"Wild Landscapes: Visual Constructions of 'Lushai' in Colonial India"
April 26, 2012
click here to view video
Lalruatkima explored the ways in which British colonizers constructed visual representations of the Lushai people in the Chittagong Hills Tracts. He argues that the British used photographs of the Lushai and drew maps to construct a representational field or scriptural economy. This contrived ordering of difference--the labels “civilized” (British) and “wild” (other)--was used to justify the colonization of India. In other words, this is a historical example where “meaning is constructed in order to negotiate control and power.”
In his presentation, Kima focused on maps and photographs produced by colonial agents to highlight how these visual texts instantiate the construction and management of the Lushais on British India’s colonial peripheries. Maps drawn in 1850s of the Lushai region were conspicuous by the absence or lack of information. Maps drawn twenty years on are replete with British modes of spatial arrangement including markers of feudal institutions—chiefdoms, bounded territories, and so on. These cartographic flags transcribed colonial constructions of the modes by which the colonized would relate to the British administration.
Amidst the dominant racial discourse in Victorian anthropology, photographs of the colonial peripheries brought home compelling images of the wild others. Lithographic images of cultural materials, “type” photographs of racialized subjects, and photographs as ethnological placeholders visually reinforced the otherness of the Lushais. Contrary to the implied constructions of cultural distance, these visual narratives of otherness also legitimized the rationale for intervention either as a civilizing mission or as an outright conquest.
Some ISS research assistants reflect on Kima’s presentation
Lalruatkima's historicizing brought a number of issues to the fore. For those with any familiarity with the British Empire's colonial project, the racializing techniques employed look textbook. The maps, the images, the descriptions-- we've seen such in Palestine and elsewhere. More unsettling was how Kima reminded us of our sources for such "knowledge," the scholarly journals of our intellectual forebearers! And Kima's self-reflection as a Christian-trained, Mizo student in America bespeaks of the tangled web of significations in and around his project. In a most compelling manner, he has challenged us to read, write, re-read, and re-write our histories.
One of the landmarks of Lalruatkima’s presentation was the manner with which he was able to help us to locate colonial taxonomy of indigenous peoples. Not only did he demonstrate the problems inherent in colonial labels, but he also opens us up to consequences of not seeing the work to which knowledge could be, or has been, deployed. The worlding of peoples into geographies and their conscriptions into global cartographic discourses, he argues are precursors of colonization and cultural subservience. Very important too is the point which he argues about the relationships between colonial agents, photographs and colonialism. A strictly brilliant presentation in fact puts the projects of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures, the ways of classifying, and de-classifying of scriptures as entirely provocative and disturbing, intellectually. If this tool of imaging people into/before colonization was that successful, I would like to explore whether the same tools/methods had also been deployed in the productions of contemporary in their purportedly nation-states of Africa, especially Nigeria. I would also like to see if there are correlations in the ways the peoples of India view themselves in the aftermath of colonization and independence, and how the peoples in the nation states of black Africa reflect on their histories. And finally I would like to know if there are any totally positive results from the enslavement of the “other” through the processes of British and other imperial taxonomists.
Kima should be commended for such a novel approach in analyzing the tools of the colonizer. Scholars, such as David Chidester and Tomoko Masuzawa, have made us aware of the troubling inception of academic disciplines, such as anthropology and comparative religions, and the pursuit of knowledge of a peoples for the purpose of figuring out how best to conquer them. Kima has provided us with a poignant example of one of the ways in which knowledge of the other was created--through maps and photographs. Moreover, he has provided us with an example that is non-textual, although of course maps and photographs can be included in books.