The Politics of Curriculum and Pedagogy: Teaching Cultural Studies in North East India

By Sarma, Parag Moni | Critical Arts, March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Curriculum and Pedagogy: Teaching Cultural Studies in North East India


Sarma, Parag Moni, Critical Arts


Abstract

The emergence of cultural studies in the North East of India makes for interesting reading. North East India, with its polyvocal realities entranced in its ethnic diversities, ethnic strifes, internal displacement of people and migration (or infiltration) from Bangladesh and Nepal, 'Western' and 'materialistic' (read urbane) mode of life in the largely Christian hill states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram, which goes against the mainstream Indian grain, and the rhetoric of neglect, should have provided ample opportunities for an engagement with cultural studies. Yet, cultural studies was rather perceived by many as 'study of culture' that owes its antecedents to the legacy of colonial Anthropology and Folkloristics (with its colonial etymology and postcolonial mutation) that celebrated the 'documentary' over the 'analytical'. There was strong opposition by others to the 'migratory' theories of the West and cultural studies was very often read as transmission of performative genres, that too in the realms of the 'classical', and these were sought to be grounded in Sanskrit aesthetics, which was seen as contrapuntal to the Folkloristics Departments and folklore curriculum in some of the universities of the region.

Cultural studies was mostly done under the auspices of the English departments in the region, until the first Department of Cultural Studies emerged at Tezpur University in 2002, as a rechristened version of the erstwhile Department of Traditional Culture and Art Forms, which was offering a Master's programme in Cultural Studies with a focus on folklore and Indian aesthetics and Western literary criticism. To be in sync with the changed name, introductory courses in semantics, anthropology and sociology were introduced. Subsequently, the university authorities exerted tremendous pressure to initiate courses in performative arts, ostensibly to make the students 'more' employable, which the department continues to resist, by both polemics and evasion.

Keywords: culture, curriculum, ethnicity, folklore, northeast, pedagogy

Introduction

The University shall endeavour through education, research and extension to play a positive role in the development of the North-Eastern region, and, based on the rich heritage of the region, to promote and advance the culture of the people of Assam ... study the rich cultural heritage of the region ... the diverse ethnic, linguistic and tribal cultures of the state.

--Tezpur University Act 1993

It was, ostensibly, a quest for a balance between progress of technology and maintenance of tradition, that the Department of Traditional Culture and Art Forms (TCAF) was established as a department in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Tezpur University in 1995. The purpose was to fulfil 'the objectives of the University in respect of the study and promotion of the cultural heritage of the north-eastern region, and particularly the state of Assam, as laid down in the Tezpur University act' (Datta 1999: 8). The founder intellects of the department were particularly worried about the 'progressive erosion of the traditional lifestyles, value-systems and artistic expressions of big and small societies in the non-western world caused by waves of modernization and westernization' and that 'cultural studies have assumed a special significance ... in a country like India with an extremely rich and colourful heritage of art and culture--whether elite or popular, classical or folk, written or oral--the study of traditional culture and artistic material can in itself be most exciting and rewarding academic pursuit' and contribute 'towards a fuller understanding of the process by which the Indian society ... have been coping with the forces of modernisation and westernisation (and, now globalization)' (ibid: 1).

It is clear from the above that the Department of TCAF saw cultural studies as distinct from the discipline of cultural studies, a fact borne out by the name of an anthology published by the department titled Culture studies themes and perspectives: essays in culture, folklore, linguistics, aesthetics & literary criticism (2003). …

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