Aarti Kawlra has been the Academic Director of the Humanities across Borders: Asia and Africa in the World (HaB) program since 2016. She has worked with HaB partners to develop spaces for trans-sectorial academia-society exchanges around the themes of ‘place’, ‘practice’, ‘food’ and ‘words’ using situated learning methodologies at IIAS’s experiential schools, practice-based workshops and consultative roundtable meetings. A social anthropologist trained at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences IIT Delhi (1998), Aarti is also affiliated to the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai where she is collaborating on a book project with a historian on the politics of craft-based, manual training in colonial south India. Her book We Who Wove with Lotus Thread: Summoning Community in South India (Orient Blackswan, 2018) uses the methods of anthropology, social history and cultural studies to discursively interrogate colonial and postcolonial framings of culture, heritage, and development as they collide with artisanal self-representation in south India. Her experience in working with national and international craft advocacy groups and institutions (she co-founded an ethical craft production enterprise for women workers in rural Tamil Nadu in 2006), has helped shape the place and practice based pedagogical experiments of the HaB program.  

Academic profile: https://iias.academia.edu/AartiKawlra

Previous stay at IIAS: 15 September 2012 until 31 March 2013. 

Aarti Kawlra is an independent scholar currently affiliated to the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Chennai where she is co-project Director of the ICSSR Project 'Exhuming craft in the discourse of education in 20th century India'. At IIAS, she is a both a fellow doing research in the area of the politics of craft, culture and technology, and a co-convenor of the IIAS/Mellon project Uses of Culture and Heritage in Asian Contexts in which she has sought to re-imagine craft as a lens of inquiry into forms of knowledge production and transmission.

Prior to this she was a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), New Delhi.  Her research interest traverses material culture studies, politics of development, artisans and globalization and de-colonial thinking and doing. Her recent publications include ‘Sari and the narrative of nation’ in the anthology Global Textile Encounters, Oxbow Books, 2014; ‘Duplicating the Local: GI and the politics of place in south India’ NMML Occasional Paper NS: 29, 2014 and ‘ICT-mediated development for whom?’ in Annuaire Roumaind'Anthropologie 50, 2013. A book manuscript, probing the re-articulation of caste through work among a community of silk handloom weavers in south India, is currently under revision for publication.

Previous stay at IIAS:  15 September -31 March 2013
Research topic: Kanchipuram Sari as Heritage: Artisanship and the Politics of Culture and Technology

The present day Kanchipuram sari’s nation-wide recognition as a marker of cultural refinement and taste is associated with the nationalist emergence of the Bharata Natyam as the classical dance-form of India in the first half of the twentieth century. Variously known as South silk, Temple sari or just Kanjeevaram, this silk and gold contrast-bordered sari’s elite status is the creation of theosophist and dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986) who is known to have re-settled silk handloom weavers from the nearby town of Kanchipuram at Kalakshetra, her international academy for the arts in Madras (now Chennai), for the specific purpose of creating a suitable dance costume.

My work shows that the sari’s legitimacy was gained from the colonial reinterpretation of artisanal work as local/regional ‘craft traditions’ as part of wider processes of ‘traditionalization’ of the products and producers of the colony through a cartographic mapping of the same.  Post-independence, this colonial spatializing practice was discernible as regionally distinguishable textiles with locally contingent designs and technologies in the hands of occupationally defined ‘weaving’ castes.  I take up for examination the contemporary status of the Kanchipuram sari as the queen among silk handloom saris from south India, and its weavers and producers as agents of ‘auspiciousness’ and ‘authenticity’,  in the light of the colonial and postcolonial discourse and practice of handloom weaving in India. 

Taking the case of the Telugu speaking Padma Saliyar community, whose members are at the helm of the production and exchange of handloom silks saris in Tamil Nadu, I examine the twentieth century construction of ‘tradition’ and ‘artisanship’ by state and non-state actors and institutions with reformist and revivalist agendas, to foreground the politics of inclusion impacting weaving communities, their products, technologies and modes of production.  

The contemporary neo-liberal appropriation of a nation’s ‘tradition’ through its re-framing as ‘world heritage’, has led to the ‘fixing’ of artisanal products to localities of their putative origin through global certifications such as the Geographical Indications of Goods (GI) mark. With the Tamil Nadu state government as mediator and ‘owner’ of its intellectual property, the Kanchipuram sari’s weavers and producers are now being drawn within spatial, technical and design circumscriptions predicated upon new forms of regulatory mechanisms and governmentality. How are weavers and producers of the Kanchipuram sari responding to hegemonic structures of knowledge and power enshrined in the GI? How is artisanal work implicated in processes of identity construction and in the production and reproduction of hierarchies, both nationally and globally?

The reordering of social relations of production under contemporary forms of disciplinary control to undermine  homo faber and associated human ingenuity are portentously unlike the overt hierarchic dualisms of the ‘savage’ and the ‘civilized’, or the ‘developed’ and the ‘underdeveloped’, that postcolonies have thus far been subjected to. My work addresses these and other questions of artisanship as identity imbricated within a wider politics of culture and technology.