India and Orientalism

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Orientalism was born as a fetish, came of age as a discipline, and matured to spawn a critical discourse. This seminar explores the career of the Orient as an idea, a product of external imaginings, with emphasis on its South Asian deployment. As an imagined construct, orientalism continues to have tangible psychological and political impact on the lives of its subjects. Orientalist thought emerged as an array of fears and desires projected onto peoples located “somewhere East of Suez.” Orientalist assumptions became encoded as a system of serviceable knowledge in the scholarly disciplines that emerged from the Enlightenment. More recently, repudiations of orientalism have been central to critical discourse in literature and cultural studies. Through what gazes were the diverse cultures of Asia reduced to a master narrative of alterity? What characterizations of India can be found in the works of influential European philosophers, historians, poets, and painters? How did colonizers appropriate South Asian sciences and practices? Why did colonized subjects at times internalize orientalist hegemony and, in other instances, risk opposition to such hegemony? The seminar draws from 19th- and 20th-century English literature and British art to focus on depictions of an India at once picturesque and despotic. We analyze colonial images of South Asian subjects, both in light of the romance of empire and in contexts of the British “civilising mission” with its political, economic, and psychological agendas. We trace the invention and uses of the term “Indian” as emblematic of the epoch, external designation presuming to reframe indigenous identity. Contemporary Western pop culture, media, advertising, and fashion continue to reproduce the Orient as commodity. The seminar ends with a focus on contemporary South Asian writers, whose responses to orientalism are transforming English literature and reshaping cosmopolitan, transnational cultures.