Department of English, Jadavpur University

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Commodities and Culture

Commodities and Culture in the Colonial World, 1851-1914.


Leverhulme Trust International Network, 2009-11, between CAS English, Jadavpur, King’s College London, New York University, Exteter University, University of Technology Sydney, and Witwatersrand University SA. Grant amount: 80,875 GBP. See website,

This international collaborative project focused both on material culture and cultural ‘transactions’. It involved three major Workshops at the three principal collaborating institutions, King’s College London, Jadavpur CAS, and New York University. Jadavpur, in association with the National Library and Victoria Memorial Hall, hosted the second Workshop in January 2011. The proceedings of the three workshops have been collected and a book proposal submitted to Routledge UK under the editorship of Supriya Chaudhuri, Josephine McDonagh, Brian Murray and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (2013)

Report on the Kolkata workshop:

‘Commodities and Affect’, 12-14 January, 2011, Kolkata. Co-ordinated by Supriya Chaudhuri, Nilanjana Deb, Abhijit Gupta, Amlan Das Gupta

That thing called feeling

A Report by Durba Basu, New York University

The second workshop of the network, ‘Commodities and Affect’, was hosted by the Centre of Advanced Study in English, JadavpurUniversity, Kolkata, with the collaboration, academic support and participation of the Victoria Memorial Hall and the National Library, during 12-14 January, 2011. Each of these institutions having played a significant role in the circulation of material and intellectual commodities in the colonial period and thereafter, the choice of venues was apposite to the aims of the network, in terms of the material and period that is its subject of inquiry. It was evident from the programme that the three-day workshop was structured so as to suit the ‘sentiment of place’ at each of the venues. The staff at Victoria Memorial and National Library extended their warm hospitality to the visitors, and throughout the workshop, the students of Jadavpur ensured in every possible way that the visitors felt at home. In this post, I will try to report on some of the papers I listened to.

Jadavpur University, where the first day’s sessions were held, though established in 1955, had its beginnings in the National Council of Education, and the Society for Promotion of Technical Education, both set up in 1906, as a direct fallout of the Swadeshi and Boycott movement, and very befittingly, the day’s focus was on social history, with one of the panels being themed around the affect generated by commodities as inflected by Swadeshi politics. The workshop started with Partha Chatterjee’s talk on how the playing of football and the rise of native football clubs in colonial Calcutta served to produce collective identity. The first panel on water featured Toral Gajarawala’s paper with responses by Elaine Freedgood and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan. Toral Gajarawala read water as a secularist and literary object in Mulk Raj Anand’s 1935 novel Untouchable, where water operates as the metaphor which enables the reading of the low-caste central character Bakha as an untouchable. Mindful of the casteized value of water, and other associations, the paper went on to discuss the role of water in the Arya Samaj’s programme of shudhhi (purification) current during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The latter part of the paper used this history to consider water as a metaphor for consciousness and as a commodity, in scenes from contemporary Dalit Hindi fiction.

For Elaine Freedgood, the point of departure was Toral Gajarawala’s insight about the freedom to drink water being associated with other material and non-material freedoms. She contended that the freedom to drink water is also the freedom to metaphorize it as life itself, which does not exist for 1.3 billion people in today’s world, who do not have access to potable water. In tracing the emergence of water as a ‘purified’ commodity in Victorian Britain, Freedgood provided a startling account of the emergence, in the wake of sanitary reform, of pollution as something physical. Physical filth began to be equated with moral filth, and the poor being polluted on both counts posed a double social risk. Sanitary reform resulted in a kind of affective training of the sensory organs, so that the poor could be morally disliked for being polluted. If water, as Gajarawala suggests, is first dematerialized and metaphorized in the portrayal of the Dalit, and then re-materialized to de-caste in Dalit literature, pollution in nineteenth-century Britain has moved in the opposite trajectory, from the realm of the metaphysical to the physical.

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s response elaborated on water and ritual, and the affective, epistemic and political implications of the secularization of water in Indian colonial modernity. The paper began with a discussion of the contradiction between the notion of the sacredness of the river and its physically polluted state, the traditional belief of the Ganga’s purity and the new scientific belief in its pollutedness — a  contradiction that has been the legacy of the emergence of the colonial state as a ‘hydraulic society’, as Marx called it. Invoking Partha Chatterjee’s Texts of Power, Sunder Rajan pointed out how the language of purity and the language of scientific pollution are both dependent on the deployment of the affect of nostalgia. The paper ended by asking whether profanation is not the logical solution to the hegemonic curse of the commodity.

Taking off from the discourse around ghee (clarified butter) in Shibram Chakrabarty’s writings, Ujjayan Bhattacharya’s paper explored how the affect around ghee contributed to the emergence of a national and regional Bengali identity in popular imagination. Though Shibram’s writings are situated in the post-Swadeshi period, swadeshi was very much in the air as part of nationalist idiom. Pivotal to the argument of the paper was Shibram’s disquiet about the monopolization of production of ghee by Marwari traders from North India that led to a replacement of traditional Bengali ghee with a hydrogenated variety poor in nutritive value, and also contributed to Bengal’s economic decline. In stressing upon the need to think of the nation in terms of its people, and giving this a regional inflection, Shibram underscores the human content of nationalism. In a closing meditation, Bhattacharya pointed out, very rightly, that Shibram’s disquiet gestures towards the overlooking of regional imbalances in questions of economy by nationalists.

Engaging in dialogue new imperial histories and the ‘nonhuman turn’ in science studies Rohan Deb Roy’s paper studied the history of malaria from 1890 to 1910. Deb Roy focussed on the ‘co-constitutive nature’ of colonial governance, pharmaceutical business, scientific knowledge and colonial markets. Deb Roy closed by positing quinine as a metaphor for empire, being “bitter, expensive and transformative, which could be mutated variously to appear as charitable, reasonable and even palatable.” By demonstrating the ‘side-effects’ of empire the paper argued that empire could not be attributed a coherent intentionality always. If such ‘side-effects’ of empire might be taken to mean that the colonized’s perception of imperial rule could be contingent as well, then this was a segue to John Plunkett’s paper that opened the next day’s proceedings at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

The day closed with a performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s play Arup Ratan, by the students of the Department of English, Jadavpur University, and directed by Ananda Lal. Arup Ratan is a later version of another of Tagore’s plays, Raja, and circulates in a corrupt, unauthorized English translation titled The King of the Dark Chamber (Macmillan 1914). Edited and contemporized, it was the annual dramatic production of the department, as well as its offering for the Tagore sesquicentennial, and also entertained the audience with the ‘uncommodified affect’ of Tagore’s text.

The Victoria Memorial, dedicated to the memory of Queen Victoria as its name suggests, is located in the heart of the Maidan (literally, large, open field), in Kolkata’s bit of what once corresponded to the ‘white town’ of Frantz Fanon’s Manichean colonial city. Inaugurated by the Prince of Wales in 1921, it was the British attempt to rival the elegance and splendour of the Taj Mahal— a rare instance of mimetic impulse in the colonial encounter operating in the reverse direction so obviously. The colonizer hardly ever leaves such spectacular testimony of wanting to imitate the colonized, let alone a piece of fine architecture that is so firmly a part of the colonized’s cultural heritage.  It is as if the centre, despite itself, acknowledged for once in the periphery, that fact of its permeation by the periphery. Memory and desire remain intermeshed in the marble poetry of the Victoria Memorial, as an exceptional instance of overt, officially endorsed colonial desire, which in its other iterations operates covertly, as Robert Young’s Colonial Desire has shown. Later in the morning, John Plunkett was to recount Lord Curzon’s wish to rival the Taj in memorializing Victoria. Little children playing on the gravel or posing for photographs in front of Victoria’s statue flood me with memories of my earliest visits— I did not know then Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s paper would make me revisit them, yet again, and recall everything I have ever done in the vicinity of a public statue in Kolkata. Courteous student volunteers ensured I did not have to even produce the invitation card, and shepherded me past the Queen’s milling visitors to the Eastern Portrait Gallery.

The museum houses a collection of artefacts and memorabilia from the colonial period, which the guests at the workshop were invited to view. The day’s sessions started after an introductory address by the Secretary and Curator, Chitta Panda. John Plunkett argued that print media and communications technology worked hand in hand to commodify the affect around the figure of Queen Victoria so that it became centrally constitutive of British imperial mythology, both formal and informal. The maternal representation of Victoria made way for representing empire as a project of familial affection and responsibility, a suggestion which recalled the ‘benevolence’ of the ‘civilizing mission’. However, the portrayal of Victoria as imperial matriarch, and the resultant contradiction between familial affect and the injustices of colonial rule was occasionally appropriated by nationalists, for contesting structures imperial power. Plunkett gestured towards the need for more in-depth reading of the Indian responses, the need for evaluating the extent of their representativeness, and the extent to which they signify the loyalty of the colonized. The paper elicited several reactions among the audience about the representations of Victoria in popular culture and ways of reading them: Partha Chatterjee asked how much of it was officially generated, Tapati Guha-Thakurta pointed out that in the Kalighat pats, both the Rani of Jhansi and Victoria appear as maternal figures, and Margot Finn asked if the trope of the family could be regarded as universal, and if the trope worked differently in the colony. The paper ended by leaving us with a crucial question on the nature of affect: is affect something that intrinsically defies determinism? Perhaps it is a question that the network will return to when considering the theoretical frameworks that inform the field of inquiry.

Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s study of the public statuary of Calcutta produced during the colonial period unveiled complex histories of travelling raw material, plaster of Paris models, and relocation of statues— statues newly made being sent from metropole to colony, or after decolonization, being sent back from colony to metropole, or off to another colony on being displaced by the statues of nationalist leaders or other public figures.  Guha-Thakurta argued that the marble and bronze imperial men, now mostly relocated to the grounds of the Barrackpore Flagstaff House or the Victoria Memorial gardens have made the transition from being merely dead statuary to being pure sculpture, in contrast to the statuary that has often displaced them, that are part of the social-realist iconography of the postcolonial nation. The paper opened up histories that must be engaged with when considering Indian colonial statuary and its postcolonial counterpart. If post-Independence public statuary is dead because they do not command significant urban spectatorship and only fulfil a commemorative function if at all, their production often involved a good deal of affective investment on the part of sculptors, for example, Debiprosad Roy Chowdhury’s statue of Gandhiji for which he had to melt a bronze bust of his father to repair a leg of the father of the nation (damaged while being lifted on the pedestal), there being an acute local shortage of metals. While the context of developments in the history of sculpture in Europe can explain the richness of colonial statuary, the fraught relationship between schools of Indian modern art come into play when considering the statuary of a later period. The displacement of colonial statuary which was intrinsic to the commemorative endeavour of postcolonial (in a temporal sense) statuary, has paradoxically transformed colonial statuary into pure sculpture (as opposed to ‘dead’ statuary), and also imparted to them an affective resonance, as Guha-Thakurta argued through her reading of the statue of Lord Canning, now at the Barrackpore Flagstaff House, overlooking the grave of his dead wife, and by invoking the imaginary conversations Gopalkrishna Gandhi had with the twelve Raj statues in the gardens, who for him were the only true residents of the Governor’s residence. The various trajectories of affect that this study revealed returned us once again to the question that John Plunkett raised about affect and determinism.

Lunch in the Eastern Quadrangle after this session, with Lord Cornwallis masquerading as a Roman Emperor presiding over us, seemed to be steeped in history. I do not recall another visit to the Victoria Memorial when the statuary around me has seemed so eloquent. Gazing at Cornwallis, I relived every visit there since I was a four-year old, and do not think I shall go again without the experience being palimpsestic. We returned from lunch to the Eastern Portrait Gallery, to a session on the feeling of networks, with the statues of Lords Dalhousie, Hastings and Wellesley for company. The session on the feeling of networks took up some of the conceptual issues germane to the network’s subject of study, and offered a discussion prior to individual presentations. Josephine McDonagh emphasized how the global circulation of commodities in the Victorian period such as the novel served to disseminate affect. Clare Pettitt took the point further saying that such circulation literally puts up affect for sale as a commodity, though there would always be local exceptions in the response for commodification, and underscored the need for questioning the efficacy of ‘commodity’ as a unit of analysis, and for freshly examining Karl Marx’s account of it. Referring to Meghan Vaughan’s work on how Africa resisted integration into what Chris Bayly described as the ‘birth of the modern world’, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan commented on how there have always been cultures that would deliberately resist commodification. Ian Henderson’s paper made a persuasive case for A.A. Phillips’ essay ‘The Cultural Cringe’ (1950/1958) as a seminal text in the postcolonial analysis of affect. The paper offered a comparative analysis of Phillips’ text, which outlines three ways of consuming Australian culture (corresponding to three physical poses, namely, ‘Cultural Cringe’, ‘Cultural Strut’ and ‘a relaxed erectness of carriage’) and Anthony Trollope’s accounts of his travels in Australia and New Zealand (1878). What was uncovered was Anthony Trollope’s problematic notion of the Antipodean colonist’s confused feelings about how to respond to England, and what he thought was inordinate pride in local cultural heritage, which were both caused by being distant from England— problems to which Trollope’s antidote was his dictum of ‘Don’t blow’. The paper juxtaposed this dictum with Phillips’ ‘Cultural Strut’ to argue that Trollope could very well be the model of the menacing Englishman that was the root cause of the cringe, although Phillips’ antidotal posture is very possibly only white.

Supriya Chaudhuri’s paper on art manufactures of colonial India focussed on the catalogues produced by Trailokyanath Mukharji, to uncover the affective investment that such cataloguing often involved on the part of catalogue-makers. Chaudhuri stressed on Trailokyanath’s interest in the revival of declining or lost arts for the benefit of poor craftspersons as evidenced in his catalogues to argue that this went much beyond a native expert’s being a cog in the wheel of imperial interests, and nor can it be adequately explained as an instance of the enlistment of native expertise in colonial knowledge-production working at cross-purposes with its foundational principles. Trailokyanath’s affective investment is borne out in the tendency towards anecdotal descriptions of the articles to be displayed, and what is more, this affective excess survives as a kind of surplus that has not been fully absorbed by the figure described. Chaudhuri reads this as indicative of the emergence of a new kind of sensibility that informed the revivalist programme at the turn of the century that though it invests in the taxonomic work associated with commodity production and display, it is contrary to the kind of commodity fetishism Walter Benjamin describes in his famous characterization of it in ‘Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.’

The proceedings at Victoria Memorial were brought to a close by a special lecture, ‘Writer’s Cramp’ by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal, co-sponsored by the Centre for Advanced Study in English, Jadavpur University, the Victoria Memorial Hall and the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. The lecture took place in the Western Quadrangle, with a pensive Lord Hastings gazing at the audience from behind the speaker. The former Governor’s lecture was a timely meditation on the need for writers to work autonomously of forces of commodification, and by extension, on the social responsibility of the intellectual.

The venue of the last day’s sessions, on print culture, books, archives and libraries, was the National Library. The library, on the Belvedere Estate, was the erstwhile residence of Warren Hastings when he was the Governor-General. Having its beginnings as the Calcutta Public Library, it was renamed as the Imperial Library in 1891, and was given its present name after Independence. As a depository library it has been central to the circulation of printed material since the colonial times. During lunch, the visitors were escorted to an exhibition of rare archival material.

Swapan Chakravorty, Director-General of the National Library, opened the day’s proceedings with his paper on the library as affect. Through a thorough textual study of Rabindranath Tagore’s meditations (both in fiction and non-fiction) on the library and the printed book, at various times of his career, Chakravorty argued that there were two kinds of attitudes to the colonial public library that persist to this day in our thinking about libraries. One is the valorization of exhaustiveness, that equates comprehensiveness of stocks with quality (which Tagore feared as ‘the historian’s fetish’) and the other is the Tagorean ideal of the intimate library where dead words wake to life at the interested reader’s touch, a library that places more premium on its ability to be selective in its stocks than comprehensive, and where the librarian is more of an ‘host’ than a ‘storekeeper’. Abhijit Gupta’s paper revealed print to be an arena of proxy warfare in the indigo uprisings in nineteenth-century Bengal. Print appeared to have mobilized affect in various ways, especially as the English translation of Dinabandhu Mitra’s play Nil-darpan was both printed and distributed on government initiative, with a section of the government obviously sympathizing with the lot of the peasants. Tanya Agathocleous’s paper examined the history of the English-language periodical East and West to trace emergent cosmopolitan ideals in the period, and identified several trajectories for it within the journal itself. If one variety advocated assimilation for Indians into British norms, there were at least two other varieties—a commodifiable variety corresponding to Srinivas Aravamudan’s characterization that owed its origin to the perception of Indian spirituality in the West, and a non-commodifiable variety that Agathocleous characterizes as close to the incipient internationalism of what would later emerge as the Non-Aligned Movement. Rangana Banerji’s paper on the performance of Hamlet in translation in the nineteenth-century fairground in Bengal argued that what was in fact a culturally translated version of Shakespeare’s text had become incomprehensible to the English viewer R.E. Vernède through the use of a range of objects. If the objects seem to metaphorically represent a Victorian cornucopia, then what they accomplish is a metonymic shift in the affect produced by Shakespeare’s text. The question of cultural translation in the paper led me to think that some kinds of affect may be extremely localized in that they may resist linguistic translation. What challenges do such untranslatable affect pose for postcolonial historiography, in making intelligible the fruits of research in a shared language?

At the end of the day’s proceedings, Margot Finn summed up the ideas that emerged in the workshop, and emphasized that the understanding of commodity as a process or concatenation of processes needs further exploration. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan observed that the role of affect in the resistance to the commodity had emerged very fruitfully in the discussions. In the discussions during an earlier session during the day, Isabel Hofmeyr mooted the idea of ‘print mercantilism’ (after Sheldon Pollock’s ‘script mercantalism’) as a substitute for use in contexts where ‘print capitalism’ may seem anachronistic. Rimi B. Chatterjee cautioned that we need to remember that how we look at commodity and affect is different from what it meant during the period under study. Stephen Muecke noted that it may be worthwhile to consider the commodity in terms of development and uneven development, for what is being sold is the desire to be modern. Clare Pettitt urged for the necessity to consider disagreements about how the commodity may be defined across time and localities, and several speakers observed that ‘glocality’ had emerged as a mode for considering the relationship between commodity and affect. With such reflections, and farewells over coffee, the Kolkata workshop came to an end, and I am sure that these questions, and many others, will be explored at the final workshop in New York.

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