Accepted paper:

The future in ruins: aesthetic legacies and practices of care in Darjeeling's tea plantation landscape


Sarah Besky (University of Michigan)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores how colonial aesthetics inform tea laborers’ visions of the future. Contextualizing plants and people within an inherited landscape of “imperial ruins,” I highlight how historical practices of cultivation inform local frameworks for understanding development.

Paper long abstract:

Drawing on fieldwork from tea plantations in Darjeeling, India, this paper explores how the aesthetic legacies of colonialism inform laborers' visions of the future. Women tea pluckers expressed care for the plantation landscape, even though they understood that their relationship to tea plants emerged out of a past of colonial exploitation and landscape transformation. By actively "inheriting" this relationship, laborers were able to develop a critique of deteriorating plantation conditions in the present, as well as of international development projects aimed at the betterment of workers. When discussing the meanings of their work, women tea pluckers spoke metaphorically of a kinship with tea bushes. Women's concerns about the lives of tea-bush "kin" resonated with concerns about the well-being of their human relatives and co-workers. Attention to these multiple forms of care shows how affective and material legacies of the colonial period meld with contemporary concerns about the stability of families and the sustainability of industrial agriculture. Darjeeling's landscape was replete with potholed roads, dried-up water pipes, and mildewed bungalows. These infrastructural vestiges of the British colonial era are examples of what Stoler calls "imperial ruins," the decaying aesthetic legacy of the area's agrarian past. The living elements of the colonial landscape, particularly aging tea bushes, were also kinds of ruins. Tea was an active reminder of colonial production and a continued force of colonial destruction. Contextualizing plants and people within an inherited landscape of "ruins" highlights how historical processes of cultivation inform local frameworks for understanding plantation futures.

panel P44
After development: critical aesthetics of past futures