Their culture was seen as static, unchanging and without history.
Clothing is a lens through which the West “othering” India can be examined further. Clothing is a means of both expressing and constructing an individual identity as well as cultural and national identities. The British saw traditional Indian dress such as the sari, dhoti and langoti, as unsophisticated, immodest, effeminate, and childish and used dress as another reason for European superiority and higher evolutionary status. As Tarlo explains, “the ‘disgraceful’ nature of Indian clothes acted for the British as proof of Indian effeminacy and barbarism but also as a justification for their civilizing presence in India” (pg 35). The British wanted to civilize the Indians, and changing their dress was seen as one task in this process. Yet the British also wanted to maintain their distinction from Indians, and did not want Indians to look too Western. In 1830 the British instituted strict dress codes prohibiting wearing of Indian styles for British citizens working in India. If a British man were wear Indian styles he was discredited and called a ‘white baboo’. Distinct differences in dressed helped the British to maintain their position of superiority and perpetuate the view of the Indian as the uncivilized “other”.
Some Indians, especially those educated in Europe, did adopt forms of European dress. Some incorporated European styles by blending them with Indian ones. Others wore European styles at the workplace and Indian clothing at home. The wearing different forms of dress depending on the location and occasion expressed distinct identities for these Indians. For some this meant a public, more westernize identity (workplace) and a private more traditional identity (home). In general, women maintained traditional dress more than men, however some European elements were incorporated into their styles and codes of modesty were affected (for example the blouse being adopted under the sari). Tarlo’s article demonstrates the way that clothing, as a reflection and part of identity, is a process that is always being reworked and remade. Indians were constantly re-evaluating the degree of Western dress they took on, and what it meant to wear Western versus Indian dress.
Clothing itself also became the medium for a discourse of colonial resistance. In this Indian discourse, leaders such as Gandhi appropriated and then subverted some of the views of Orientalism to serve their cause. Prior to colonialism, India had a strong textile industry. This decentralized industry involved the labor of cotton growers, thread spinners, dyers, and weavers. The British started producing fabric that in colours and textures that would appeal to Indian aesthetics. This fabric was popularized because kings bought it and others imitated. By the 1900s few Indians wore fabrics made in India. In the 1920s, upon his return to India, Gandhi began working for independence in India. He saw economic independence as a crucial part of political independence from the British, as a form of resistance he advocated Swadeshi (self-sufficiency). As the head of this movement he adopted a langoti (loincloth) made of khadi. Khadi is a coarse, homespun fabric that to Gandhi’s movement symbolized local industrial independence, loyalty to the nation, a rejection of materialism, and a desire to unify social groups. Gandhi’s choice to wear khadi as a loincloth is also of crucial symbolic importance. To the British the fact that Indians (lower caste) wore loincloths was grossly immodest and offensive. Tarlo’s article cites British administrators who were shocked and appalled the ‘nakedness’ and ‘blackness’ of Indians working in the harbour. By taking on the loincloth, Gandhi co-oped this view of nakedness and turned it into a symbol of the nakedness, extraction of resources, and impoverishment caused by colonialism. The British had colonized the Indian body with their Orientalist and othering views of the Indian. Gandhi was then in response decolonizing the body and re-Indianizing it by reclaiming the traditional Khadi fabric and the loincloth. Another way that Gandhi’s symbolic dress can be viewed is he was accepting himself as the ‘othered Indian’ and in fact embracing and asserting this identity in order to unify India to resist the British.