K P Jayakumar

Arts Research
2017-2018

Grant Period: One year and six months

K P Jayakumar is an assistant professor at the Department of Malayalam, NSS College Cherthala, Kerala. He has extensively written on the history of Malayalam cinema, migration and socio-political movements of Kerala. Jayakumar has two books, a novel and a long list of academic essays published in Malayalam to his credit.

This grant will enable Jayakumar to look at the colonial visual narratives of people and places in the High Ranges of Kerala. Like many hill stations, during the British rule in India, planters, foresters, ethnographers, traders, adventurers and hunters thronged the subtropical region of Kerala. Fascinated with what they considered the ‘primitive’ lifestyle, European photographers recorded various aspects of daily life which included hunting, habitation, socio-cultural gatherings, daily chores and so on of the people of this region. These photographic representations formed the bedrock for anthropological studies in the late 19th and early 20th century in India, which presented the local communities as uncivilised, thereby establishing colonial domination and British cultural supremacy. Through this project, Jayakumar will study and critique the ways in which the British reinforced their notions of culture, and the role photography played in the misrepresentation of the local cultures of the High Ranges.

Jayakumar has divided this project into two parts. The first part will entail enquiring into the work of colonial photographers who depicted the lives of local people. Jayakumar will read the colonial ethnic studies simultaneously with these photographs to examine how they helped crystalise the identity of the people. The second part of this project will focus on pictures of hunting scenes. These photographs are crucial for two reasons. Firstly, they have acquired a cult status in public and private archives and museums, and are presented as heritage. They are displayed at prime spots for public consumption in hotels, guesthouses, planters’ houses and bungalows across the erstwhile British residential areas of Kerala. Secondly, the British photographers staged hunting scenes with exotic backdrops to create a primitive feel. Jayakumar will look at how hunting for livelihood by the local communities was reduced to performative theatrics as game hunting by the British to further their colonial agenda. He will study how ecology and life in the High Ranges of Kerala suffered, as a large scale of plantations were raised by the British administration for staging hunting scenes. Framed in specific ways, pictures of hunting scenes became symbols of power and masculinity in communities where definitions of gender were not carved in stone. These staged scenes from High Ranges later became representative of the tribal life and culture and found their way into local cinema and Bollywood which further cemented the colonial anthropological discourse by providing a homogenous view of the lives of these people.

Jayakumar argues that the colonial gaze towards man and nature was not a mere artistic activity but involved a strategic political thinking for taming of people and keeping them at bay by rendering them crude and inferior. He will examine the ways in which binaries of the ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ were created to justify the colonialism.

Jayakumar will study the travelogues of European travellers who visited the High Ranges, government documents pertaining to hunting, records left by hunters and other organisations. Simultaneously, he will travel to various places in Kerala and in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu where the photographs are housed or displayed. This will include public and private archives, museums, hotels and private bungalows. He will also visit the United Planters Association of South India to access the records related to colonial times. With the help of a photographer, Jayakumar will document the photographs. He will also document the places and the ways in which the photographs are displayed for public consumption to highlight how colonial nostalgia is brought alive in the postcolonial times.

In 2015-16 we made a grant to photographer and researcher Zubeni Lotha in Nagaland. Zubeni studied Austrian ethnologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf’s photographic representation of the Konyak Nagas and showed how the colonial construction of the identity of the Nagas was framed by the lens of photographs in early anthropology in British India. Both these projects complement each other in many ways. Though situated in two completely different regions,  the fundamental area of these two projects is the colonial representation of the indigenous communities through the photography during the British rule in India which continue to influence and impact in the ways in which national states look at specific subject citizens in this post-colonial times. From the disciplinary perspective, they both challenge the tropes that colonial anthropology created around community lives in the subcontinent. The distinct difference in the two projects is that while Zubeni’s quest was that of a practitioner, Jayakumar’s study will be from the perspective of a scholar. It will be interesting to see how the process and outcomes of these two projects speak to each other.

The outcome of this project will be a photo essay and an exhibition. The Grantee’s deliverables to IFA with the final reports will be the essay and photographic documentation from various collections across Kerala. Our decision of making this grant is embedded in our mandate for supporting research projects that investigate marginalised or relatively unexplored areas in the arts and culture in India.

This grant is made possible with support from Titan Company Limited