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Art and Science in India

Another Reason, by Gyan Frakash

From the Science Blog The Primate Diaries:

As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of his native land but as a stranger in the process of discovery, “India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by invisible threads.” These invisible threads were the spiritual beliefs of the people, the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita and the Manu Smriti. The sacred Ganges was a symbol of India’s life blood, as much for the Indian people as for the British colonialists, that, as Rudyard Kipling described in his story “The Bridge Builders,” was a natural force that needed to be conquered if the British were to successfully impose their hegemony. In this way “Mother Gunga–in irons” became a metaphor for the use of Western science in conquered lands. Princeton historian Gyan Prakash, in his survey of science in colonial India, seeks to show that science was both a means of expanding British control over the region and was a conflict zone that the nationalist elite of India sought to reimagine as an indigenous concept in order to reclaim their land.

Another Reason, as Prakash describes it, is a story of “science’s cultural authority as the legitimating sign of rationality and progress” (7). The colonial state used European science to conquer and exploit India and Prakash reveals how the history of science and the history of Western hegemony are akin to the two snakes intertwined around Hermes’ Caduceus, a symbol of reason and authority that seeks to heal but also to control. This can be seen in the early anthropological studies incorporated as part of the 1869 General Industrial Exhibition that sought to celebrate Western science in conquered lands. George Campbell, ethnologist and governor of Bengal, emphasized the importance of studying the “wild tribes” of the land under his purview because “Of all sciences, the neglected study of man is now recognized as the most important.” The racial politics were very clear, as Campbell explained.

“The world is becoming more and more one great country; race meets race, black with white, the Arian with Turanian and the Negro; and questions of miscegenation or separation are very pressing” (28).

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Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

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