Meet Akshaya Tankha, the Dr. Malathy Singh Visiting Fellow for AY 20-21

Akshaya Tankha

Suite 210 at Luce Hall has another occupant: Akshaya Tankha, the new Malathy Singh Post-Doctoral Fellow at the MacMillan Center. Dr. Tankha completed his PhD in Art History at the University of Toronto, and will work with the South Asian Studies Council until mid-2022. Dr. Tankha’s research explores the art and visual culture of contemporary South Asia, a topic on which he also plans to offer courses.

Our Student Fellow, Ram Vishwanathan, held an interview with Dr. Tankha to learn more about his research interests, his hopes for his time at Yale, and his goals for the future.

RV: Can you describe your work for our readers?

AT: I am an art historian of modern and contemporary South Asian art and visual culture, with a focus on the relationship between aesthetics and politics, post-colonialism and indigeneity in India. My doctoral dissertation, “An Aesthetics of Endurance: Art, Visual Culture and Indigenous Presence in Nagaland, India”, explored the tensions that animate the reconstitution of Indigenous cultural forms as art, shaped by their efficacious qualities as religious and ritual media, and the publics they engender.

Nagaland is a predominantly Indigenous and Christian state in India’s northeast on the border with Myanmar and close to China. From the mid to late twentieth century, it was home to an armed movement for political autonomy. The Indian state has governed the region in a colonialist manner, militarizing it, suppressing regional aspirations for sovereignty, perpetrating human rights abuses, and stifling independent journalism. Concurrently, nationalist art historical discourse never deemed Indigenous forms coeval with the time of the postcolonial nation.

My research objects were produced after 1997 when the Indian state and Naga nationalists signed a ceasefire agreement, which ended the armed warfare and remains the basis of a tenuous stability. They include craft objects produced by art school trained artists that visualize warrior and spirit icons anew, memorial monuments to nationalist soldiers that reconfigure the stone monolith, and house museums to Naga nationalism founded by Christian priests that reimagine the “rich man’s house” and the male dormitory. In contrast to essentialist writings on “tribal” art in India, my research demonstrates that these objects are co-constituted by Indigenous and Christian practices, modern art pedagogy and cosmopolitan influences that have informed the development of regional political formations in the face of settler-colonial forms of governance exercised by the postcolonial Indian state. It also shows that their contested resignification as heritage, history, and sovereignty in post-ceasefire Nagaland speaks to the reconstitution of Indigeneity in a globalizing South Asia.

Based on this study, I argue that the plural and layered temporality of Indigenous art and visual culture in contemporary South Asia challenges the popular and scholarly relegation of the Indigenous present to an archaic past or a ruptured present. Rather, it points to an aesthetics of endurance and emergence that, while particular to the context of indigeneity in postcolonial South Asia, resonates with what North American Indigenous scholars call “survivance,” or forms of Indigeneity that exceed the simulations of civilizational discourses. This aesthetics of endurance and emergence, I argue, illuminates new cultural histories of craft, the monument and the museum outside the linear paradigm of modernity, reflecting the plural temporality of art and the present that we all inhabit.

My postdoctoral project expands my doctoral study of ideas of Indigenous futurity in Naga graphic novels into an examination of Indigenous cinematic, graphic and new media practices in northeast India. In this context, my preliminary research shows that a cross border trade in arms initiated by the region’s many nationalist factions through East and Southeast Asia, which facilitated the rise of informal markets in electronic goods and commodities across northeast India, spawned multiple vernacular film cultures in the early 1990s. Today, these markets sell regionally produced Indigenous graphic novels, animation videos and digital films, even by regional churches to promote Christianity, disseminated through a network of digital piracy. In this project, I explore these media practices as material assemblages of informal markets, neoliberalism, and Indigenous affect that constitute inter-Asian imaginaries of space and place in the northeast Indian borderlands.

RV: As a scholar working in North America, how do you use the word indigeneity? How does that translate? And how do you have to be careful about this translation?

AT: That’s a very good question. The context of Indigeneity in South Asia is quite different from North America. Debates on Indigeneity in South Asia are not undergirded by assertions of original or first inhabitation. Further, there is a great degree of contingency and porosity in the modern and contemporary constructions of caste, race, tribe, and ethnicity in this region. In the context of India, Indigenous communities are recognized by the term Scheduled Tribe (ST) or tribe, more generally. Here, as the scholar Virginius Xaxa highlights, debates on Indigeneity are characterized by assertions of prior claim to land and its resources. These assertions are primarily made in relation to a region’s dominant caste and/or outsiders that fall within India’s dominant social, linguistic, cultural and religious groupings, such as Hinduism. However, it should be noted that there is often a high degree of contingency and fluidity even within such groupings. Hence, struggles over “tribal” recognition in India, and other parts of South Asia, are often struggles against marginalization, dispossession, and co-option within the dominant fold as well as for rights otherwise denied by the state.

My work addresses these particularities in a number of ways. For instance, my research shows that Indian surveys of Indigenous art have historically failed to attend to Christianity as a part of the Indigenous present in sites like Nagaland. This reflects the Hindu-centricity of the Indian nationalist discourse of “tribal craft” and its marginalization of the heterogeneity of the region’s Indigenous art and cultural practice.

My research also shows that, for various reasons over the last three decades, the term Indigenous has been adopted by activists and writers in Nagaland. So, while cognizant of the particularities of terminology and debates on Indigeneity in South Asia, my use of the term Indigenous stems from the currency it has recently acquired in my site of research in addition to my location in the North American academy. Moreover, it is based on my interest in thinking comparatively about Indigenous art, cultural practice and its dispossession and marginalization by the state, across settler and postcolonial contexts. Drawing attention to the resonances that emerge across markedly different contexts is, as I see it, critically important to nurturing a grounded yet globally informed history of art and visual culture, and of South Asia.

RV: In moving from your doctoral dissertation to your post-doctoral research, how do you hope to move from the specific context of Nagaland to the Northeast? As someone who is steeped in the discourse of “the mainland” and “the Northeast,” I realize that the idea of collapsing the Northeast into a single coherent unit is common. I’m wondering — what similarities you do see as relevant? How are you going to leave space for uniqueness or for difference? And in the process, can you also talk about how you got here, as someone who is not Naga? How do you deal with your own positionality, and with working in an area that is politically contested?

AT: Those are all very important questions.  The most dominant imaginary of the region outside it is the geopolitical and administrative imaginary of “the Northeast”, which as Sanjib Baruah argues, is a “cosmetic federal” imaginary of space devised by political engineers based on the “imperative of nationalizing space” during India’s post-independence decades. This is an imaginary that does not correspond with people’s spatial imaginaries in the region; in fact, it positively disregards and marginalizes them.

In contrast to the homogenizing force of the administrative imaginary, there are many imaginaries of space and place in northeastern India. Some of them map on to ethnic, “tribal”, and linguistic affiliations. Others have been shaped by regional practices, such as of trade, across the boundaries of ethnicity, “tribe” and language. Some of them map on to people’s consciousness of themselves as subjects of particular regional states such as Manipur, Mizoram etc. Others transgress state boundaries. For instance, the Naga nationalist territorial imaginary of Greater Nagaland or Nagalim is transregional and transnational in scope and, for that reason, deeply contested in relation to other regional spatial imaginaries. In addition, commonalities arising from the experience of living in a heavily militarized region characterized by exceptional forms of violence exercised by the state and competing territorial claims have also nurtured an activist imaginary of “the Northeast” that is distinct from and critical of its administrative counterpart. This imaginary has been nurtured through forms of political mobilization, literature, and artistic practice.      

What I am trying to get at is that the need for balance between what you highlighted as “uniqueness and difference” is something that I, or for that matter any researcher, must constantly negotiate depending on the context and object of study. For me, it is my object of investigation that has led me to consider a network of different conceptions of space and place, some of which overlap and others that are in tension with one another, in my research.

This brings me to the second part of your question, about how I began working on Nagaland. As a researcher, my earliest visit to parts of northeast India happened when I worked for Kavita Singh (JNU) and Saloni Mathur’s (UCLA) museum studies project, Museology and the colony, which led to their co-edited publication No Touching, No Spitting, No Praying: the museum in South Asia (2015), which carries a brief extract from my field report. Thereafter, I worked as a researcher at the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in New Delhi (AFA), with a focus on ethnographic photography in northeast India, such as in the early volumes of The People of India (1868-75), in the Alkazi Collection of Photography (ACP). So, my research on museums in contemporary northeastern India and colonial photographic visualizations of the region and its peoples gradually led me to the project I undertook as my doctoral thesis.

The third and most important part of your question is the issue of my positionality.

How I think and write about the artists, cultural practitioners and objects of my research is firmly tied to the fact that I am not from Nagaland. In relation to the region, I was reminded of my status as an outsider in several different ways over the course of my research. This was certainly challenging. But the experiences were incredibly instructive as well. They made me attentive to how the long history of violence that the Indian army has perpetrated in the region and the racism that people from there face in other parts of India shapes regional subjectivities, translating into a general distrust, even suspicion, of people like me who are from the “mainland”. They also made me attentive to the multiple ways in which “mainland” histories and studies of the region are complicit in marginalizing its lived realities. Furthermore, they made me better appreciate the generosity of people, in Dimapur, Kohima, Mon, and Delhi who went out of their way, often in the face of opposition, to share their time, resources and ideas and host me. My work would not have been possible without their efforts. These experiences attuned me to the Indigenous and non-Indigenous forms of relationality and solidarity that endure and emerge amidst a political field of state policing and the competing territorial contestations that the former has produced in its wake. As art historians, we are trained to focus on the visual. But my experiences taught me the importance of listening to how regional artists and citizen-subjects talk about objects, practices, history, and memory, and of situating the visual within a broader sensorial field.

So, I do not claim to represent Naga art and/or artists in my work. Rather, informed by my research limitations as an outsider, I am interested in highlighting objects, histories, and temporalities that are often overlooked and/or marginalized in studies shaped by the paradigm of representation.

RV: I also want to ask you about the visual idiom specifically. How do you see your approach in relation to the field? And how, in your specific case, do you also combine that with ethnographic or anthropological approaches? Would you describe your work as some sort of amalgam of the two?

AT: I am interested in art’s relationship to politics, which makes ethnography an important element of my work. Prior to my PhD, I had trained in both Art History and Anthropology. So, in many ways my training in Anthropology certainly informs my art historical research. But, I should add that this interdisciplinarity is not unique to me at all. Rather, it is a characteristic feature of scholarship on South Asian art and visual culture, the work of the scholars and writers who have taught me and whose work continues to inform my research. This is a characteristic feature of how art is taught in the institutions that have been formative for my work as well. For instance, my Masters’ at Jawaharlal Nehru University was at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, a phrase that hints at the expansive approach to the study of art that the school takes.

RV: You spoke a bit about South Asia as a category — as part of the South Asian Studies Council, I think a lot of faculty speak to the strengths or the uniqueness of interdisciplinary work. I’m wondering what you are hoping to get out of this— the sort of conversations you’re looking to have, and perhaps the perspectives you you would like to contribute?

AT: I am very excited about working at the South Asian Studies Council. For several months over the Summer and Fall, when the possibility of moving to New Haven from Toronto was not entirely certain because of COVID related lockdowns, Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan, Kasturi Gupta, Steven Wilkinson, Sarah Khan, Sunil Amrith, Harry Blair, Seema Khurana, and Aleksandar Uskokov were very welcoming and supportive. This was a wonderful introduction to being a part of the Council’s community. Over this time, Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan has introduced me to an exciting community of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows/associates, and early career faculty members working on a diverse range of topics through the South Asia Research Group forum (SARG). More recently, I have had the opportunity to share my research with Rohit De and Sunil Amrith and their South Asia Across Disciplines graduate seminar students as well. I have also been in conversation with Brandon Miliate, the librarian of South and Southeast Asia, about research, collections, and matters of access.

Going forward, I am interested in being in dialogue with other Council members, such as Subhashini Kaligotla, Kishwar Rizvi, and Timothy Barringer from the History of Art and many others from other disciplines. I look forward to learning from the Council members, participating in the Council’s rich and exciting calendar of annual events, both as a participant and as an organizer, and hopefully contributing to how it helps us think about space and place in situated and connected ways.

RV: I’m also wondering if you could speak about the politics of the work you do. Not in the sense of whether or not it’s political, because you’ve made that quite obvious, but more how you see it as located both in the broader context of the post-colonial Indian state, but also under the current regime, and this moment in 2020. Would you, for example, describe your work as resistance?

AT: I would not describe my work as resistance. As an art historian and researcher, I am quite privileged to think and write from the safety and security of academic institutions that are well resourced. Rather, what I try to do from this vantage is bear witness to the plurality of Indigenous art and lifeworlds in contemporary South Asia. The process of writing this heterogeneity is what leads me to challenge conventional notions of art objects, archives, and the art world and critique the homogeneity of particular discourses of “tribal craft”, which speaks to colonial and post-independence India’s histories of dominant cultural and political formations and its religiously majoritarian present.

To be clear, there are many practices of resistance that are ongoing in northeast India. My work is attentive to those labors. But it is not that. Further, in my opinion, the temporality of the artistic and cultural practices I am attuned to is not that of resistance. Instead, it points to an aesthetics of endurance and emergence that, while not overtly political, speaks to the political significance of the aesthetic.

RV: To close the interview, can you a speak a little more about your teaching?

AT: I am very excited to start teaching next semester while drawing on Yale’s rich South Asia collections. The course I will offer in the Winter Term is titled The Material and Visual Cultures of Religion in South Asia. This is an undergraduate course that explores questions such as: What do disparate events such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the construction of statues of B.R. Ambedkar, historical figure of Dalit resistance in India, tell us about the changing relationship between religion and media in South Asia? How can they illuminate the study of decolonization, nationalism, the rise of religious majoritarianism and/or gender, caste, labour, and Indigeneity in the region in ways that resonate with movements elsewhere, such as Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa or BLM in North America? Based on a selective study of objects, images, exhibitionary and other media from premodern, modern and contemporary South Asia, the course will aim to attune students to South Asia’s plural ritual and devotional practices as well as the ways they have informed the region’s changing cultural and political formations.