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Imagining the Transcultural

Developing Alternative Frames of Reference

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Tejaswini Niranjana
p. 50-51

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1Contemporary globalization processes often obscure older historical lines of connection across the continents. My recent work has focused on the cultural practices of people of Indian origin in the Eastern Caribbean, in Trinidad. I argue that we in India need to understand this subaltern diaspora (1845-1917) of indentured labourers as the illegitimate doubles of modern Indians in India.

2Here is a brief account of some of the methodological issues and theoretical questions raised by the project, speculating as to the implications of these for how we think about contexts other than our own but with similar geopolitical locations.

3My main effort has been to conceptualise frameworks for comparative research across Southern contexts and contribute to developing alternative frames of reference. The method has been broadly interdisciplinary, drawing on literary studies, feminist theory, anthropology, musicology, film studies, all of which I bring to the analysis of cultural practice.

4The tensions of the project have lain in my ambiguous relationship with (a) a region – the Caribbean – which initially came before me as an object of ethnographic inquiry with all its attendant anxieties, and on which I had to learn to bring to bear the sorts of critical post-Orientalism questions that I was asking in my own postcolonial context, and with (b) a subject – “the Indian in the Caribbean” – whose history and even future may not have much in common with my own. Yet, I have argued, thinking about this region and this subject may well alter the ways by which India Indians conceptualise issues of their cultural identity. Given the historical linkages between India and the Caribbean, the comparative research project detailed in this book has had to take on the challenge of not merely pointing out similarities and differences but investigating how each location is marked by the other.

5What my project has tried to do primarily is to displace Western modernity as the singular legitimating pole of comparison for analyses of Southern societies. Noting that all scholarship is comparative by definition, and that the implicit point of reference is bound to be the West (although imagined differently in each context), I began by making an argument for alternative frameworks of analysis which might strain against the inherent asymmetries of the comparativist project.

6The specific undertaking has been to look at the invocations of Indianness in the Caribbean. The perspective from which these invocations have been examined was one of an Indian from the subcontinent in South Asia, halfway across the world, an inhabitant of the region that was Columbus’ original destination on the journey which “discovered”, and mistakenly named, the (West) Indies. The historical connections between India and the Caribbean are often consigned to the marginal notes in the story of Empire. A central argument in my project was that focussing on these obscure connections would produce a very different narrative than the conventional one about the formations of modernity in both India and Trinidad. While the invocation or mobilisation of “India” in these two Southern locations clearly has divergent histories, I would argue that in looking at the histories together we can throw new light on the meanings and resonances of that imagined cultural space.

7The focus of the project’s comparative endeavour has been the question of women, concentrating on the representations and deployment of that category rather than simply talking about empirical women.I approach “Indian women” in many diverse ways: in rethinking the history of indentureship in relation to the campaigns of early twentieth century Indian nationalism, and consequently arguing for a new perspective on the making of normative Indian femininity; in looking at women of Indian origin as producers and performers of an exciting new kind of Caribbean music; in working through the historical deployment of the exotic Indian female in calypso and soca, or in re-examining that figure in contemporary Trinidadian cultural politics; and in exploring how Trinidadian music of all genres draws on the Hindi film industry in India. The project tries to establish implicit connections between the disavowal of the subaltern Indian diaspora by India and the mobilisation of India in the Caribbean, emphasising once again the centrality of notions of the “Indian woman” to both sets of processes.

8The other thread running through the project is the emphasis on popular music as a key site of cultural politics. While retaining the focus on the shaping of “Indian women” and the fashioning of “Indian” identities, I seek to explore a range of musical practices in Trinidad – from chutney, calypso and soca to chutney-soca, Hindi film songs and rapso – with a view to analyzing how they demarcate the musical arena where these identities are socially performed.

9The general argument of the project is that the discourses and practices of nationalist modernity, and the formation of modern subjectivities, in India and Trinidad can be understood differently by repositioning the frame of analysis. Such a repositioning, I suggest, can be achieved through a double strategy: an investigation of the multiple processes by which “subaltern” migrants from India are disavowed in past and present in their country of origin, and an inquiry into the contemporary cultural practices implicating the descendants of these migrants in their current home.

10During my research in Trinidad, I was fascinated by the identities that come to be called “Indian” in the Caribbean. Often, it became clear that those who participated in the production of these identities saw them as integral to a profoundly “local” situation, with no reference to any distant homeland. Although India in the early twenty-first century is participating in new forms of globalization, when my research started in the early 1990s this process was not yet fully underway. As one anticipated the formation of new hegemonies and wondered what sort of critical interventions might be shaped, one looked back to an earlier phase of globalization – that inspired by Empire – to track the migration and transformation of bodies and cultural practices, and to speculate on what kind of subject formation the unhousing and re-housing might enable. Geographic and historical displacements, as my project tries to demonstrate, have formed uniquely local identities in the Caribbean.

11A few years ago, I was returning home from Trinidad, and had boarded a BWIA plane to New York en route to Bombay. I fell into conversation with an elderly Afro-Trinidadian woman who asked where I was headed. India, I said. And why are you going there, she wanted to know. I live there, I replied. And how is it, she asked, that you come to be living so far away from home?

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Tejaswini Niranjana, « Developing Alternative Frames of Reference »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化, 1 | 2006, 50-51.

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Tejaswini Niranjana, « Developing Alternative Frames of Reference »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化 [En ligne], 1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 13 septembre 2009, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Tejaswini Niranjana

Tejaswini Niranjana is Director, and Senior Fellow, of the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society,Bangalore,India.She is the author of Siting Translation: History,Post-structuralism and the Colonial Context, and co-editor of Interrogating Modernity: Culture and Colonialism in India. Her recent work has been on the Caribbean, and her book Mobilizing India: Women in Trinidad Music is published in 2006

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