Local Faces and Places: Tourist Art and Representational Practices of Culture and Identity in Darjeeling Hills
Local scroll art consists of hand-painted or embroidered portraits and landscape scenes of Darjeeling usually rendered on black cloth. They are easily portable for tourist consumption. The local scroll art has over the years undergone much reconstruction, but the idiom in terms of the subject-matter and form is always about the representation of hill peoples, rendered on cloth, black cloth being the convention. Many other “traditions” of the local scroll art has emerged, and accordingly new nominations have been proffered. It is also referred to as tapeta painting, black cloth painting, Ava Devi painting, alongside scroll art painting. The nineteenth century colonial photographs provide powerful frames for the study of these artefacts in such a way that “tradition” in these arts may actually refer to or be constituted by colonial photography, particularly the ethnographic portraits of the native “types” like Lepcha girl or Tibetan man. Within the visual culture of the Darjeeling hills, one finds an inter-ocular circuit within which certain paradigms are established like the popular boju or ‘grandmother’ figure. The boju’s face is etched with monumental fine lines, each wrinkle depicted as realistically as possible in painting or needlework, as if in a bid to outdo photography. These forms of self-image that the communities in the hill possess and perpetuate have much to do with the colonial past that has significant bearings on the present. Nevertheless, I will demonstrate that the tourist art and other visual artefacts from the hills do much more than feed into the tourism industry, as they perpetuate and consolidate a visual lingua franca by which a viable cultural and political identity for the people get fashioned. Nelson Graburn reminds us that the makers of these artefacts do not only pay heed to the whims of the buyers, but they also imbue these works with values that are important to them. Therefore, it will be immensely important to study these paintings and their archetypes in terms of the meanings and value they accrue and radiate in terms of identity formation and recognition. An investigation into how they contribute to the discourse on ethnicity and representation in visual culture has to be made, especially in parallel with the Gorkhaland Movement- the ongoing struggle for the ethnically Nepalese population in India for political recognition and identity in the national discourse. Therefore, the overarching concern in this study will be an exploration of these postcolonial subjects in the twenty-first century who are looped into such circuits of representation. By treating the question of identity as contingent and ‘in process,’ I will be establishing time, space, people and institutions as circuits within which practices of representations are constituted and contested.