Kajri Jain is Professor of Indian Visual Culture and Contemporary Art at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on images at the interface between religion, politics, art, and vernacular business cultures in India; she also writes on contemporary art. Jain’s recent monograph, Gods in the Time of Democracy (Duke University Press, 2021), traces the emergence of monumental iconic sculptures in post-liberalization India; the earlier Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art (Duke University Press, 2007) is about printed icons. Her writing has appeared in Art History, Third Text, Current Anthropology, The Immanent Frame, the Cambridge Companion to Modern Indian Culture, and New Cultural Histories of India.
Modernity gets to be what it is because it has its others, and the same goes for art history. Enlightenment and the Enlightenment subject could only be formulated in comparison with the other: the colonized, the heathen, the unenlightened, the superstitious, the slave.
I spoke with Kajri Jain over Zoom during the early days of the pandemic in 2020. Our conversation began with a discussion of her early fieldwork in the bazaars in India, probing into Jain’s own education and formative experiences. It then detoured into a critical unpacking of art history’s “sacred cows’, the need to fundamentally rethink the discipline’s deep intertwining with colonialism, and the many forms of baggage that non-Western art historians must carry on their shoulders. Jain’s suspicion of medium specific approaches led to a productive dialogue about anthropologist Michael Taussig’s work, theory fetishism, and several facets of contemporary photography in South Asia. We agreed about the need to continue to critique an elitist discourse that misunderstands the importance of religion, and the embedded nature of caste, in any reading of aesthetics and mass culture in the subcontinent. Ending with the question of how to decolonize, provincialize and globalize when engaged in pedagogy, Jain left us with much to contemplate.