Artisanal Labor in South Asia: Revisiting Historiography and Material Practices

AHA Session 22
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 1
Labor and Working-Class History Association 2
Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
La Galerie 3 (New Orleans Marriott)
Lisa Trivedi, Hamilton College
Abigail McGowan, University of Vermont

Session Abstract

The three papers in this panel revisit debates about the place of the artisan in South Asia. Why does artisanal labor persist and why has it not passed away as a remnant of a pre-modern form of labor? Given the persistence of artisanal labor in the modern global economy, the South Asian artisan remains relevant and increasingly serves as a lightning rod for anxieties about under-development, sustainability, local initiatives and global consumption.

     Douglas Haynes (Dartmouth) traces the twentieth-century historiography of cloth–producing artisans, arguing that handloom weavers and others have never been completely understood as figures involved in shaping the character of Indian capitalism. This paper builds on his specialization on the history of South Asian capitalism and his publications including Toward a History of Consumption in South Asia co-edited with Abigail McGowan and most recently, Small-Town Capitalism in Western India: Artisans, Merchants and the Making of the Informal Economy.

     Edward Cooke (Yale) uses a 1792 drawing that depicts a Bengali potter to explore how the British artist rendered the potter in a way that changed Bengali techniques to fit into notions of English artisanal labor. To this work on village craft in Bengal, Cooke brings his experience as founding co-editor of The Journal of Modern Craft, co-curator and author of five different exhibitions.

     Pankhuree Dube (Emory) takes up the question of where adivasi or indigenous artisans, specifically the Gond artisans of Mandla District in Madhya Pradesh, fit into the nationalist narrative. With support from the 2011 SSRC Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship, she met with regional language scholars of Gondi language and history in Jabalpur and Dindori, and villagers in Patangarh.  Drawing on archival research and oral histories, Dube explores how adivasi artisans were crucial to the nationalist project even as the rights of adivasi communities were circumscribed.

     Discussant Abigail McGowan (University of Vermont) is the author of Crafting the Nation in Colonial India, an analysis of the politics of craft development in colonial western India. She has published widely on late nineteenth century revivals of traditional Indian design, artisanal education, and feminized consumption in colonial India. As respondent, McGowan will elaborate the connections between papers, between scholarly positions as well as comment on debates concerning artisanal labor and nationalism. Presiding chair Lisa Trivedi (Hamilton College) has written extensively on swadeshi and khadi cloth with specific attention to the place of gender in discussions of artisan cloth-production.

     By bringing academics who work on Western, Central and Eastern South Asian craft to the same session, this formal panel announces a commitment to cross-regional approaches. Historically, South Asia’s artisans have been imbricated in ideas of capitalism, de-industrialization, the impact of colonialism and the terms of indigenous agency and innovation. Rethinking the notion of South Asian artisanal labor, each of the panelists in this session raise valuable questions concerning the links between capitalism, nationalism and the limits of the existing historiography.

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