Accepted paper:

Enlightenment, imperialism and the 'exotic' other: ideological domination and cultural agency in colonial Calcutta


Urmi Bhattacharyya (Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi)

Paper short abstract:

This paper critically engages with the notion of the imagined 'exoticized' Orient, and its projection as the powerless, less-civilized Other, to bring to light its contradictory relation to the idea of ethical benevolence and reason in the Enlightenment era.

Paper long abstract:

The age of Enlightenment, indicated by the growth of reason, objectivity, and social ethics, was also followed by the Western empire's growing conquests, travels, and the creation of an imagined category of the Orient. This reductive concept encapsulated the entire trajectories of diverse civilizations and multiple cultural traditions of the non-West, rendering the Other as relatively powerless, inferior, and requiring command and reconstruction. With reference to the idea of Enlightenment, this paper then considers the ideas of philosopher David Hume, with relation to his emphasis on inquiry being based on observation and experience, and his notion of ethics and morality being formed through the existence of feelings and actions of benevolence. This being the referential backdrop, the paper thus explores the process of 'exoticization' of the Orient in the context of colonial India, to highlight the contradictory development of ethics and social inquiry under colonialism. By rendering the 'Oriental Other' as 'exotic', crude, and powerless, the imperialist tendencies then challenged the very elements of Enlightenment such as liberty, human progress through experience, reason, and the significance of social benevolence. By illustrating instances of the popularity and re-invention of religious festivals like the Durga Puja in the colonial city of Calcutta, the paper also attempts to reconnoiter the situation of the Other in the colonies, their ideological domination by the colonizer, and their role in the transformation of the ideological landscape of the colonial subject through 'invented traditions' focusing on indigenous modes of expressing social collectivity.

panel P75
Postcolonial perspectives on the Enlightenment and ethics (World Council of Anthropological Associations Ethics Taskforce)