AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 230

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Session 230: Local Modernities in South Asia

Organizer: Michael S. Dodson, Indiana University-Bloomington, USA

This panel presents new research on the engagements of a number of social, political, and cultural organizations in India with what is often called “modernity”, though we seek to re-evaluate the historical usefulness of the very notion of “modernity” by understanding it, first and foremost, as a locally salient form of thinking, acting, and being. The expression modernity is often deployed to connote imperial, national, or even global relationships and ideas. Such usage robs "the modern" of historical specificity. Collectively this panel proposes that ideas and practices of “the modern” gain social-cultural meaning and capital through local contexts. Modernity is never enacted on a global, or imperial, scale, but in neighbourhoods and locally discrete social communities. Through an examination of some of the classic themes of modernity, including education, urbanity, and cultural expression aided by technology, the papers of this panel proceed from a wide range of historical contexts to examine “modernity” as conceived, enacted, and made meaningful through a localized social “inhabiting”. In essays which examine topics ranging from Calcutta-based voluntary associations and the neighbourhood improvement organizations of Banaras of the 19th century, to Tamil “Icai Velalar” caste associations in Madras and film appreciation societies in Calcutta and Bombay of the 20th century, we also ask how participation in these localized modernities yielded forms of authority and social capital. Ultimately we seek to question whether it can be methodologically productive, across the range of contexts here, to engage with the notion of “modernity” principally through its local salience.

Modernity’s Infrastructure and Municipal Governance in Banaras
Michael S. Dodson, Indiana University-Bloomington, USA

Nineteenth-century Banaras figured as a key site in the colonial state’s attempts to write narratives of modernity and non-modernity into the Indian urban landscape. In travel accounts, for example, the apparent sacredness and timelessness of the city’s waterfront ghats (its religious landscape, in other words) was commonly juxtaposed with the “energetic modernity” of British-built infrastructure, including metalled roads, police stations, and post offices. But this easy formulation, while ideologically useful for the colonial state and its apologists, was also fundamentally misleading, for it obscured the disputed and negotiated nature of urban transformation in the city, and the wide range of interactions which the colonial state was forced to enter into during the city’s rebuilding. This paper seeks instead to understand the attempts at producing a “modern” landscape in Banaras as a reflection of the nature of locally driven municipal governance in Banaras under the superintendence of the bureaucratic colonial state. It focuses, in particular, upon the Banaras Municipal Board’s interactions with a variety of neighbourhood and service associations, including the Bengali Tola Association and the Kashi Sujan Samaj, during the course of the planning and implementation of the city’s water supply and sewerage scheme during the 1890s. Modernity was, then, less a reflection of the projected values of the colonial state (as a “modernity of sanitation”) than it was a set of local values forged in debate over appropriate forms of taxation, the entrenched rights of occupational groups, and the nature of Banarsi identity.

Acting Locally: Rethinking Voluntary Associations in Early Colonial Bengal
Brian A. Hatcher, Tufts University, USA

In his 1980 study of Bengali voluntary associations, Rajat Sanyal likened them to ‘training grounds’ where a new generation learned to imitate European bourgeois society. Sanyal also suggested that in some cases such associations provided a ‘shelter for dissenters.’ These two images—training ground and shelter—powerfully construct an image of the voluntary association as a kind of space into which certain historical actors inserted themselves. But by adopting such imagery, unfortunate consequences follow: First, we consent to think of modernity as something made generally available in South Asia, where it had only to be imitated or adopted; second, we construe the voluntary association as a generic space instead of as a localized product of particular actions, actions which could be at times congruent with modern norms but at others defiant of them; and third, we foreclose on the possibility of analyzing the origin and role of these associations in terms of both the actors who founded and inhabited them (e.g. landlords, pandits, entrepreneurs, students) and their attempts to appropriate, resist, reconfigure, or repurpose particular aspects of modernity. This paper therefore proposes to examine some associations from early colonial Calcutta—e.g. the Gauradesiya Samaj (1823) and the Dharma Sabha (1830)—in light of Alain Touraine’s writings on modernity, subjectivity, and social movements.

Radical Cinema and the Film Society Movement
Rochona Majumdar, University of Chicago, USA

In 1947 a group of journalists, documentary filmmakers, clerical workers, and copywriters formed in Calcutta a club in the model of “cine clubs” of Paris to promote “good” cinema in India. Their aim was not simply to emulate the Parisian clubs in their verbal discussions about films. They were determined as well to record their opinions in a journal comparable to the leading avant-garde French film magazine, Cahier du Cinema. By 1959, India would boast 59 such film clubs both in big cities like Bombay, Delhi, or Calcutta and smaller towns like Jodhpur or Roorkee. This “film society movement” was as much about politics as it was about cinema. In the voluminous literature produced by the various clubs, the stated goal of the movement was to promote a progressive, radical, left-oriented, democratic polity by exposing the Indian masses to “good” cinema. They alleged that commercial films churned out by the regional industries in different parts of the country were backward—a misuse of the “modern’ medium that cinema was. In the fast-changing political scenario of newly independent India, the film societies sought to inspire people by showing them powerful, realist, and even disturbing films. Such films they hoped would one day be made in India, too, but until then they would have to be acquired from abroad. Through an analysis of “good taste” in the writings of film society activists, I analyze the ways in which Indian film societies addressed the issue of what modern Indian cinema ought to be.

Morality as Modernity: “Icai Velalar” Caste Associations in Twentieth-Century Madras
Davesh Soneji, McGill University, Canada

In the late 1920s, as public debate on the reform of Tamil and Telugu-speaking devadasi women was reaching its apex in the Madras Presidency due to the proposed legal interventions of Dr. S. Muthulakshmi Reddi (1886-1968), men in these communities reinvented themselves as a discrete and “progressive” caste known as icai velalar (“cultivators of music”). Between 1927 and 1930, a large number of icai velalar caste associations were formed throughout the presidency, modeled after extant non-Brahmin caste associations for Cettiyars, Cenkuntars, and others. The icai velalar organizations had three major goals: (1) to assert and mobilize a fixed, uniform identity for an otherwise heterogeneous social group consisting of devadasis, male dance-masters and temple musicians, and barbers in the context of emergent non-Brahmin politics; (2) to lobby for the abolition of the devadasi lifestyle for their women and thereby restore patriliny in these communities; and (3) to actively arrange and enforce caste-endogamous marriages for women within the newly formed icai velala caste group. Women themselves remained largely absent from these deliberations. The political careers of C.N. Annadurai (1909-1969), founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and M. Karunanidhi, the current chief minister of the state, for example -- both sons of women from devadasi communities -- were enabled through this distinctly local, modern, self-fashioning. This paper demonstrates the ways in which modernity, understood here as radical moral and social reformation, could only be actualized through the highly gendered and localized space of the vernacular caste organization.