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Pliant and Compliant: Colonial Indian Art and Postcolonial Cinema

Title:Pliant and Compliant: Colonial Indian Art and Postcolonial Cinema
Author:Rajan G.
Publication:Women: a Cultural Review / Routledge
Enumeration:vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 48-69, March 2002
Abstract:Walter Benjamin's signature hypothesis of "dialectics at a standstill" rehearsed in his "Theoretics of Knowledge, Theories of Progress" permits visual images to be elasticized from a then condition in history and culture to a now site of contemporary reality in order to be critiqued in their entirety. Putting this hypothesis to the test, Rajan juxtaposes two late eighteenth-century works of art by East India Company Painters with two late twentieth-century films by Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta to trace trajectories of orientalized desire and unspeakable pleasure as relayed along a woman's body. In all four instances, the central image of woman continues to be an insistent signifier that embodies social values, cultural prejudices and artistic ideals, which, in turn, provide critical, valuable insights into constructions of gendered, aestheticized and sexualized femininity. The image of woman, thus dialectically read, reveals that it is not simply the male colonizer who is always already the oppressor, as is the common assumption, but rather that woman as an abject signifier can be merchandised even by enlightened, postcolonial women. Such a ravaged image of woman remains, therefore, a fixed trope in the hands of male and female artists, traversing coloniality and postcoloniality, and crossing over from art to cinema, with little chance of emancipation. One strategy to grant woman full agency requires the contemporary, feminist viewer to take responsibility and couple aesthetics with an ethical tenor. According to Benjamin, ethics thus defined is a matter of personalized aesthetics. This means that each one of us is entrusted with the responsibility of demanding accountability in the creation of visual culture such that images that demean femininity, disembody female subjectivity, objectify female pleasure and delegitimize desire be judged inappropriate, as incorrect or unappealing visual images and as unavailable for appropriation.

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