Visual Culture Of The Santals And Their Image: Myth, Morals And Materiality

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Avijit, Anshul 

Many Indian tribes have a rich and diverse repertoire of material produce, and among them the Santal artistic heritage is not only little known, but also reveals deeply existential imperatives through its mythology and history. The purpose of this thesis has been two-fold – firstly, to systematically list and classify Santal visual culture as comprehensively as possible, and secondly, to understand this culture through more complex, collective subjectivities. These subjectivities were shaped primarily by the cultural memory of the tribe, their migratory past and their turbulent relationship with the colonial state.
 This thesis considers multiple forms of art – wall paintings, sacrificial geometry, musical instruments, marriage articles, paper paintings and shields used in war and dance – to understand the aesthetic eco-system of the Santals. But the emphasis is on three key artefacts that embody their philosophy – the fiddle (banam), palanquin (rahi) and scroll paintings (jadupata). The fiddle is an anthropomorphic articulation of the Santal universe and conceals a foundational tale of cannibalism, sororicide and mysticism. The palanquin, reflecting the great skill of the carvers, amuses the viewer with its animal-human parodies and its engagement with colonial modernity. The paintings, though not made by the Santals, depict key moments in the tribe’s mythical almanac and also service their anxieties of the afterlife through the promise of salvation. Additionally, the thesis questions the conventional historiography of ‘tribal’ portrayal. It argues that the Santals, as mediated through Victorian engravings and graphics, were given far more agency and epistemic strength than generally admitted. It also claims that the Indian painters from Shantiniketan and Calcutta, rather than uplifting the community as symbols of national resistance, actually imprisoned them in an Edenic past and denied them the temporal technologies to act in the present. The visual story of the Santals, till today, remains captive to this very paradox.

Massing, Jean Michel
Santal, art, colonialism, rebellion, British, engravings, Sherwill, Bengal School, tribe, primitivism, banam, fiddle, Shantiniketan, myth, sororicide, cannibalism, palanquin, palki, wood carving, scroll painting, jadupatua, effigy
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge