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AESTHETICS OF DECOLONISATION: ARTISTS, MODERNISMS AND NATION-STATES IN INDIA, WEST AND EAST PAKISTAN, 1947-71

Final Report Summary - AOD (AESTHETICS OF DECOLONISATION: ARTISTS, MODERNISMS AND NATION-STATES IN INDIA, WEST AND EAST PAKISTAN, 1947-71)

The project AESTHETICS OF DECOLONIZATION has been a key step towards expanding my doctoral research in late-colonial Indian art into studying of art and decolonization in South Asia after the climactic rupture of partition and freedom at the exit of empire in 1947. I focussed on three artists across the new national contexts of India, West and East Pakistan (Bangladesh, after 1971) – Bhabesh Sanyal in India, Zainul Abedin in East Pakistan and Shakir Ali in West Pakistan. Each of them were either migrants, or displaced refugees, who moved in the late-1940s; in their new national contexts they had to re-start and reinvent their practice, and became through the 1950s, cultural administrators and pedagogues, through critical interventions upon art organisation, institution-building and dialogues with the national government. They became also, cultural diplomats, participating in new international networks, affinities and rhetorics of transnational dialogues that both staged and connected postcolonial artists in a global artworld crafted by the cultural politics and soft power of the Cold War.
The project has been exciting in both probing an under-researched area, and making new inter-disciplinary connections. For instance, it opened up new analyses that could connect visual art with questions of migration, displacement and the reconfigurations of cultural imaginations that accompanied national-modern aesthetic in post-partition South Asia. The project also supported much-needed transnational research work across scattered archives – both institutional and private, as well as new networking across a broad grid of researchers. Pursuing questions of art, cultural politics and postcolonial imagination, I became increasingly interested in questions of transnational mobilities and identifications of artists and critics. These directed the ways in which I steered the exploration of new archives and networks in the relation to the project’s immediate objectives – studying art and national imagination in postcolonial South Asia – and onto newer questions that flowed therefrom. The results of the project comprise both what I have deduced so far and what I hope to develop in parallel projects and newer grant applications.
Among the significant results of the research conducted so far, I would like to highlight three key areas, each drawing significantly from the work done, and yet posing newer horizons I wish to probe further:

1. New connected ‘cultural histories of displacement’

One direction in which my research into artists across the newly partitioned post-colonial nation-states of India, East and West Pakistan moved in course of the project, has been in the field of displacement studies. The artists I had in focus were products of the displacements brought about at the dawn of freedom and through the bloody histories of communal genocide. Each of these artists engaged with this rupture in their art works and art practice. While art history has celebrated the new institutional prominence these figures took on in their new stations from the 1950s onwards, I have tried to ask what historical significance their personas and their practice have had, particularly in thinking about cultural negotiations of postcolonial nationhood and its immediate memories of displacement. This has led me to pursue the modes in which cultural production in South Asia grappled with the ruptures of partition. It also made me probe how cultural networks and forms transcended the political rationalities of the new nation-states, allowing aesthetics to become the site for particular negotiations of historical memory, even as nation-states strove to homogenize regional difference. In short, my understanding of art itself was expanded into the domain of the historiography of culture in its dialogical political roles in the post-colony. As new conceptual clusters around memory, representation, narratives and peculiar forms of culture as resistance opened up, I connected questions of art and artists to questions of dialectics and subaltern historiographies of postcolonial nation-states, across the political borders in South Asia. Displacement – in historical, epistemological and cultural forms – is a concrete result of and new direction from, this project.

2. Histories of transnational solidarities

As I probed the artists under focus in the project, I got deeper into the networks they supported, and participated in; the people they interacted with, as friends, comrades, administrators; and the discourses they generated. I followed their travels and transits, and alongside a new field of texts, manifestoes, reports and agendas, spanning transnational forums like the Afro-Asian Solidarity Forum, the UNESCO, Afro-Asian Writers’ Organisation (the journal Lotus, in particular), I worked through new cultural and political collectives with their distinctive rhetoric of ‘solidarity’. Following artists, intellectuals, critics, writers traveling and forming forums like the Afro-Asian writers forums, I grappled with new conceptual questions that were being explored during decolonization, across the Global South: What does being free mean? I mapped a cultural geography that was forming alongside the reconfiguration of political geography during decolonisation – a transnational imagination that was bypassing a nation-centric imagination, even as it ran into nationalism time and again. Such ideas of solidarity in a decolonizing world were, however, tenuous, and needed to ‘produce’ coherence. Hence, I was led to new interests in studying the cultural articulations, negotiations and polemical stagings to imagine and sustain that coherence. I was particularly interested in the precarious nature of such solidarities; their eventual disintegration that accompanied solidification of nationalist and majoritarian agendas, gave my project a dialectical momentum. My interest in studying the transnational ‘Left’ – a project I already boosted through workshops, conferences and an ongoing edited volume (see DISSEMINATION for details) – comes directly from this.

3. Decolonization and dialectics

My work on the project has led me to develop a theoretical study of culture and decolonization, particularly in looking at decolonization ‘beyond’ the notions of national ‘arrival’. Culture, I have deduced, is the site for the play of contesting imaginations of decolonial futures, even as postcolonial nation-states remained keen on producing consent and erasing dissonance within national borders. Art, and cultural discourse, as my findings show, have been sites with multiple imaginations of ‘futures’ have played out, alongside multiple ways of remembering the past, and making sense of contesting notions of (sub)national belonging. Dialectics, I will argue, sits at the heart of decolonization, freedom being not a resolution but reconfiguration of conflict.

These results of the project have contributed to my research publications, my pedagogical practice as Assistant Professor at Leiden University (in developing new BA and MA courses), as well as in building new global networks around the theme of aesthetics and decolonization. I hope also, to expand on my work so far, in a future ERC Starting Grant application once I have consolidated the writing from this project more.