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Indigenous spectres, subversive Lilas : encounters between Nawabi authority, colonialism and popular ritual in Lucknow Gill, Rajdeep Singh


The constructions of religion and ritual have been central to constituting a colonial vision of India and The Holi Festival at Lucknow is an important and early visual site of this dynamic and history. This small watercolor painting was completed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, an intense and conflicted period in which the rulers of Awadh and their negotiations of self and sovereignty had to contend with the forceful power/knowledge nexus of colonialism. I argue that The Holi Festival at Lucknow draws upon the vocabularies of the picturesque and the sublime for a construction of knowledge that would be instrumental in justifying colonization. I illustrate the ways in which such a colonial project is an anxious one, continually put into crisis by how kingship is negotiated in Awadh. Specifically, I employ caste, a key colonial trope for othering and homogenizing India, as an important and intricate site for the Nawabi brokering of power. Caste, marked by contesting Shia Nawabi and colonial constructions, is further destabilized by the proliferating, rebellious and resistant identities that it attempts to domesticate. These identities have to negotiate other dominant narratives, such as the colonial discourse on "criminality", and I explore these negotiations in relation to subaltern histories and memories. This theoretical position works to hybridize from below the visual terrain of colonial modernity and productively allows the dense sites of resistances to be brought out; thus, in my textured reading, The Holi Festival at Lucknow emerges as a multifaceted site of social struggles. I position these struggles within a social arena in which divinity, asceticism, labor, gender, class, caste and adivasi-ness weave in and out of each other in several directions. This complex arena is mapped in my thesis through visual analysis of The Holi Festival at Lucknow and its relationship to other discursive practices. Significantly, I also develop how lila, bhakti and Sufism, as social practices inhabiting the discursive spaces of the image, allow rethinking of agency and subjecthood in a manner that critiques the modern-historical imagining of time/space as only singular and secular.

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