National Seminar on “Theory Today: Jati, Janjati and Janasampad”

Organised in celebration of 25 years of the Forum in collaboration with CIIL, Mysore, Sahitya Akademi and the Shillong Campus of the English and Foreign Languages University, 8-9th August 2014.

The Forum on Contemporary Theory is at the forefront of advancing critical theory as a pedagogical endeavour in India for the last 25 years. In celebrating its 25 years of existence, the Shillong Campus of the EFL University organised a national seminar on “Theory Today: Jati, Janjati and Jansamapad” with the challenge of opening up new frontiers of theorization. Such an adventure, it is felt, would ceratinly confront many difficulties especially when we embark upon theorizing from the locations of our thought: “India.” It is not that India has not been theorised, but countless traditions of life that have ceased to exist need to be explored and theorised.  Colonial modernity has inundated us with surfeit of theories about India: from Christian missionaries to social scientists, Indologists to Postcolonials; these theories continue to rule the roost. Yet, they are all immersed in the Western experience of representing India; it is the West that calls the shots and frames the answers. The question that we need to confront is: is it possible to reflect theoretically from the cherished patterns of our experience, from the “background” that nurtures our existence?   Such a question frees us from the ossified binary that the West is theory-oriented and India is merely praxis, available only to be constructed variously. To move out from this bind one needs to risk postulating critical modes of being that are pertinent to configure the singularities that made India. The India story has many beginnings and multiple narratives. All these diverse narratives contribute to the idea of India. This “idea” includes jati, janjati narratives as well as counter narratives that have made what India is today. These narratives have constituted our “jansampad” or inheritances.  Our jansampad is vast and diverse having many sources of origin and modes of articulation: mimetic/counter-mimetic, nature/culture, race/geography, language: written/oral etc. In India, the heterogeneous cultural formations – communities of people – continue to proliferate and circulate as jatis and janjatis over millennia on the subcontinent and beyond.  Each of these formations has generated distinct cultural forms in image, music, oral/written text modes.  Indian culture can thus be configured as inter-animating nodes and networks of jati/ janjati inheritances.  Cultural flows of this janasampada and the territorial demarcations of the nation state cannot be reduced to some isomorphic relation.  This extraordinary singularity of the subcontinent – jana jati diversity of its sampad – is yet to be theoretically explored to reconfigure the teaching and research in the humanities in our country. The seminar proceeding underlines this basic objective.

The inaugural session of the seminar began with a joyous invocation by Pynsuk Lien and Ms. Santidora Nongpluh, Assistant Professor, Department of JMC welcomed the guests. Professor Kailash C Baral, Director, EFLU-Shillong Campus presided over the session. Dr T K Kharbamon, Associate Professor, Department of ELE welcomed the respected dignitaries on the stage. Mr. Alankar Kaushik, Joint Coordinator of the National Seminar provided a lucid introduction to the topic of the seminar. The opening remarks on theory and praxis and East-West ‘theoretical’ encounter made by Professor Bishnu Mohapatra, Professor D. Venkat Rao, and Professor Prafulla C. Kar at the inaugural session set the tone of the seminar. The speakers emphasized on the need to refocus on our cultural inheritance and revisit the “jati”and “janajati” constructs from Indian resources including the Brahmaputra Cultural Stream (Northeast India) as a field of diverse cultural forms and formations. Professor Kailash C Baral, in his remarks, emphasized that theorizing India has to undergo the process of learning, unlearning and relearning. Ms Rebekah Tham, Assistant Professor, Department of German, EFLU-Shillong proposed the vote of thanks. 

Prof. Prafulla C. Kar addressing the audience

Professor D. Venkat Rao delivered the keynote address on “Mnemocultures of Communities: Towards a Transcultural Critical Humanities.” He emphasized on the issue of humanities in relation to ‘logos’ and the concept of the ‘human’ with his/her spheres of thoughts, reflection, creativity and action. He raised the question how to theorise the concept of humanistic discourse in the context of the Indian classroom in asking: who is the man who gets configured within the humanities? Are we, in countries like India, the legitimate addressees of the European logocentric discourse? India to him is not a homogeneous entity that is how it is represented in its classrooms. The Indian classroom is the most heterogeneous in that each of the students is a descendant of a jati or a janjati with the divergent cultural forms that he/she inherits. He talks about the dominant communication systems (DCS) comprising oral/gestural, scribal, print, audio-visual and digital/informational. Cultural Memories, in this context, can be manifested in ways they get articulated through lithic (inscriptional) and alithic (speech and body) forms. Indian Mnemocultural practices are articulated through embodied and enacted performances. These practices are alithic, thus being lively archives of cultural memory. Body itself becomes the medium of articulation; body becomes the site of rituals and embodied practices. Indian diverse cultural forms can be mapped as related constellations like the Gandhara, Brahmaputra, Sangam, Madhyadesa and Dakshinapada, and so on. Prof. Rao emphasized upon the necessity to delve deeper into the communities comprising these constellations and undertake research on the collective Mnemocultural practices embodied in the alithic cultural forms and formations of these communities. The session was chaired by Prof. Bishnu Mohapatra. 

Prof D Venkat Rao delivering the Keynote address

The first technical session started with the presentation of Jyotirmoy Prodhani. In his paper “The Modernity Project of India and its Anxieties: Jati, Jan-Jati and the Ambivalences of Janasampada”, he made an attempt to inquire into the indigenous idioms of theory. The Bengal Renaissance was an attempt to imbibe Western modernity to transform India subconsciously accepting the fact that India is a ‘barbaric society’ as described by Marx and Hastings. The barbarians need to be civilized not in their own inheritance and pedagogic modes but by western knowledge. As in Bengal the process of modernity in Assam followed an elitist path thereby creating an ambivalent situation among the high caste, educated Assamese and the janjatis.  Lulu Mariam Borgohain’s paper “Towards an Alternative Theory: A Critique of Ronbong Terang’s Rongmilir Hanhi” underlined the janajati anxiety that Prodhani has underlined in discussing the Assamese novel Rongmilir Hanhi by Karbi writer Rongbong Terang. The novel highlights Karbi way of life in the context of the Christian proselytizing mission and the subsequent struggle for Independence in India. Theorising such an inheritance is problematic as it is confronted with many erasures and contestations because of change in religion. Padam Nepal’s presentation “The “Rong” Verses, Subverses and Subversions” discussed the Lepcha poetry from Darjeeling and underlined meeting of time and space at the sites of memory that has a bearing on location and spaces people inhabit.  Lepchas living in Darjeeling have endeavoured to reclaim memories, rewrite history as well as recreate, reframe and perform a collective identity for their community.

Audience in the National Seminar listening to the presentation

Balaji Ranganathan’s paper “Rethinking Jati: The Argumentative Traditions and India” endeavoured to reposition jati within the argumentative traditions in India. He refers to Ambedkar and Gandhi, and reiterates their largely conflicting ideas on caste and jati. Gandhi was drawn towards the definition of truth and thus with the issues of attitude and conduct. Ambedkar was critical of the Gandhi’s negation of the category of the chaturvarnas and insisted on the scriptural dictates limiting or delimiting the authority of the caste based categories. Dr Ranganathan reemphasized the dynamics of jati and the janjati in their problematic relationship with the caste-oriented questions and criticisms. Balamani M in her presentation on “Jana-Sampad of Telangana Cultural Forms and Formations” discussed the practice of worshipping ‘batukamma’ in the newly created state of Telangana as a cultural-political event thereby recreating an identity for the new state. Nigamananda Das in his presentation “Jansampad of the Brahmaputra Valley: Colonial and Postcolonial Interface” contextualized his discussion in analyzing Mamang Dai’s The Legends of Pensam, Indira Goswami’s The Man from Chhinnamasta, and Estherine Iralu’s A Naga Village Remembered. He discussed the various cultural forms of Brahmaputra valley and their signatures on contemporary fictional works in rewriting the past.

The second academic session started with Preetinicha Barman Prodhani’s paper “The Fertility Cults and the Sphere of Women: Rituals of Hudum Deo and Kati among the Koch Rajbongshis.” She highlighted an important ritualistic practice amongst the Koch-Rajbangshi that is performed by women through the demonstration of their naked bodies in front of the totem representing the deity. She underlined that the cultural-ritual practice of most janajatis of Assam is symbolic of the body in that cultural practices are embodied acts. Namrata Pathak’s “The “Woman” in Assamese Marriage Songs: Society, Tradition and Transition” highlighted how many of the marriage songs are modified folk songs that suit to the demands of the contemporary society. These songs also deal with the cultural representation of the female body. Kamaluddin Ahmed’s “Reimagining Feminism in the Context of Karbi Women” analysed Karbi womanhood through the dynamics of feminist rethinking. The speaker viewed the ‘tribal’ Karbi women through the lens of changing social customs and traditional structures in the contemporary society. Nizara Hazarika in her presentation, “Folksongs as the Tradition of Women’s Liberation: Contextualising the Bihu Songs of Assam” attempted to chart out the role played by the Bihu songs in enabling women to move beyond the traditional patriarchal structures. Focussing on Bohag Bihu, in particular, Dr Hazarika analysed the elements of love and eroticism associated with the songs sung during the period. Arzuman Ara’s “Jati or Janjati? The Duality of Axomiya and Ahom Identities in Assamese Films: A Reading of Intersemiotic Translation of Some Select Films” dealt with the formation and transformation of the Assamese identity through the medium of films. The speaker underlined the fluid dichotomy between the Axomiya and the Ahom identity. Sudipta Phukan’s “Fictional Representation of Jongal Balahu in Rita Choudhhury’s novel Deou Langkhui” analysed the fictional representation of Jongal Balahu in Rita Choudhhury’s novel Deou Langkhui. The paper brought up certain significant issues pertaining to the historiographical documentation of the Tiwa community.

Professor B. Mohapatra in his plenary lecture began by rethinking the categories of Jati, Janjati and Jamsampad, thereby terming this as a mind-clearing exercise. For him, sustainability is seen as a shared currency used and applied by various disciplines and organisations. Over a period of time, the concept somehow has become mainstream with the blunting out of the dissenting voices. The idea of sustainability is connected to the concept of inter-generational justice, i.e. a sense of continuity. The way we shape the world, we can be certain about the well-being of our future generations. Sustainability therefore is the mantra based on justice. Prof. Bijay K Danta chaired the session.

Prof. Bishnu Mahapatra during his plenary lecture

Sarah Hilaly in her presentation, “Ritual and Territory: Mapping the Landscape Among the Galos of Arunachal Pradesh” discussed the story of migration as an onward journey into the habitats of the indigenous and ritual landscapes, and the return journey, through an exploration of the ‘migration myths’ and the ‘journey of the soul’ among the Galos of Arunachal Pradesh. Embedded within a spiritualised landscape are the cultural practices that provide a world view to the Galos.  Bijay K. Danta’s “Localizing Bhakti and Bhagavata: Kainphulia Baba, Gandhi and Modernity in Baudh-Athamallik (Odisha), circa AD 1970” historicised Kainphulia Baba, a local saint who radicalized bhakti not only as a mode of meditation but also of social protest in Odisha in the 1970s. Kainphulia Baba comes close to Gandhi using Indian spirituality as an instrument of radical politics. Gandhi’s and Kaiphulia Baba’s modernity could be to create a new consciousness in the midst of tradition not over throwing it. Asima Ranjan Parhi in his presentation “The Margin(?) and the Mainstream: Theorizing the Other and the Politics of Language” analysed the affiliations, interests and the nature of discourse formation through the interplay of linguistic jugglery and networking. Finally, it is linguistic identity, he concurred, that overthrows linguistic domination of English in the context of Arunachal Pradesh the way the language is twisted by news paper writing. Sajal Dey in his paper ‘Language as Jansampad in the Time of Digi-Globaliation: An Indian Perspective” began by raising the problem of maintaining the local against the onslaught of the Global of different kinds. As a result of globalizations of different kinds – international and national, digital and official, regional and local – most of the Indian languages are losing their domain value. Hirokjeet Roy in his presentation “The Longing from Jati to Jana Jati: Politics of Janajatikaran of the Koch-Rajbongshis of Assam” probed into the current politics of janajatikaran in relation of the Koch Rajbongshi community in Assam. The speaker has tried to trace the tribal past of the Koch Rajbongshi community in order to provide an empirical insight into the demand for ST status made by the community. Bhaskar Jyoti Gogoi in his paper “Janasampadic Ecosystem: A Study on Some Sacred Groves of Assam” underlined the need to preserve these groves not only as ecosystems but as inheritances as many myths, stories and ritual practices are associated with them. 

Shri Purno A Sangma, Chief Guest of the National Seminar being felicitated

In the valedictory session of the National Seminar Hon’ble Member of Parliament and Former Lok Sabha Speaker Shri Purno A Sangma graced the occasion as the Chief Guest of the National Seminar.