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Making Sense Of The ‘Sensible’: Colonialism And The Idea And Approaches To The Arts

Any discussion about Colonialism has came to be inherently associated with the European political and economic subjugation and exploitation of the rest of the conquered world from the 16thcentury onwards, which extended from America to Africa and to most of Asia. This politico-economic Colonisation at least in its formal form has largely ceased to exist. However, it would be a grave mistake to reduce European Colonialism to mere sphere of politico-economic subjugation and exploitation. This paper discusses some important propositions of the Decolonial and other such scholars, who conceptualize European Colonialism in a much broader sense, including Colonisation of cognition, consciousness, experiences, senses, and epistemology, and hence, argue that Colonialism is anything but over, and it manifests, replicates and perpetuates itself through various knowledge structures and other such frameworks, which are essentially and inherently Eurocentric, racist and colonial, but has been projected as, universal, objective and rational.

Building on the above discussion, this paper will suggest that our conception of art and the way we approach art is similarly guided by Eurocentrism and European Colonialism. Alternatively, this paper will, through a briefcase study of Kohbar art of the Mithila region of Bihar, try to explore, a different conception of art, its meaning and approaches to it, by rooting itself to the subjectivities of native consciousness and experiences, and not by alienating it from the context, milieu and understanding that produces it and then evaluating it in a supposedly ‘objective’, ‘rational’, and ‘universal’ framework.

 As discussed in the preceding paragraphs, that even if the formal politico-economic colonial structures have been dissolved, colonial socio-cultural, racial and epistemological structures continues to decide and direct present and future of the hitherto colonised regions, hence the relationship between Europe and its erstwhile colonies continues to be that of ‘colonial domination’. As per Anibal Quijano (2013, Coloniality And Modernity/ Rationality, chapter 2, p. 23),

It is not only a matter of the subordination of the other cultures to the European, in an external relation… This relationship consists, in the first place, of colonization of the imagination of the dominated; that is, it acts in the interior of that imagination, in a sense, it is a part of it.

Further Quijano (ibid), proposes that to facilitate socio-cultural control the Colonial regimes were marked by ‘systemic repression’ and replacement of the native modes of knowing, knowledge production, and systems of images and symbols etc., with that of the rulers’ own ‘patterns of expression, and of their beliefs and images with reference to the supernatural’, and subsequently European knowledge structures and modes of knowing were made lucrative and seductive as it provided access to power and material wealth.

Through the political, military and technological power of its foremost societies, European or Western culture imposed its paradigmatic image and its principal cognitive elements as the norm of orientation on all cultural development, particularly the intellectual and the artistic (ibid, p. 24).This process of repression and replacement of native knowledge structures and cognitive frameworks, and incentives for adoption of the alien and imposed framework, the universal pretensions of European knowledge structure was established, at the cost of elimination of native modes of knowing. On similar lines S. N. Balagangadhara (2012, Colonialism and Colonial Consciousness), has developed his idea of Colonialism and Colonial Consciousness. Where Colonialism, insulates the colonised from accessing and making sense of her own socio-cultural experiences as the only framework accessible to analyse such experience, is rooted in European experiences of itself and others, by using this theoretical framework, mere reproduction of the colonial description of native culture is possible, hence in this way colonialism maintains and perpetuates itself. Closely linked to this idea is the concept of ‘Colonial Consciousness’.

In the words of Balagangadhara (ibid, pp. 14-15),

Colonialism is not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues… Colonialism denies the colonized peoples and cultures their own experiences; it makes them aliens to themselves; it actively prevents descriptions of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonizers.

Similarly, Colonial consciousness does not involve only subscribing to the truth of an isolated statement about civilizational superiority. Rather, it requires a commitment to a theoretical framework that structures how one experiences the social and the cultural world. Such a framework intervenes between oneself and one’s experience, and forms one’s understanding and articulation of what one sees in the world (ibid, p.18)

Let’s try to understand the above seemingly complex ideas through an example from our daily lives, that is, the category or the concept of ‘religion’, and then analyse the role of Colonialism in shaping experiences of the colonised by insulating the colonised from accessing her own experiences. The concept, idea or the category called ‘religion,’ is assumed to be universal, something which exists in every culture, and with this assumption of universality of the category of religion, come certain theoretical framework attached with it.

King( 2009, pp. 105-106) highlights such dominant assumptions which comes with the conception of ‘religion’, such as the belief that something like ‘religion’, which is somehow different from other facets of life, can be traced in every culture of the world, and these ‘religious’ aspects are guided by belief/faith in god(s) or other truth claims which every member of that ‘religious’ community is expected to affirm, and these ‘religious’ beliefs and practices of that community are guided by scriptures, which are to take more in a literal or cognitive sense rather than in a  ritualistic way, apart from these elements, what dominates the conception of ‘religion’, is the idea that ‘religions’ on one hand exhibit exclusiveness with other religions, on the other hand, act as a force to unify the community in which it operates.

Needless to argue, that this framework is essentially a product of Abrahamic worldview, hence, is anything but suitable for analysing non-Abrahamic cultures, such as ‘Hinduism’, nevertheless the conceptual category of ‘religion’ is continued to be used to understand ‘Hinduism’, which as per Balagangadhara(1994), focuses on practice, is ritualistic, symbolic, and derives a justification for its perpetuation from past that has to be followed, and can be better understood as a ‘tradition’, on the other hand ‘religion’ is largely centred on belief /faith and derive justifications on the basis of ‘truth’ claims, such as revelations from God etc.

The basic argument is that ‘religion’ as a conceptual category is alien to non western and non Abrahamic cultures, and it was only when Western and non Abrahamic cultures (primarily through European Colonialism) came into contact with non Abrahamic and non Western cultures, that the so called Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism etc., came to be constructed in the western epistemological framework, guided by Christian theological premises, and then through the machinery of the Colonial domination and knowledge structures, these categories were universalised ( see, Balagangadhara, 1994 ; King, 2009 ; Almond, 1988).

Hence, European Colonialism through the imposition of alien conceptual categories like ‘religion’ on native cultures, have robbed them of their own cultural experiences and any effort to operate within the western epistemological framework and with concepts like ‘religion’ to analyse native societies, will reproduce colonial knowledge.

Similarly, as suggested in the introduction of this paper, our conception of art and the way we approach art is shaped and guided by the Colonial domination, discourse and framework. This is not to limit the discussion to the mere suggestion of certain differentiation and hierarchization of art forms during the colonial period as ‘high’, ‘fine’, ‘folk’, ‘tribal’ and ‘craft’, which the Colonial logic necessitated in a bid to justify colonial domination, but to dwell into the very conception of art and the approach to art, which was only possible, in a now universalised but essentially European epistemological framework.

Quijano (2013, Coloniality And Modernity/ Rationality ) questions the fundamentals of European paradigm of rational knowledge based on the so called subject – object relation, and situate this framework to peculiarities of the past European social condition, where the individual was subject to clutches of social structure, hence, the conception of subject as an isolated individual, free from inter-subjectivities of the social structure and from the object, was an effort for individual liberation, nevertheless Quijano highlights the shortcoming of such framework as:

First, in that presupposition, the ‘subject’ is a category referring to the isolated individual because it constitutes itself in itself and for itself, in its discourse and in its capacity of reflection. The Cartesian ‘cogito, ergo sum’, means exactly that. Second, the ‘object’ is a category referring to an entity not only different from the ‘subject’! individual, but external to the latter by its nature. Third, the ‘object’ is also identical to itself because it is constituted by ‘properties’ which give it its identity and define it, i.e., they demarcate it and at the same time position it in relation to the other ‘objects’. What is in question in this paradigm is, firstly, the individual and individualist character of the ‘subject’, which like every half-truth falsifies the problem by denying intersubjectivity and social totality as the production sites of all knowledge. Secondly, the idea of ‘object’ is incompatible with the results of current scientific research, according to which the ‘properties’ are modes and times of a given field of relations. Therefore there is not much room for an idea of identity as ontologically irreducible originality outside the field of relations. Thirdly, the externality of the relations between the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’, founded on differences of nature, is not only an arbitrary exaggeration of the differences, since current research rather leads to the discovery that there exists a deeper communication structure in the universe. Much more important and decisive, is that in such a cognitive perspective it is implied a new radical dualism: divine reason and nature. The ‘subject’ is bearer of ‘reason’, while the ‘object’, is not only external to it, but different nature. In fact, it is ‘nature’.

If one is to analyse the dominant perception of art and the way one approaches it, it closely parallels the above discussed subject – object logical system. Hence, the objectification of art as a product, with essential inherent meaning encompassing within it, which is external to the subject and the subjectivities of the larger socio-cultural systems, of which somehow both the art and the subject are independent of, is made possible. Interestingly even here the dominant framework of art and approaches to it, is that which is conceptualized from a very individualistic perspective, where art as a product is an individual pursuit, and art as an object essentially caters for tastes of and reveals itself to unconnected and independent subjects, existing in isolation both from the art object and the fellow subjects, who find no acknowledgement within the dualistic framework. In addition to it, the stress on finding meaning within art object and the mystical aura associated with the art object apes the Christian theological line, where the Christian god creates everything in nature with some inherent meaning, and others are required to interpret that meaning within the objects of the creation.

Hence, from the above discussion, it becomes pretty apparent that the dominant conception of art and approaches to art emanates from the European epistemological framework, routed in European experiences and universalised by the Colonial power structure.

The Decolonial scholars have taken cognizance of the Colonisation of art and aesthetics, and had tried to provide differing decolonial options to conceptualize art and particularly aesthetics, by emphasizing the conception of ‘Decolonial’ AestheSis’ as opposed to ‘AestheTics’.

Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vazquez (2013) proposes that,

AestheTics become Eurocentered in eighteenth-century Europe when it was taken as the key concept for a theory of sensibility, sentiment, sensations, and, briefly, emotions, in contrast with the obsession for the rational. On the other hand, Kant mutated it into a key concept to regulate sensing the beautiful and the sublime. This was the starting point of “modern aestheTics” that emerged from European experience and local history, and that became, even already in Kantʼs work, the regulator of the global capability to “sense” the beautiful and the sublime. In this way, aestheTics colonized aestheSis in two directions: in time, it established the standards in and from the European present. And, in space, it was projected to the entire population of the planet. Aesthetics and reason became two new concepts incorporated in the colonial matrix or power. Today, decolonialaestheSis is a confrontation with modern aestheTics, and its aftermath (postmodern and altermodern aestheTics) to decolonize the regulation of sensing all the sensations to which our bodies respond, “from culture as well as from nature.”

Now, if one has to conceptualize art andan approach to art, as differing from the dominant Colonial epistemological framework, one has to give away the flawedpretensions of objectivity and universalism of the European Colonial epistemological framework and take cognizance of the subjectivities, and experiences of the native practitioners of traditions, which involves conceptualizing and creating art, which is neither an end in itself nor a commodity for the market.

The Kohbar art of the Mithila is one such example, it is commonly and primarily described as a ritual painting associated with fertility symbolism and rites, as it’s usually painted within the nuptial chamber, with symbols of sun, moon, fishes, pond, tortoise, trees, snake, lotus and bamboo trees etc., these symbols have been subjected to various interpretations by different scholars. W. G. Archer, sees the bamboo trees and lotus rings as symbolizing sexual organs, and the tortoises as symbolizing lovers union, similarly Yves Vequaud interprets lotus and bamboo as representing vagina and penis respectively (as cited in V. K. Yadav, 2018).

While the point is not to invalidate such interpretation, but to suggest that such interpretation is only possible in a framework, which has been discussed above as European Colonial epistemological framework, where art is an object with some essential inherent meaning, which has to be necessarily interpreted in a bid to make sense of it as well as the reason behind its creation.

Alternatively, if one approaches to Kohbar art from the point of view of the natives and people who practice that tradition, the question of meaning within the art object becomes irrelevant, Kanchan Devi, a native of Purnia region of Bihar, who participated in making of Kohbar art in her family, when enquired about the meaning and the reason behind the symbolism in the Kohbar art, she identifies the symbolism as ‘subh’ (auspicious) and not necessarily that particular symbols have to express some specific meaning.[1] Similarly, Sati Devi, when enquired about the meaning of symbols in the Kohbar paintings, exclaimed that these symbols are Subh and was always made in past, hence is continued.[2] Moreover, to the native perception and conception, Kohbar art is not a differentiated object, with some inherent meaning, but what gives possible meaning to the Kohbar art is the human relations involved in making it, the process of its making, the dance and songs associated with it, and the affective human emotions it evokes within the community, which does not necessarily arise from the art object or the so called inherent meaning of its symbols.

Not surprisingly, the above discussed native conception, understanding and approach to art will make ‘production’ of art extremely difficult for the market, and unsuitable for the conventional museums, it’s only within the European Colonial epistemological framework, that the commodification of art is a possibility through reducing art as a supposedly isolated, and independent object from the system within which it’s created and the process involved in its creation.

To conclude, from the above discussion it becomes pretty evident that, European Colonialism has not ended with the end of the formal political colonial structures, but it continues to colonise native existence and experiences, through colonisation of the epistemological framework, within which the natives are coerced to make sense of their own experiences. The same holds for the dominant perception of what art is and the approaches to art, in which art is treated as a meaning encompassing, isolated and independent object, which can be traded in the market and curated in museums. Alternatively, through the case study of Kohbar art of the Mithila region of Bihar, a native conception and approach to art was suggested, where art is an undifferentiated whole, deriving meaning from the system in which it operates and the process which engenders it.


Almond, P. C. (1988). The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge University Press.

Balagangadhara, S. N. (2018). ‘The Heathen in his Blindness…’: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion. Brill.

King, R. (2009). ‘Colonialism, Hinduism and the discourse of religion’. In Rethinking Religion in India(pp. 111-129). Routledge.

Rao, B. (2012). Reconceptualizing India Studies. Oxford University Press.

Mignolo, W. D., & Escobar, A. (Eds.). (2013). Globalization and the decolonial option. Routledge.

Mignolo, W., &Vásquez, R. (2013). DecolonialaestheSis: Colonial wounds/decolonial healings. SocialText. Retrieved December, 15, 2019.

Yadav, V. K. (2018). Introduction: Mithila Kohbar Art. Chapter 1(link: , as accessed on, 14 November, 2021).

[1]Mihir, Keshari. Personal interview. 7 November,2021.

[2]Mihir, Keshari. Personal Interview. 8 November,2021.

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