the art of being "native"; tribal figures and figurations in India


Friday 18th June 2010 from 9.30 am to 6.30 pm

Cinema Room

  • study day coordinated by Raphaël Rousseleau
  • jointly organised by the musée du quai Branly, ANR "HimalArt", LESC, Paris X - Nanterre, Centre d'Etude de l'Inde et de l'Asie du Sud (CNRS-EHESS)


Indian tribal art, or âdivâsî art, is commonly defined as a type of "native" expression, in several ways. This is primarily (1) the art of the "first inhabitants" or "aborigines" (âdivâsî) of the Indian territory, who predated the arrival of the speakers of the Sanscrit language and the caste system – and of course the later European colonists. For this reason, some authors consider these groups as representative of the authentic "pre-colonial" India.

This predating of later populations, and the apparently forest-based lifestyle of the tribes means that Indian aboriginal art also includes (2) aesthetic forms whose major references are the natural environment (vegetation, animals), together with the land itself being elevated to the rank of a major divinity, according to a number of widely-published authors.

This study day assembles a number of specialists in the field to examine two separate aspects of the problem: - âdivâsî art as it is imagined and presented on the basis of the figure of the tribesman as the "primitive Indian" by town-dwellers, Indians or Westerners and - the same art as it is practised, lived and commentated upon by its local producers. This critical perspective will initially enable us to retrace the major steps in the genesis of this contemporary infatuation with various "tribal" forms of expression in India, while emphasising the role paradoxically played by the image of the "primitive Indian" in the development of "modern" art in this country. For example, we will see that since its definition, Indian "tribal art" has constantly been simultaneously associated with and distinguished from its conceptual twin: "popular Hindu" art and that they both form part of a quest for a national identity.

We will then proceed with an examination of the actors and targets sought, which will offer a more in-depth picture of the status of contemporary tribal "artists" and their creations. The very category of artist is self-evidently new to these populations and leads to a certain number of socio-cultural changes which highlight some individuals rather than others. Similarly, the promotion of this type of art depends on national cultural policies that we must take into account, as these also direct the type of works disseminated. Some of the speakers will discuss these questions.

Going beyond these recent transformations, others will examine the original use of the objects concerned (paintings, sculptures) and their status: were these "representations" in the strict meaning of the term, or "presentifications" (J.-P. Vernant)?; in other words, invocational objects, temporary mediums for a divine presence, or images enabling mediation between human groups and a variety of non-human alterities. On this point, the Western notions of "nature" or "land" appear too generic in relation to those used by the âdivâsî. Moreover, "aboriginal" art is not exempt from references to the society of hindu castes in this world. How can we integrate all of these facts?

These are just some of the many questions that lead to a better understanding of these objects and their development, which we will examine on the basis of materials from the field. Between the image of the primitive and the status of contemporary artist, we will see how some current âdivâsî creators negotiate with their image to create their own work.

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