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Material Measures, Immaterial Means

Asma Rasheed

Edited by Subhadra Mitra Channa and Kamal K. Misra
Rawat Publications and Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal, Jaipur, 2013, pp. 211, Rs. 695.00


The study of material culture has evolved alongside the discipline of anthropology, though the field has taken an interdisciplinary turn only in the last two decades or so. At a very fundamental level, material culture refers to the study of any and all objects, be it buildings, books or beads. Anthropological studies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century also collated specimens of material culture, which were displayed in museums across Europe and North America. However, implicit in these early days was the idea that the gaze moved from ‘simple’ objects of non-European societies to the ‘advanced’ objects of European society. Over the recent past, however, studies in material culture characteristically combine ethnographic fieldwork and anthropological debate. Thus, empirical research into specific areas of material culture—be it food or clothing, commodities or gifts—locates these objects within larger systems of exchange. Researchers examine the movement of these objects across domains and differing value systems, to lay out the shifts in practices and meanings surrounding physically changing objects. This shift in perspective also challenges the subject/object dichotomy, in that the former is assumed to be immaterial and the latter is said to be inert and passive. Material culture studies thus raise questions of agency, the means by which objects produce certain effects or permit particular practices, behavioural or cultural, and explore the dialectic relationships between people and things. Given these shifts in studies of material culture, a collection such as the one under review promises to raise thoughtful, exciting questions especially as the articles cover a region/nation as diverse as India.   The editors point out that museums not necessarily about things past and dead, can also be about ‘the living, the performative and the cultural aspects of life’ (p. ix). Nonetheless, an object has its particular, multi-vocal, resonances only within an ‘orbit of shared meanings’ (p. 1) and ‘in relation to the subjective self’ (p. 2). In fact, material culture acquires its objectified significance—instrumental, emotional, symbolic—through ‘the process of social interaction and conferring of meaning’ (p. 4). Simultaneously, a ‘gendered’ division of labour and social relationships between the sexes, as they put it, operates in a ‘social reality’ where ‘real people make real choices’ (p. 9). Yet, the ‘uneasy silence’ about the role of women in producing objects of material culture reflects a gross gender bias, especially when displays in museums are named after the communities making them. At ...

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