V National Symposium

24-25 January 2014  

Homes I Made / A Life in Nine Lines (Zarina Hashmi, 1997)  

“...When I ran out to play


I had one house, then another and another.

Also the sea, where all roads finish.”  

-“House of Breath” by Meena Alexander


(Inspired by a Portfolio of Prints by artist Zarina Hashmi, titled “Home is a Foreign Place ”)


Bhabha pays Homage to Balvantbhai

For current critical and postcolonial theory, home and hospitality are deeply engaging and multifaceted concepts. The II Balvant Parekh Memorial Lecture and Symposium by  Dr. Homi K. Bhabha, (the  Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and  American Literature and Language  and the Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center  at Harvard University ) on “The Ethics of Hospitality and the Art of Home” examines the  dual  concepts in conjunction with crucial political issues and artistic narratives  in contemporary multi-ethnic  global world - focusing  on the  notions of assimilation and cultural citizenship in  cosmopolitan practice.

G. M. Sheikh

Historically, hospitality has played a principal role in the negotiation between "natives" and "strangers." Obligations to host the stranger were significant themes in Indian, Celtic, Greek and Roman cultures and still remain central to many religious discourses.  However, in recent years, increasing cross-border and cross-continental movements of people and commodities, (characterizing globalization) have revived unprecedented interest in this concept. In his progressive research on hospitality, Prof. Bhabha maps  out  the  journey of the idea from  Immanuel Kant’s reflections on a cosmopolitan right of "universal hospitality" as outlined in Perpetual Peace, to Jacques Derrida's distinction  between an ethics of (infinite) hospitality and a politics of (finite) hospitality  in his essay  Of Hospitality - beyond and through, “Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority” (Originally titled Totalité et Infini: essai sur l'extériorité, 1961)  by Emmanuel Levinas. The issue, as Bhabha points out, hinges on the tensed relations between an ethics of hospitality (which is infinite and beyond all human law) and a law/ politics of hospitality that involves limits of national borders and state sovereignty. Yet, hospitality is always about crossing thresholds and though a material structure, is spread over the surface with crucial affective elements of generosity and gratitude. Hospitality is also a way of theorizing the relation between the  "self" / same and the "other''/ stranger through  language,  which, with its semantic  potency, is in the broadest sense of the term, a critical element in  naming/identifying the act. Therefore, defining the "laws of hospitality" is subject to major flux and differences in interpretation(s).


In the first part of his lecture, Prof. Bhabha develops the idea of Kant's "universal hospitality” tracing its genesis and affect. For Kant, the particular discussion of cosmopolitan right is restricted to the right of hospitality and by this,  he means the right of a stranger or a foreigner "not to be treated with hostility" when arriving in a new country and a right extended to him  allowing  for an exchange of ideas and commodities with the inhabitants. But this does not grant him the right to be entertained or the right to permanent settlement/ the right of citizenship. The right of hospitality, in this context, is a right "to attempt to enter into relations with the native inhabitants,” and since all people in the  world  share a limited sum of living space due to the spherical shape of the earth, they must be understood to have a right to potential interaction with one another. Cosmopolitan right thus transcends the particular claims of nations and states and extends to all in the "universal community." In today's highly connected world of  networked selves, as Bhabha fittingly points out, "...communication,...along with the “techne” of connectivity... creates a culture in which  the violation of rights in one place is felt throughout the world”  and thus, the condition of universal hospitality, as defined by Kant, comes across as decidedly modern  and contemporary in essence.


Going back to the "peculiar tension between universal hospitality without limits,” as Derrida names it, and “the territorial restrictions of sovereignty and security,” Bhabha cites Jacques Rancière’s use of the concept of Dissensus in his reading of Kant’s aesthetics. The process of Dissensus, as Bhabha observes, is not about confrontation or contradiction, but rather, “the construction of a paradoxical world that puts together two separate worlds (hospitality and sovereignty)... side-by-side ...in one and the same world which is analogous to the structure of Kant’s argument.” In conclusion, he interrogates Kant’s views on “world citizenship” from “the perspective of borderline subjects”—the marginal, the foreigner, the homeless, the disempowered, the migrant, the tourist, the colonized, the refugee, and the exploited- in raising questions akin to:

In encounters with strangers, how should we relate to the “other”?

What forms of solidarity and alliance are made possible by cultivating an aesthetic of living side -by-side with “difference” and “alterity”?

Does that contribute to our contemporary understanding of “cosmopolitan right”?

What kinds of “hospitality” are possible in a time of living with contradictory communities that constitute our age of (in) security?

And must we live in the shadow of sovereignty and be caught by its ambivalence or can we truly surpass it?

The universality attributed to the law of hospitality is also marked by a sustained apprehension between the ethics of arrival and the politics of home/residence. The second part of Prof. Bhabha's lecture discusses the artworks of leading contemporary artist and printmaker Zarina Hashmi, focusing on  a dominant sense of anxiety and unease at the centre of her practice regarding the  larger issue of identity in implying that a home is what you make of it.

Zarina's work, sustained by a life lived through itinerant trajectories, deals with themes such as home, displacement, dispossession, social fracture, travel and memory - all echoing through her incessant experiences of being part of a Diaspora, and the idea of dislocation. Prof. Bhabha finds a strong sense of vernacular or marginal cosmopolitanism in her work; a sense of cosmopolitanism that is not of the transcendent human universal kind,   but is acutely conscious of the insufficiency in the self and thereby understands the imperative of openness to the needs of others. The profound struggle of self and subjectivity in Zarina, whose  work on symbolic maps register journeys and dislocations (Dividing Line, 2001 and Baghdad , 2003),  is both physical and metaphoric, intersected with  trauma  and  memories. Her  artwork is a direct product of a life marked by the aftermath of Partition and subsequesnt experiences of  being an exile. Through her artistic process, she is committed to the specificity of a (traumatic) event and yet plays concurrent to a sense of transhistorical memory based on communal solidarity.

The journeys from Aligarh ( her ancestral town) to New Delhi , Bangkok , Paris ,  Bonn , Tokyo , Los Angeles , Santa Cruz and  New York where she settled in the late 1970s,  have helped  in develping an idea of home that comes from an amalgamation of diverse cultures and experiences. Her idea of home as the centre of the universe is an ontological rather than a mere geographical concept. Home is a "threshold" (Home is a Foreign place), a "chaukhat,"  "wherever I happen to be next,"  "my hiding place " and "a house with four walls, sometimes with four wheels…." An eclectic training in different artistic traditions - including Urdu literature and calligraphy, the  sculptural aspect of printmaking process acquired from the renowned British printmaker Stanley William Hayter in Paris in the 60’s , along with Japanese printmaking and Zen Buddhism, which she discovered while living in Japan in 1974; allows her work  in attaining  the  wisdom of  a "quite/ quiet cosmopolitism." Bhabha terms this as a rare “poesis of facture...  active in their signification of cultural difference as any other discursive or semiotic system."

Bringing an acute  psychoanalytic edge to his analysis of Zarina’s works, the penultimate part of Prof. Bhabha's  lecture inquires into Zarina’s affinity for the small and for "repetition of forms" following a Duchampian ideal of miniatures. For Bhabha, the anxious architecture of multiple miniatures of "homes" on wheels with wings in Crawling House (1994) gives a vantage point of access into her notions of anxiety and trauma, but not as "replication of the mise-en-scene of the traumatic experience as both site and sight,” but rather, as an "art of dispossession as representing a culture of security," vis-à-vis the fragile, anxious character of "home" in global Diasporic wanderings." As the object diminishes, the iterative drive of memory rages, it increases its scale of recall, enlarges its desire for the diminishing object, rushes back and forth to make sure that what threatens to disappear continues to live on. The survival of anxiety’s art-object is wrought in a chiasmatic tension. As it becomes smaller, it lives longer," Bhabha ruefully concludes.

An interactive symposium was organized around the lecture on January 25th with students, researchers, artists and scholars from all over India taking the discussions into interesting territories. The discourses surrounding sovereignty, citizenship, migration, trajectory of global thought, rights and conditions of cosmopolitanism were of major concern. Dr. Thomas Pantham, former Professor of Political Science at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and a renowned scholar of Gandhi and comparative political theory made particularly nuanced and perceptive suggestions for understanding the  Kantian concepts  of hospitality and conflict through Mahatma Gandhi's ideals of  an appeal to conscience and dedicated observance of truth and nonviolence. More than 25 participants including Professor Birjepatil, Professor D.L. Sheth, and Gulam Sheikh were part of the symposium. The conversations during the session were inventive, imaginative, and creatively engaging for the entire group.

Homi Bhabha, PC Kar and Birjepatil

Ananya Ghoshal

PhD student, School of English Literary Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad & Former Fulbright-Nehru Pre-Doctoral Fellow, UC Berkeley