Towards an Indian Decolonial Digital Humanities

1. Abstract

Panelists include organizers and participants from the Digital Humanities Alliance of India (DHAI) Conference held in June 2018—the first digital humanities conference in India—as well as academics who have pioneered DH research and teaching projects in India. We examine why even after several years of academic inquiry DH leaves a faint footprint on humanistic and public-facing scholarship in India. The four papers in this panel will look at the intersections of philosophy, theory, pedagogy and practice: to conceptualize a postcolonial DH in India using examples of particular projects as case studies. Together the papers in this panel explore the possibilities of Digital Humanities in India along with its concomitant challenges—including technological, structural, institutional disparities as well as issues of access and mobility—and reimagines the potential for developing a decolonized praxis for Digital Humanities in the Global South.

No “Making”, Not Now: A Distant Reading of Digital Humanities in India

Dr. Dibyadyuti Roy (Indian Institute of Management, Indore) and Dr. Nirmala Menon (Indian Institute of Technology, Indore)

The emergence of universities and postsecondary education in India from a colonial system that was “set up primarily for conducting examinations and awarding degrees, and not for undertaking research or even teaching” (Beteille para 2) has resulted in a system some have termed an educational apartheid: developing and sustaining the “ominous social pressure: [of]the idea that good students study science. Studying humanities is frowned upon as intellectually demeaning” (Gangopadhyay para 4). This ensures majority of public funding for research is pumped into the STEM fields while the Humanities have to make do with the crumbs. This in turn means that Humanities departments in universities often cannot even access disciplinary innovations in DH theories, methodologies and tools, let alone advanced training for faculty members. Therefore, the contextual relevance of the “making” versus “talking” debate raging across Anglo-American DH sites withers away in postcolonial spaces like India where DH, at least not yet, is not a term of “tactical convenience’ (Kirschenbaum)

In acknowledging this ontological premise, our intervention tries to locate the inaugural Digital Humanities Alliance of India (DHAI) Conference in June 2018 within an epistemic genealogy of South Asian and more specifically Indian Digital Humanities interventions, which may act as a primer for envisioning the future of postcolonial and indeed Global Digital Humanities. We consider some of the reasons for the resistance to institutionalizing digital humanities within the larger university systems in India and conclude that the causes are historical but also perhaps the embedded rigidity and regimentation of university-curricula across disciplines. Digital Humanities, as defined by its purported inter- or transdisciplinary character, becomes a tough sell within Indian university ecosystems, often constrained by their colonial origins and the limitations of a postcolonial social imaginary. By highlighting key issues regarding digital affordances in postcolonial contexts and exemplifying digital humanities projects thatwere presented at the DHAI 2018 conference, along with representative digital interventionsbeyond the conference's ambit, we conduct what we may term a ‘distant reading’ of the digital humanities in India. In conclusion, we suggest the need for a postcolonial digital humanities that is deeply invested in cross-disciplinary exchanges and pedagogical innovation: one that interrogates hegemonic assumptions about both “Postcolonialism” and “Digital Humanities.”

Do Postcolonial Intersections Matter?

Critical Epistemological Approaches to Digital Humanities and Mobility Studies in India

Dr. Mayurakshi Chaudhuri and Dr. Chiranjoy Chattopadhyay (Indian Institute of Technology, Jodhpur)

“Postcolonial theory” evidently is not a singular theoretical framework, but rather an interrelated set of critical and counterintuitive perspectives, including a complex network of interconnected concepts and heterogeneous practices that have been developed out of traditions of resistance to global historical trajectories of imperialism and colonialism (McLeod 2007). Furthermore, such counterintuitive perspectives and inquiry have undergone immense transformation by the digital revolution of the twenty-first century which has redefined relationships with and within the society, as well as sociological approaches to its analysis and interpretation in response to historical transformations over the past decades. A fundamental question remains as a natural corollary: How should this inquiry change with newer visibilities in the future, particularly for “digital humanists”? To examine these new challenges, we turn to an unavoidable global fact, omnipresent in historical and in contemporary times: human mobility. While sociological theorizing about mobility during the last quarter of the twentieth century was dominated by questions of relationship between mobility and neo-Western ideas of modernity (Sheller and Urry 2016), there has been a shift in discourse since the last decades with the advent of the digital revolution where postcolonial discourses have been re-crafting the very definition and production of mobility (for example, tourist sites).

However, while research on mobility studies over the decades have included objects of development whose actions are structurally determined, to cultural subjects across the continuum, one consistent truth has been that their experiences of structure, agency, and identity negotiations are inflected by gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality and nationality, to name a few of the axes of differentiations. With this in background, this article seeks to bring from the periphery to the core the multiple connections between mobility, intersectionality, the colonial past and postcolonial dynamics particularly impacting Public Digital Humanities in India. Not surprisingly, prolonged realities of colonialism have produced historical and cultural consequences that remain integral to hegemonic mobility and contemporary lifestyles in India,and these axes of differentiations have had very long, contested historical roots (Loomba 1998).

For example, European colonialism in South-, Southeast- or East Asia, required, and made possible, inequalities of power that pivoted around apparently real yet ultimately imagined gender differences between the colonizers and the colonized, that gets manifested across societal and digital spaces. Therefore, examining mobility within the framework of postcolonial histories in India thus brings us to an important hinge between distant times and places – the linking is historical, cultural, material, and digital (Chaudhuri and Thimm 2018). Everyday negotiations of such mobility explicitly point to these pressure-points and movements across multiple geographic and social scales where the axes of differentiations are constantly negotiated and redefined. This opens up a plethora of questions that need immediate attention:
(1) How are such postcolonial mobility scales (local, regional, national, digital) re-constructed? (2) How do these postcolonial scales inflect and are inflected by the various axes of differentiations; and most importantly, (3) How have these negotiations inflected postcolonial realities of mobility and lifestyles in digital India? That is, how are the new visibilities of postcolonial realities crafted?

This paper includes broader debates of these new visibilities of postcolonial experiences and lifestyles and en route, reflect on the importance of theorizing social position, power relations, individual’s identities, and their accompanied complexities in understanding emerging postcolonial patterns that inform, influence, and even inflect epistemologies of Public Digital Humanities in India.

Visualizing the Cultural History of South Asia

Dr. Arjun Ghosh (Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi)

The history of the various literary and artistic forms have hitherto been written by the close study of the works and activities of individuals or artistic movements. Even though such methods – qualitative in character – have produced authoritative histories, they have relied on the human ability to read and correlate texts. The computational turn makes it possible, through large datasets, to support as well as put to test readings by the “human eye”. Schich et al used crowdsourced data of birth and death dates and locations to study patterns of migration of notable people across history in Europe and North America (Schich et al. 2014). Schich et al. sourced their data from Freebase, a crowdsourced database of notable people and things, the Getty Union of Artist Names and other sources.

In this project we visualize the data for South Asia to look at patterns of migration. In order to update the data used by Schich et al. we supplement it with data from Wikipedia biographies. The most influential persons from the Wikipedia data is extracted using a filter for pagevisit statistics of the particular Wikipage. From Wikipedia we can build a bigger dataset that includes birth and death data for people from different sectors of society. We map this data to reveal the different locations which acquire importance in different sectors across the 19th and 20th centuries. While migration studies relying on census and other macro level data concentrates on studying the migration patterns for labour and skilled workforce in various industrial sectors(Dupont 2000, Abhishek et al. 2017), working through crowdsourced data allows us to identify the changing patterns of migration among artists and creative persons, administrators, sports people, academicians and scientists and other elite sections of the population. Our analysis reveals that the erstwhile colonial capital Calcutta started losing importance as a cultural hub in the 1950s and 60s when a large number of artists from the western Punjab settled in Bombay. In recent years the southern cities of Chennai and Bangalore has been growing in attractiveness for artists in Southern India. Pune has also grown in attraction for artists and academicians in comparison to Mumbai. While different urban centres have changed positions as hubs for different sectors, Delhi has grown as an attractive settlement across sectors since the 1990s.

Creating Digital Archives in India: The Public's Record

Dr.Maya Dodd (FLAME University)

In an attempt to challenge the inscrutability of the state, the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 has been critical in creating a public record and making government information visible to India’s citizens. It is no coincidence that such a right was not only a function of democratic maturity but also a function of technological possibility. Without oversimplifying the point about transparency and accountability, the ease that digital access has granted in making an RTI request assumes the existence and possibility of digital archives for civic convenience. Since such archives are often being created at the time of the ask, the creation of digital registers of information is essentially a collaborative effort.

Sites like and citizen led efforts like open data meets are both enabling thecreation of parallel registers and repositories that often contest or carry forward the digital data sets of governance. Similarly, in the case of public history, in addition to officially sanctioned preservation projects, citizen led and crowdsourced efforts to populate public records are enabled by digital media. Thus, we see portals like the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) and theIndian Memory Project that are both a function of the digital medium as well as a product of a new democratic impulse to arrange information publicly. Understanding how these crowdsourced contributions multiply public records and further the cause of digital access can lead to insights in participatory governance and enhancing the public’s access to the workings of the Indian state. When placed alongside other efforts to create digital archives (institutional archives, digital news and online museums for instance) the shift this indicates for public culture bears great promise for multiplying points of view, so necessary to a successful democracy.


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