What Renders the Master’s House Unrecognizable?

An Interview with Kajri Jain

What Renders the Master’s House Unrecognizable?

An Interview with Kajri Jain

Mega-statues in India. Courtesy of Kajri Jain.

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.

Alisha Sett (AS): Prof. Jain, when I first read the introduction to Gods in the Bazaar, my immediate reaction was: I hope she writes about photography too. To quote just one of the many sections that evoked this feeling: 

What happens when ungraspable numbers of lurid, pungent, frequently tatty, often undatable, questionably authored, haphazardly archived, indeterminably representative, hitherto undisciplined Indian bazaar pictures come crowding into the chandeliered baroque halls and immaculate modernist spaces of art history: Do they render ‘the master’s house’ unrecognizable? If my own experience of often being thought of as an anthropologist rather than an art historian is anything to go by, there must be ways in which they do. Of course, if Indian bazaar images are seen not as art historical but as anthropological objects, this is largely due to their status as mass culture.

(Jain 2007)

The parallels to the status and trajectory of amateur photography swarmed my mind, and I was reminded of the lack of ethnographic and theoretical work that has looked at vernacular photographs with the eye that you have brought to bazaar art.Was there an “aha” moment early on in your fieldwork, looking at calendar art (figs. 1 and 2), in which you developed this penetrating way of seeing?

Kajri Jain (KJ): My work has always been driven by the object and by ethnography, seeing how objects are working in a space or a situation, rather than a conceptual, “I’m now going to look at how X works according to Y theory.” The one “aha” moment that I really remember is from the first time I went into “the field” (which actually looked nothing like a field, it was an urban bazaar). I was hanging around, watching people buy calendar images on the footpath at Diwali, and trying to talk to them about why they were choosing the ones they were. I thought this was going to give me a handle on reception. But they didn’t have a language for this. They were not thinking in those aesthetic terms, or at least in our familiar, narrow sense of aesthetics. It wasn’t “I like this element” or “that artist”. I just kept hearing people say, “Haan, mujhe achchha laga”, “I liked it.” Why this one and not that one? “Mujhe achchha laga”, “Voh sahi tha”, “It was nice.” If there was a criterion, it was that they wanted a particular god. They wanted this Ganapati because they had had one like it last time, or because it was a new and interesting one.

That’s what made me realize that I had to rethink how people were coming at images. I kept going back to my PhD advisor and saying: I can’t mesh what I’m reading with what is happening in the field. And my advisor kept saying: “Very good, that’s very productive!” And she was right. That’s what I tell my students now: that you have to have the nerve to keep things in suspension, keep returning to the places where the conundrums arise. 

At some point I was in fact able to make a link between what was happening in the bazaar and reading Deleuze and Guattari, who deeply inform my work. Their ideas about signs and the many layers of signification gave me a way to articulate these complex phenomena, where meaning and efficacy unfold at every level, at the level of production and distribution as much as reception. That’s what made me realize just how much was going on in the realm of circulation, which art history somehow came to very late. Now, art history is all about object histories, material exchanges, circulation – all part of the so called “material turn”. But actually, what is this material turn? Of course art history has to be material, and always has been.

AS: The first time I heard you say this was online at the “How Secular is Art” conference and the approving laughs that you elicited from your peers made very clear how many art historians of South Asia who were in the room agreed with you, that the rediscovery of materiality in a field like art history is fairly ridiculous. I hope you’ve kept the title of that paper – “In Which Contemporary Indian Iconopraxis Devours Some Sacred Cows of Art History” – intact, because its accusations were spot on, especially in the context of the conversations we are finally having about caste and aesthetics today, but also about the desperate need for the decolonization of art history. Let me quote you again, from my notes of that lecture: 

The modern notion of the aesthetic that undergirded art history and its objects both precluded and denigrated material efficacies, religious and otherwise, from the get-go, attempting to de-possess objects of their efficacy and purposiveness only to bring them back to an enslaved zombie life as art, by infusing them with spirit, the artistic idea, the spirit of a people or nation, the spirit of an age or period. Spatio-temporal capsules within which art history’s curriculum and its restless spirit are still contained. Anthropocentric human spirit is art history’s sacred cow.

(Jain 2018)

KJ: This also amounts to saying that we need to rethink art history via colonialism as a process of co-constitution. 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. The fact is that we were always part of each other’s stories. And what this has meant is that the West has been kidding itself about itself, because it always had its exceptions. Those supposed exceptions are now staring us in the face, making their presence felt, in a way that they have not before. It’s like the way in India we’re all waking up to caste, for instance. The West is waking up to racism and the legacies of that. Or immigration: suddenly, why is immigration such a thing in the West? Because now suddenly more and more people of colour are coming into white spaces. All the brown and Black people going to countries with Indigenous populations was never a problem, when it was happening long ago with slaves being shipped to plantations, or when they were taking indentured people from India to Fiji and Mauritius and the Caribbean. 

AS: We didn’t come looking for you guys. You came looking for us. Now that you found us, you want to get rid of us? 

KJ: Right, so what I’m saying is, it seems as though something has changed, but actually it’s the same logic as what was happening earlier, just playing out differently. We were always already co-constituted. The bourgeois subject always had a relationship with the slave: you could be a human because some humans were not human. It’s just that the penny is finally dropping, or at least beginning to drop.

AS: What did your early education at the National Institute of Design (NID) contribute to this lens? 

KJ: NID was the site for my realization that there was some dissonance. My education there was very much modeled on European and American ideas. The format for our design education was basically that of the Bauhaus. And there was an idea of design as a very modernist practice, in and of itself avant-garde, with an attitude of we-will-bring-to-the-public-certain-kinds-of-insights-and-certain-kinds-of-form, that was then compounded by the postcolonial situation. NID was this beautiful pristine space with, of course, a very tasteful incorporation of Indian crafts, with faculty who had been trained at Basel and the like. But Ahmedabad was this amazing, buzzing, city with so much going on, both in terms of very modern institutions – apart from NID there’s the Indian Space Research Organization, which was the location of a satellite experiment, and IIM (the Indian Institute of Management), and the School of Architecture (CEPT), all of which were doing cutting edge work – and its medieval architectures, its open spaces, and crafts which were still very much alive, and the bazaars. That’s when I started to really sense the disconnect between modernist received ideas – the West’s ideas about itself – and our lived experience in a place like India. And design was very much part of it: images, objects, crafts, techniques, that we did and didn’t understand.

After NID, some friends and I started a little firm in New Delhi, called Pachisi Design/Research. We were working a lot with NGOs and started feeling that their views were very suspect. It was again this top-down approach, avant-gardist, urban: a “let us help the unenlightened villagers see the light and tell them how to live,” which was completely bizarre to me. There were two key assumptions here. One was the idea that urban, elite, people could just swan in and tell others how to live, people who had been working the land for centuries. And the second was that we thought we knew how images would work in that kind of context because we had an understanding of design and how it worked. But that was a very rudimentary understanding!

Even in terms of art history, we didn’t actually have design history or art history in our curriculum. We were told by our teachers: “We can’t teach the history of design because all the available resources are too Western.” But we also didn’t really study anything historically to do with Indian aesthetics because it hadn’t been invented, or at least not in a way that tried to make sense of our present. Nobody had yet written the art or design history that we needed. It was then that I felt that this is what I need to do, to get out there and figure out what’s actually going on with the image. What are people actually consuming, and how? Initially, it was in this language of consumption and reception, which later I realized isn’t that helpful.

AS: But you were able to see the bazaar as an archive and encounter it anew. This question of the space and the moment of the encounter with the image is one that has become dominant in photography at the moment. Where is the person or object, where’s the photographer, where is the image? What is the afterlife of the image? What happens in each new encounter? 

KJ: I hadn’t thought of the encounter in quite the same way, or indeed of the bazaar as an archive. But I suppose it’s different if your starting point is photography, which means that it is at base a medium specific concern. If you’re really working with the object, you’re not going to have a medium specific entry point to it. When I started working on calendar art, I wasn’t thinking about art or prints as such. It was more: here’s a particular kind of image that I see everywhere, and it’s very powerful, and I want to understand it. Similarly, with the monumental statues in my recent book Gods in the Time of Democracy (2021a), it wasn’t about sculpture. It was that since the nineties these mega-statues have been coming up all across India (figs. 5 and 6). Why? How? Hasn’t anyone noticed them? What’s going on? And in fact, working with calendar art made me realize that medium specificity is its own kind of baggage that we bring to the image, which perhaps certain kinds of images want to refuse. 

Calendar art is what we might call intermedial from the get-go. I don’t like the term intermediality, however, because it presupposes a knowledge-formation in which media are separated in the first place. Calendar images and their producers didn’t have that even to begin with. They might start with a painting, which may be painted on a photograph, or it may be a painting superimposed on a photographic background from somewhere else. The color-separated photographic negatives are often painted on or scratched away to enhance the colors. Then the whole thing is printed, then it might be dusted with a golden powder. So what is the medium there? What is its specificity? And whom or how does it help to be talking about things like medium specificity? 

Similarly, if you think about the big statues, a lot of their sculptors cite the Shilpa Shastras, and I realized, what is shilpa after all? Shilpa is just craft, it can go from making jewelry to building a temple with huge granite blocks. And now, I would say, it could extend to building a dam or a road. So shilpa becomes just working with materials. So then why do we bring this medium specific lens to the image? 

I think one of the habits we should try and shed is thinking by default in that medium specific way about the ontology of the image, where photography has a particular kind of relationship to truth. I would insist on thinking historically and thinking about images in use. Where does the photograph get its authority? By now it’s not just about its indexicality, even if it was to begin with. It’s also because you need a photograph on a government document, you need your photograph on a passport, an ID card, an Aadhar card. So it accrues authority historically, institutionally, as well as through its making. After all, someone had an Aadhar card made for the god Hanuman, was that a matter of indexical force? Is it to do with the light passing through the lens or is it to do with the circulation of photography? For me, all bets are off. All categories are suspect. All ways of coming at something are up for questioning. 

Fig. 5. Examples of photo-studios' object production. Courtesy of Kajri Jain.
Fig. 5. Examples of photo-studios’ object production. Courtesy of Kajri Jain.
Fig. 6. Examples of photo-studios' object production. Courtesy of Kajri Jain.
Fig. 6. Examples of photo-studios’ object production. Courtesy of Kajri Jain.

AS: As a photographer, I only considered these questions much later, once I put down the camera for a while. Perhaps the very existence of a constituency of people who consider themselves to be exclusively photographers almost forces us towards a certain kind of medium specificity. Though some of those considered the finest photographers today also actively reject the burden of the medium specific label. Dayanita Singh, for example, who calls herself a bookmaker, told me that you were the only person to have critically understood what her work was trying to do. 

KJ: Dayanita Singh’s work is very much in the tradition of conceptualism, and conceptualism is not wedded to specific media. But also, in Dayanita’s case, I would say there’s something about the context she’s working in that has grabbed her, and she can’t let go of it. She’s working through it in her practice. And it has to do with some fascination with the power of circulation, the efficacy of the sociality of circulation. She’s very interested in friendship – exchange through friendship, dissemination through friendship, and objects as gifts, as vehicles of friendship and kinship – but also in commerce as a kind of social relation. 

Again, we need to drop the baggage that we carry from the language of modernism that pits commerce and art against each other, or commerce and sociality. This mixing of images, commerce, and sociality is also what we see in the bazaar, and that’s why the bazaar is so important as a frame. In a forthcoming essay about Dayanita’s work I’m trying to bring into constellation with the bazaar her interest in circulation and these relationships of exchange, social gifting, and commerce (Jain 2021b). She will be the first to tell you that nobody gets it. She’s been subject to this weird moral judgment because she sells things. As if she needed the money! It’s idiotic that people are not reading this as conceptual art but as bald-faced commerce.

AS: And some people look at it as gimmicky. It becomes very difficult for people to see the authenticity, and the longevity, of what she’s been working on because there are a lot of gimmicky people out there.

KJ: True, although, what is a gimmick? It has a certain flair, it’s a little excessive, it’s like spectacle. One can still think about it. I don’t want to dismiss anything as kitsch or a gimmick or spectacle, because what that dismissal does is to get in the way of thought.

AS: It is a process of un-training your mind. We are so overwhelmed with these go-to frames: the aesthetic frame, the ethical frame, the juridical frame, the medium specific frame. One name for this process of un-training is decolonizing but there are many other layers involved. It’s also that openness to play, to going behind the language. And that’s where I see a kinship in your work and Michael Taussig’s work. That consistent act of going behind the language, and into the object, and repurposing it. Taussig’s doing it too, of course, through fictocriticism. But you are doing it differently.

KJ: It’s funny you should say that. I was influenced by Michael Taussig’s work from the get-go. I think what resonated with me was a kind of intensity, a fascination, a willingness to be led by the object. Letting things work on you. I’ve compared him to a photographic substrate, where ethnography, like photography, is a matter of exposure: a process of having sensations and selves impressed upon you (Jain 2013). He was one of the examiners of my PhD thesis and his report was lovely – but he said he wished I had let my language be freer. He was asking me to write like him! And so ever since then, I’ve been thinking about why I don’t write like him. I think it’s because what I’ve been doing is trying to work towards conceptual clarity, disentangling baggage. So I don’t want to go towards the fictional because that makes its point in a different way. I’ve been someone who needs new tools. I’m making the tools for myself. I’m spending all my time sharpening a pencil.

AS: Speaking of tools, in terms of your understanding of the sacred, and of the religious, was this something that was inculcated when you were growing up? Did you have a grasp of temple architecture and iconography already from your family? 

KJ: This relates back directly to that “aha” moment that we talked about, where thinking about calendars and why people were choosing them was not a matter of aesthetics. That was when I realized these images are a matter of religion, so I needed to understand the visual culture of religion. I had to think of it that way and come up to speed, because in art history we don’t actually think about religion; we think we know what it is. But there’s so much baggage around the idea of religion! Gods in the Time of Democracy has been about quite relentlessly working against this idea that religion is something that happened in the past, or that if it exists in the present, it’s just a continuation of what happened in the past. If you look at a notion like “corpothetics” that Chris Pinney talks about in relation to religious icons in calendar art, that entails an embodied relationship to the icon, that’s all well and good, but in thinking of religion as something that persists, we don’t get a sense of what might have changed. Because religion is also a moving target. It changes. And it changes at a formal level, at the level of iconopraxis, at the level of pressing forms into practice. 

Similarly, people have talked about how the mass reproduction of printed icons is a kind of democratization, but what we’re not thinking enough about is how religion might come to exert new forms of power. How does the language of religion mesh with the language of governmentality, for instance? The relationship between religion and politics is not just one of propaganda. It’s not just that people are “using” religion to propagate a message of Hindutva. It’s actually also that religion is changing in response to political form and vice-versa. That’s what I’m trying to work out in Gods in the Time of Democracy

Religion is such a huge part of life in India, but we haven’t got a handle on how to think about its modernity. We’re just reduced to asking: it secular or is it religious? So you get these weird situations, where people ask me, “These big statues, are they a sign of secularization?” But it’s a 108-foot statue of Hanuman! How can it be secular? It’s because, for them, religion has to be some authentic, ancient, Vedic thing. It raises these very interesting questions of temporality, as though to be properly religious something has to belong in the past – it can’t really inhabit modernity.

To answer your question though, did I grow up with religion? No, my parents are both anthropologists, essentially secular but of course attuned to religion as cultural practice. I was born in Australia, spent my childhood in England, and then came to India when I was 13. And so it was more a case of not being exposed to religion, and then, much later, after I had left again, suddenly becoming extremely fascinated and wanting to figure it out. During my adolescence I didn’t think of learning about religion or caste or anything, though it had started to sink in. That’s how stupid we were. How blindfolded, and how protected, and elitist: the fact that I could be living in India, surrounded by these things, not bothering to learn, and so comfortable in my secularism, and modernity, and leftism, that I didn’t think I needed to educate myself about religion. I thought caste was in the past, or in the villages. This is how I grew up.

AS: And that blind elitism continues in India today. I encounter more people brandishing Western theory and philosophy and attempting to immerse themselves in Western art historical discourses, rather than attempting to understand religion as a core concern for any understanding of Indian art or aesthetics. 

KJ: It’s something we don’t talk about enough, the kind of theory fetishism that’s out there, in all of its senses. It’s something I really had to battle with because in graduate school there were all these bright intimidating people in the seminars, mostly young White men, who were bandying theory about in completely hollow ways, as if it were an end in itself. For me, theory is there to be used, and you use as much of it as you need to, because otherwise it becomes its own rabbit hole. So of course, I’ve been reading theory too, and the history of Western aesthetics. And this is the thing: we, as South Asians, have to know about Western history and theory. We need to know about Western history in order to understand and unpack the terms that we are bringing to our work. Basically, we need to provincialize them, and figure out how they do and don’t apply. Because of course, all of post-Enlightenment aesthetics also applies to us, because we are part of modernity too. So we literally have to do double work.

AS: Triple work. Understand your own history. Understand their history. Then unpack their baggage. Then unpack your own. Then repack. 

KJ: Exactly. So in fact it triples or quadruples! For instance, I needed to go back to Aristotle and the hierarchy of media, or Hegel and the teleology of media, to realize that we’re not invested in that stuff. Or at least the sculptors of big statues, and the calendar artists, or the patrons, or the consumers, are not – or not always or necessarily in the same ways. We as art historians need to take into account what they care about, what they are invested in.

But also, what is Indian art? Or if we want to think about religion, where do we start? What is religious studies? Until very recently it’s been all about philology, about classical texts, about Sanskrit, not really about describing living religion – that was for the anthropologists. So in a way religious studies had bought into that same narrative, that real religion belongs in the past. Do you really have to know Sanskrit in order to be able to think about Hinduism? I did a year or so of Sanskrit in high school and that’s about it! I think it helped that I came fresh to these things. There was a certain distance that helped to see what was actually right in front of me all along.

AS: One of the things that I’ve also found refreshing is your insistence on the vernacular vs. the subaltern. 

KJ: One is always faced with this choice: do you repurpose an existing term in a very specific and technical way? Or do you coin a new one? So, for instance, Chris Pinney came up with the neologism “corpothetic.” And then are very particular ways in which various existing terms have been re-theorized: subaltern, queer, or in my case vernacular. “Queer” was supposed to be an anti-identitarian category and it has now become conflated with “gay.” Similarly, subaltern is supposed to be a relational category: it’s subaltern in relation to the dominant or elite, so of course it will change in different situations. But despite all this careful theorization these kinds of fluidity have been recaptured by identity politics, which is such a powerful force everywhere right now. Neoliberalism loves identity politics, particularly in avowedly multicultural societies. So that’s what’s happened to all of these terms, these things are never once and for all. That’s always the question: how is a term circulating at a particular moment? 

For me there’s a way in which “vernacular” gets at locality, specificity, the flavor of the bazaar or the small town. I came to vernacular because my work on calendar art was following hard on the heels of Chris Pinney’s; he saw the form as subaltern because it was anticolonial. I wanted more complexity. I was writing in the 1990s, and my concern was the resurgence of Hindutva, so my question had to be, how do you get to be both subaltern and dominant? Subaltern in the sense of Indian and anticolonial, but also dominant as part of a Hindu majority. Because now, in the contemporary situation, this is not just about colonizer versus colonized anymore. We have to ask: how are we replicating those structures, and others, with our own people? I couldn’t use a clear language of subalternity or minority because with the bazaar I’m talking about a majority and yet it’s not cosmopolitan. Therefore, if there is any kind of meaningful binary at work here, it’s not elite-subaltern but vernacular-cosmopolitan, which I think gets closer to my concerns.

In fact, to begin with I was using the term “popular culture.” But what is the popular? Again, the popular has this connotation of grassroots, ground up, and it’s not that. I’m okay with the term mass culture – calendar art is mass culture because it’s literally mass produced. But then again, a form like the big statues is not mass culture per se, but it’s still this vernacular bazaar kind of form. Vernacular is not perfect, but so far I’ve stuck with it.

AS: You asked an interesting question in your first email response to this interview request: why do we as a journal invested in photography want to interview you, an art historian who does not work specifically on the theory or history of photography? Let me flip this question: What aspect of photography and its history/theory interest you most? 

KJ: I think it would be what I’ve observed of what’s happening in photo studios today. What does a photo studio do now that everyone has a camera? In a sense, what they’ve always done. When did people have their picture taken? It was for a special occasion, like a wedding or birthday, or for memorial photographs. I was just in a studio a couple of years ago having pictures taken for my parent’s visa applications, and this place was full of objects. What has changed is that now it’s all about putting the image on mugs, or cushions, or on ornamental substrates for display (figs. 3 and 4). Or there was a child’s image on a knapsack. I think that’s totally fascinating, and also not unlike some of the things that Dayanita Singh has done. In fact what reminded me of this relationship, between photography and objects was a cushion cover she has made that has one of her photographs on it. It’s just startling to me that she should be cottoning on to exactly what the photo studios are doing. She has her own little line of souvenirs that she gives away at openings, including mugs and cushions, so she’s working in the same idiom. It’s like she’s tuned into something there. And completely from engaging in her practice – it wasn’t theoretically thought out. It’s like she’s trying to make material sense of it. Again, it goes to the idea that photography is about objects that have social force rather than primarily reflecting some kind of truth. Because what has stayed in the photo studio is the idea of the circulating object, an object of exchange, of gifting.

Fig. 3. Mega-statues in India. Courtesy of Kajri Jain.
Fig. 3. Mega-statues in India. Courtesy of Kajri Jain.
Fig. 4. Mega-statues in India. Courtesy of Kajri Jain.
Fig. 4. Mega-statues in India. Courtesy of Kajri Jain.

In all of these things we’re talking about, what we haven’t talked about is the question of context specificity. We’ve been talking about all these things as postcolonial phenomena, as vernacular, as Indian, etc. But I would want to say that all it is, is that in our contexts – call them postcolonial, the Global South, whatever – these things are just more visible. It’s like we can see them in a different way because they’re in these non-Western settings. But we also need to take the next step of saying, now that we know how it’s working here, actually there in the West it’s not that different. It’s just that it’s been hiding in plain sight but we haven’t noticed it because the West is so bought into its own modernist self-narrativization. So the other thing that I’m increasingly beginning to push against is this “South Asia” tag, which I find very hobbling. Because you get ghettoized, or it’s all about how quirky South Asia is. But it’s not: actually, it’s not an exception but the rule. Or rather, the exceptions are the rule. So South Asia is a great place from which to think about everywhere. My work is not just about thinking of South Asia, it’s about thinking from there.

AS: What is the shape of Gods in the Time of Democracy

KJ: The more conceptual aspects have to do with thinking about temporality, about how we approach the object in a processual fashion. That’s the methodological point that the book is making. Here it’s not the travels of the object that I’m interested in. It’s not just that we have one bounded thing, and it’s moving from place to place. This is what working on the big statues made me realize, because they don’t move – unlike calendars, unlike prints, which actually circulate, so the frame of circulation works for them. But what happens when you have a 108-foot Hanuman which is not moving? I’m interested in the object as the site of processes that run through it. In a way, it’s a disaggregation of the object.

Another big theme in the book is the idea of temporal layering. Here another habit that we need to shed is thinking that when something new comes along, it replaces the old. We’re constantly using the language of shifts: this happened, then it shifted to that. Actually, nothing goes away. The old is still there, and then the new comes along. The new forms circuits with the old. This is my retake on Benjamin’s aura: just because something new has come along doesn’t mean that those old forms of authority have gone away. Nothing has happened to the canonical temples, and the mathas (monastic institutions), and the power of the Shankaracharya (the head priest), for example. All of that is still there, except now the Shankaracharya is travelling from Dwarka Dham and inaugurating a big statue of Shiva in Sikkim. What does that mean? The new is forming a circuit with the old, which is layered on top of both. So not only is there a new form, there is a new circuit in place. And then there are more rapid forms that use media like Whatsapp. What we have to think about is the simultaneity of different processes, different circuits. Thinking constantly, perceptually, and multiply. It’s not easy. But when I say this, don’t you think that it starts to approximate our condition? In terms of what’s happening with form, what’s happening with images, religious practice, political practice? 

AS: Yes, especially because I see the circuits of Whatsapp as one of the key nodes enmeshing with these older existing circuits and in desperate need of analysis. 

KJ: I just wrote a little key word glossary entry on the bazaar for Bioscope, the screen studies journal. I ended that with WhatsApp, and how the frame of the bazaar helps us make sense of something like WhatsApp, and why it is that obviously fake, made-up images and “facts” are able to circulate and gain traction. The point here is not whether it’s “real” or “fake”, it’s about who it’s coming from. If it’s coming from someone’s trusted Hindutva brigade, or their family WhatsApp group, or whatever it might be, it has authority and legitimacy. So again it’s not about truth, it’s about authority, and these aren’t necessarily the same thing.

AS: But statues are not even easy to photograph, so it’s not as if they travel easily in image form. 

KJ: Exactly. So, coming back to temporality, you realize that the statue is not a static object because objects change over time. They also change according to the frames of value you bring to them. And even though they don’t physically move they are still involved in circuits – in this case, quite literally, because many of them are along highways. In a way it’s still about circulation, but here it’s people circulating around images, not images circulating between people. And it’s the patrons circulating between the small town where the statue might be and the big city where they have to prove that they’re a big fish, where they are able to say: I own this small town because I built a big statue there. 

So you can still think processually and in terms of circuits and circulation with a physically stationary object, through multiple processes working at different speeds. It might be caste assertion, which actually gets its impetus from the medieval period, from the Bhakti movements, but is taking on new forms. That’s a very long, slow process. But there are much shorter processes, like the explosion of automobility and the auto industry, which happened with liberalization and has had its own effects. The big statues can also be thought about in those terms, through the spaces, visual regimes, and technologies they inaugurate.

But you asked about the shape of the book. It’s hard to describe a set of networks and processes as a linear sequence of chapters in a book, so my compromise has been to approach it like a layered map. Each chapter takes up a different element of the assemblage that is the big statue form, mapping a different set of processes: the stories of its makers, democracy, iconopraxis, automobility and land, and finally their scale. Scale seems straightforward, but actually it needs all these other pieces to make sense of it.

AS: It’s following how a site and its surroundings, and its patrons, and its histories, have changed over a period of time. 

KJ: This is not something new to art history, for instance if you look at Warburg – but Warburg as taken up by Didi-Huberman who is obsessed with Warburg and keeps returning to him. It’s like a contagion, a haunting: Warburg is haunted by images and Didi-Huberman is haunted by Warburg, and I’m haunted by Didi-Huberman. I keep going back to him and his book Confronting Images. There’s this thing that recurs in a few different places for him, where he’s standing in front of a mural by Fra Angelico, and he’s just obsessed with this “whack” [pan] of white paint. This becomes the occasion for him to think about himself in front of this image and in this space, and then the ways in which that mural is not of its time, it’s processing things from the past, it lives in a certain future. Each image lives in time. Art history is so used to pegging an image to the time and place of its creation, our whole discipline is carved up like that. But the fact is, images have afterlives. They get reproduced, not just across space but also through time. 

AS: Finally, to come full circle, let me ask: given that there is a louder demand in the West for the decolonization of art history than we have ever seen before, what is your experience of the authenticity of the response to this call within the Canadian academy? Are your colleagues and students unsettled?

KJ: Until 2–3 years ago, I was the only faculty member of colour in my department. We still have zero Black faculty members. That’s an indication of the complexion, literally and metaphorically, of the discipline within the Canadian academy, perhaps the North American academy in general. Things are changing now, but there is so much work to do – not just with faculty hires, but also with admissions, curricula, research agendas, methods, archives. Art history is the most retrograde and conservative discipline in the humanities, undoubtedly because of its deep links with big money and status via the art market and museums. Some of our graduate students are actively spearheading changes though. Faculty are unsettled in some ways, they know something’s up and are often well meaning, but they don’t know what to do, so they’ve largely just been getting on with business as usual. When colleagues ask what they can do to decolonize, I just want to say: you answer the question, you figure out what your subject has to do with colonialism and settler colonialism. Don’t expect me to do your work for you, I’ve spent my life thinking about this stuff, perhaps you could spend some time on it too – there’s enough out there for you to work with. But anything institutional – any statement you come up with, any plan you make – run it past the people of color. Consult with us, respect what we’re saying, but don’t make us do your work for you. That’s the case both at the level of departments and of the discipline at the whole, which suddenly wants us to be its native informants. It’s exhausting!

AS: It’s also because people don’t read each other’s work within departments or universities. And I wonder, what are some of the pedagogical tools for teaching in this manner – to provincialize, decolonize, and globalize simultaneously?

KJ: Yes, exactly. I wonder how many of my colleagues in the discipline have bothered to read my work, or that of other scholars of colour, Indigenous and Black scholars, scholars from the Global South. The resources are there – more than ever before, and growing. You put it well: it is a matter of simultaneously decolonizing, provincializing, and globalizing – though I’m squeamish about the term decolonizing: as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang put it, “decolonization is not a metaphor,” so doing art history differently isn’t the same as giving land back. But in terms of what I do in my teaching, for one, I refuse the period-and-place construct on which art history is founded because I don’t believe in it. Most of my classes are conceptual, methodological, theoretical. We take a topic, often a concept or a phenomenon or a practice – like landscape, for instance, and we look at it through images across time and space, and usually the first thing we do is read Indigenous scholarship from here in North America. There’s now this practice in Canada of reading a land acknowledgement before events and courses: “We are grateful to be on this land, that has traditionally belonged to x.” It’s often just a faltu [useless]symbolic token. Worse, actually – it’s often read piously, as if in self absolution, before getting on with business as usual. If, in the first class, we’re going to say we are on this land, then we should read what a range of Indigenous scholars have to say about this. And then everything we do in the seminar has to be informed by it. Whatever the course topic. It could be about landscape, it could be about the politics of aesthetics, art historical temporality, the Renaissance. We start here, where we are. And then we start to realize that, unlike the pious, frightened, clueless, politically correct tiptoeing around each other that’s fostered by multiculturalism (specially the Canadian version!), we can actually begin to engage across difference.

  • Jain, Kajri. 2021a. Gods in the Time of Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • _________. 2021b. “Go Away Closer: Photography, Intermediality, Unevenness.” In Capitalism and the Camera, edited by Kevin Coleman and Daniel James. New York: Verso.
  • _________. 2018. “In Which Contemporary Indian Iconopraxis Devours Some Sacred Cows of Art History.” Paper presented at How Secular Is Art? On the Art of Art History in South Asia, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta Cogut Institute for the Humanities Brown University, October 27, 2018. Available online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=le0IIlwldLE
  • _________. 2013. “Pause.” In Here Art Grows on Trees: Simryn Gill, edited by Catherine de Zegher. Gent: Australia Council for the Arts/MER Paper Kunsthalle.
  • _________. 2007. Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art. Durham: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822389736
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.
Reading time: 33 min.


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