‘An impressive range of events…’
04 February, 2011
Commodities and Affect: Fariha Shaikh (KCL) February 2011
The Kolkata Workshop was a collaborative effort organized by three institutions - Jadavpur University, the National Library of India, and the Victoria Memorial Hall. All three contributed hospitality and academic support to the Network, in the belief that the university, the museum and the library were sites for the circulation of material and intellectual commodities in the colonial period and thereafter, and each had a distinct role to play in understanding this history. The Kolkata Workshop was therefore planned in such a way that the focus was on social history on the first day at Jadavpur, on art, memorials and exhibitions on the second day at the Victoria Memorial, and on print culture, books and libraries on the third day at the National Library. At both the Victoria Memorial and the National Library, delegates were offered the opportunity of viewing the special exhibitions, which offered a visible testimony of the material culture of the period under study, in the shape of artefacts and printed books.
The programme boasted an impressive range of events, that extended beyond the usual staple of lectures, to a student production of Arup Ratan (a play by Rabindranath Tagore and directed by Ananda Lal), a talk by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, and an exhibition of archival material at the National Library, Kolkata. On each day, we were escorted by student volunteers to a different location: on the first, to Jadavpur University; on the second, to Victoria Memorial Hall and on the third, to the National Library. It was an exciting time to be in Kolkata. We experienced at first-hand the generous hospitality of the students of Jadavpur University and the staff of all three institutions who worked tirelessly to make sure our stay in Kolkata was a pleasant one and the Workshop a fruitful intellectual partnership, a true ‘network’ of relations.
Over the course of the three days, we explored how affect politicises even the most basic things, for example, food, water, books and land. Each of the papers came at the intersections between ‘commodity’ and ‘affect’ from a different angle, producing a rich dialogue across different periods and disciplines. Here, I have been able to touch upon many, but not all, of the papers presented.
The NYU panel on water explored the different symbolic meanings water acquires across time and space. Toral Gajarawala argued that water in Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935) is an ‘idle metaphor’: it is a scarce commodity in the novel, yet there is an abundance of it in metaphorical terms. She posed the question of what it means to use water as a metaphor when there is a material lack of it in the novel. Her argument came to rest on the thesis that water in the novel is ‘secularized’: it is the ‘metaphoric consciousness’ of the novel, present not as an object in religious worship, but in connection with questions of casteized labour. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan took up the idea of water as a sacred object, specifically in the context of the water of the River Ganges. Her question, ‘How can the world’s most sacred river be so heavily polluted?’, highlighted the competing scientific and religious attitudes towards the river. Rajeswari argued that such discrepant attitudes have not aided the ecological stability of the river. The religious belief that the holy water of the Ganges is able to break down toxic elements is contested by the fact that it is heavily polluted and under threat from global warming, but in its ‘modern secular mode’, Rajeswari argued, the government had failed to clear up the Ganges. Elaine Freedgood coupled the notion of pollution with that of consumption: she explored the rhetoric surrounding the purification processes of water in the nineteenth century. The sanitary reform movement, she argued, did not just emphasise the need for the physical purity of water: it also aimed to cultivate feelings of disgust and repugnance towards drinking diluted sewage.
In the response session to the panel, Nilanjana Deb (Jadavpur University) commented on how sacred water is also commodified – bottled and sold as ‘Gangajal’ (Ganges Water), for example. Her comment elicited a number of responses from the audience. One member argued that ‘when you want to remove water from common use, you render it sacred’, exposing how ‘the sacred’, as a form of affect, calls into play notions of access, use and power. Another member of the audience commented that deep ecologists see water as a source of life, not just as a resource: was the division between secular and sacred so clear-cut?
The workshop interrogated the politics of consumption by examining the affective lives of food – ‘consumption’ in the literal sense of the term. Ujjayan Bhattacharya (Vidyasagar University), in his talk ‘The cultures of Swadeshi’, looked at the heightened awareness of a particular food, ghee (clarified butter), in the pre-Gandhian struggles to overcome British rule. He argued that in an effort to cultivate the feeling of belonging to the nation, nationalists encouraged the boycotting of non-Bengali ghee by casting it as ‘bisri’ (awful) and ‘bhajal’ (having other ingredients mixed in). Ghee thus became implicated in a nationalist discourse. Modhumita Roy (Tufts University, Boston) continued to explore the link between foodstuff and nationalism in her paper on mulligatawny soup. She presented us with a brief history of how the Indian soup became absorbed into the British diet, first as a fashionable soup in the nineteenth century and later on as a commodity, as companies such as Heinz capitalized on it. Through the varied history of the soup’s uptake by British people, Modhumita read mulligatawny as an object that blends the domestic and foreign and cuts across class boundaries.
In his paper on the ‘Side-Effects of Empire’, Rohan Deb Roy (CSSS) argued that quinine was the ultimate metaphor for empire: it was government-administered medication and could be cast as bitter, a burden and disagreeable, but simultaneously, as charitable, beneficial and helpful. The pictures accompanying Rohan’s paper raised tangentially the question of how temporal difference transforms the affective field. Whilst adverts for commodities such as anti-malaria soap, for example, were taken seriously in their time, they were the subject of light amusement for the audience. The focus on archiving in Hardik Brata Biswas’s and Amlan Das Gupta’s (Jadavpur University) papers highlighted the temporality of affect more directly. Together, their papers showed that although we may succeed in preserving the aural or visual object, we cannot preserve the affect that the object once produced. Indeed, archiving itself displays a transformation of affect, as those who work in archiving engage with the objects not as consumers of popular culture, but as scholars.