Art in India’s foreign policy

Image Source: Instagram @lensbootiek

Youlendree (Len) Appasamy, a South African Indian writer, collage artist and zine-maker is part of the Kutti Collective, a grouping of LGBTQ+ multi-disciplinary artists of South Asian descent, who are working towards increasing the representation of ‘desi’ South Africans in the country’s art world.

Len and I discuss the role of art in deepening relationships between people across these geographies, how Indian-origin artists bring an amalgamation of history, politics, nostalgia and a sense of displacement to their work and how art can even be used to rupture the boundaries of citizenship and nationality. 

In this particular case, the collective uses various forms of art as a medium to document the history of indenture from the perspective of Indian passengers. These young artists, many of whom are descendants of those who undertook the journey, talk of how their Indian South African families, have tried to trace their roots in India. They wonder how in contemporary India, indentured and passenger Indian communities in South Africa are spoken of, and thought about. 

Their art, informed by and grounded in their ‘Indian-ness’, tells a story of a chapter in Indian history from a unique vantage point. It also seeks to repair some of the injuries of colonialism and sets them off on a journey to explore parts of their identity, curious about family that have been lost during the journey across the ocean. 

The collective does important work to shift conversations about what a diasporic Indian identity means in a deeper historical sense, in a more embedded way.

This article was published in The Hindu on 22 October 2021, titled ‘Desi in Durban: Indian-origin artists are claiming a space in South Africa’s art scene’. Click here to read.

Documenting the in-betweens

There’s this vast in-between space.

Factoids, observations, stories and personalities that don’t make their way into research articles. Wandering in the periphery, they remain scribbled on the margins and stay warm in the confines of my field notes or transcripts. Some of these may contain kernels of truth, but wrapped in opinion, assumption and neglect, they remain irrelevant. These outliers by themselves can’t help construct arguments, back up evidence or layer understanding, for they are considered trivial and yet, more often than not, remain fascinating. 

Folklore that connects geographies, architecture in lands far away that remind you of home, food that speaks to your senses, people you meet along the way and stories you collect, these are often just fragments of a larger field trip driven by academic pursuits. Brief moments of levity, wonder or dread while on the road, help fuel banter or make for engrossing dinner party stories later, but remain undocumented. It is into this realm of the seemingly inconsequential that this blog forays.

Trained in multi-disciplinary research, I’ve had the opportunity of inhabiting incredibly privileged academic spaces, analyzing the nuances of Africa-Asia engagement through the lens of political economy. Studying the interactions of the national and subnational, listening to stories of farmers, miners, entrepreneurs discuss the challenges of assimilation, complexities of being an immigrant. Observing as they redefined spaces, reclaimed words, recognizing that stories of the state and those of the individual often overlap and knowing that it is the details of these exchanges I will spend a lifetime studying.

This web log will shape-shift with each post, take on the form of field notes, an idea board, collect micro-stories, profile people, provide analysis and commentary. With blurred lines, it will sway between the specific and the abstract, straddling the dual domains of the humanities and foreign policy, it will bring imagination to complex politics and exposition to intricate narratives.