Changing local cultures in the Northeast of India
by Michael Oppitz, et al
In 1939, an exhibition at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna showcased the Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf’s collection of “bizarre”, “exotic” Naga cultural artefacts. It was by all accounts a great hit. Seven decades later, a series of exhibitions across Europe is under way again to showcase Naga artefacts for the general public. The exhibition is also accompanied by a new book, Naga Identities, edited by the German anthropologist Michael Oppitz. Both undertakings offer important new opportunities by which to gauge the continued European fascination with the Naga, who for the past century have been one of the more ‘exoticised’ of Southasia’s communities.
Some of the most aesthetic and fascinating – and little known – of Naga artefacts are assembled in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, primarily collected by the anthropologists Adolf Bastian, Lucian Scherman, and Hans-Eberhard Kauffman during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibitions are displaying these collections in several European cities, as part of a three-year project titled “Material Culture, Oral Traditions and Identity Among the Nagas”, organised by the Ethnographic Museum of Zurich University. The exhibitions are divided into three parts: Ancient Times, which is reconstructed through beads and costumes; Historical Transition, a collage of black-and-white photographs; and Local Modernity, which includes slide shows and films. According to news reports, the Naga exhibition has been, again, a “big hit”.
Why this longstanding fascination on the part of Europeans for the Naga? It all began with a massive oversimplification. During the 19th century, theories of humankind’s evolution induced colonial anthropologists to study human evolution in terms of a spectrum that ran from primitive society to highly developed culture. In accordance with this mindset, colonial anthropology did much to satiate the hunger of the European intelligentsia, while colonial expansion provided the opportunity for European writers to portray themselves as heroes in adventures to unknown lands and encounters with ‘wild’ peoples. Inevitably, such accounts captivated readers in Europe.
In contrast to such sensationalised and simplistic accounts, Naga Identities is an attempt to demystify such colonial depictions. The title itself marks a critical departure from earlier approaches; indeed, any Naga picking up this work for the first time could well do a double-take at the pluralisation, identities. The popular understanding would have it that ‘Naga identities’ is an erroneous phrase. But the collective Naga identity is a constructed one, a by-product of the colonial discourse created to suit the colonial masters’ political and administrative convenience. The idea of multiple Naga identities, therefore, immediately signifies a fresh approach.
The objective of the new Naga exhibition, and the accompanying book, can be seen as an attempt to deconstruct the exotic European imagination of Naga culture, and to present a picture closer to reality. Alban von Stockhausen, one of the book’s editors, has stated that the aim is “to project today’s Nagas, which shall include the disillusioning or even the deconstruction of current exotic photograph books”. Naga Identities seeks to put forward a holistic image of the Naga through a solid collection of photographs, with an eye to illustrating also the cultural changes that the Naga have undergone over the past two centuries. The pictorial essays, particularly, “Religion Today” and “Fashion Trends in Contemporary Nagaland”, vividly portray the cultural changes among the Naga and reflect the contrast from the century-old colonial images. This can be seen as an attempt to capture the Naga’s dying past and evolving present, with the purpose of recording both of these for future generations. Unlike the Orientalist’s notion of an ‘unchanging’ native culture, this work recognises and highlights cultural changes among the Naga, and attempts to map the processes and patterns of those changes.
That said, though, there does still appear to be some discrepancy amongst the editors’ understanding of their purpose, however. Von Stockhausen himself ironically asserts that the exhibition is also meant “to satiate the curiosity of our people” about the Naga, although he quickly adds that the larger “reason behind the initiative is the growing interest [of Europeans] about the entire region of Northeast India”. Either way, one thing remains obvious from such a statement: Europeans clearly remain curious about the Naga.
Demolishing the monolith
As noted earlier, the European fascination with the Naga began with the massive documentation works and collections of the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, some of the key collectors of Naga cultural artefacts included, in addition to the above mentioned names, R G Woodthorpe, John Butler, H H Godwin-Austen, J H Hutton, J P Mills, Ursula Graham Bower and W G Archer. The collections put together by these scholars opened the first window through which Europeans could look at the Naga’s unique culture. In particular, of course, it was the Naga’s traditional ‘head-hunting’ practices that captivated the European imagination. But again, what exactly has sustained the exotic image of the Naga over the past century is a subject that needs deeper study.
Some interesting hints are offered here, as many of the essays follow Naga Identities’ professed goal of deconstructing the European imagination of the Naga. Particularly cogent in this regard are the critiques on colonial anthropology and administration. For instance, the essay by Christian Schicklgruber argues that Fürer-Haimendorf’s works on the Naga reassured both British colonialism and German National Socialism, ultimately helping to intellectually legitimise their dominance over the colonised. This is precisely because, at the time, the West held the assumption that the ‘barbaric culture’ of the ‘Orient’ was inferior to Western civilisation, and were thus destined to be ruled in order to ‘progress’. Fürer-Haimendorf was one who provided samples to justify this assumption.
On the whole, however, Naga Identities fails to go beyond the conventional discourse. Most critically, it seems to be trapped in the debate between constructionism – the notion that Naga identity is constructed – and primordialism, the argument that Naga identity is inherent. One exception on this subject is von Stockhausen’s essay (the previous criticism notwithstanding), which goes beyond the simplistic understanding of identity formation to engage more fully with the politics of identity than do many of the other contributors. Importantly, the author is able to elucidate how Naga identity was used as a tool in the service of diverse ends by a broad spectrum of interests – the British rulers, the Christian missionaries, the Naga underground, the current Nagaland government and the succeeding Naga generations. Such crucial reflection on Naga identity from a historical perspective is imperative, though it may deviate from the popular understanding on the ground in the Indian Northeast today.
Despite its general inability to move beyond the current discourse, the most important contribution of Naga Identities lies in its attempt to deconstruct the common depiction of stereotyped notions about Naga culture. The editors’ attempt to portray the Naga reality while shunning exotic depictions is praiseworthy, as is the contribution of a new methodological approach to addressing the question of identity. By exploring the problematic nature of a singular concept of identity, this approach opens ways to dealing with the subject more objectively and critically, rather than narrowing the issue to a monolithic and sacrosanct Naga identity.
It should still be noted, however, that Europeans remain the intended audience of both the Naga exhibition and Naga Identities. Inevitably, this does not make the two initiatives too different from the efforts of the colonial era writers of years gone by. But the difference, perhaps, lies in the intention and purpose. While the intention is still to enlighten and sensitise the Europeans, today’s scholars have the benefit of hindsight and corpus.