21. Sharanya, “A Manifesto to Decolonize Walking: Approximate Steps
I was having trouble deciding what to begin reading this afternoon. I know what I ought to start to read—something difficult and philosophical and theoretical—but I’m not really in the mood for another book. There was one article left in the “general theory and methodology” section of my reading list, and I decided to take a look at it. That article turned out to be of little use, but in the same journal I ran across Sharanya’s manifesto, and from the title, decided that it was something I should read.
Sharanya, or Sharanya M, as her blog states, is a teacher and researcher with a PhD in drama from the University of Exeter. She is also a walking artist based in Delhi, India. Her article begins with an assertion of the necessity to acknowledge “the genealogies and cultural practices that have been influential in shaping contemporary walking practices”:
The very endeavour of a grand narrative of history of walking that does not explicitly site itself—whether in Europe or elsewhere—indicates and reproduces the familiar reliance upon the non-specificity of site as referring to the hegemony of the “West,” across academic and popular literature. (85)
Among the texts that she suggests reproduce that hegemony are Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, Merlin Coverley’s The Art of Wandering, and Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking—all texts I’ve read and written about on this blog. “Walking as a form of performance ethnography, however, demands an attention to the rituals of the particular,” Sharanya continues. “Walking is influenced not just by where one walks, and who one is, but also by what factors one chooses to situate in the matrix of influence” (85). Moreover, Sharanya argues, “working through the baggage of heritage—architectural, social and cultural—calls for an examination of more local forms of pedestrianism” (85). In her description of her attempts to make psychogeographic dérives in Delhi, she notes that those attempts at following the examples of Situationist walks through Paris didn’t work out, and that apparent failure led to this manifesto.
“Social identities are partly created and named through signifiers, many of which are architectural, in the realm of the urban public,” Sharanya continues, “and are accessed through pedestrian encounters with them” (85). This approach to walking is somewhat limited—it only applies to urban walks and it is only concerned with the social identities that are created through place—but any approach to any specific practice is going to be limited by its practitioner’s interests, which might be Sharanya’s point. “A call to decolonize walking involves the recognition of, and response to, dominant forms of modernity in the urban everyday, such as architectural heritage”—she seems to be particularly interested in colonial British architecture in Indian cities—“the invisibility/hypervisibility of minority bodies in the street and the dominance of walking narratives from European and American cities” (85-86). Above all, decolonizing walking practices means naming the “hegemonic modes of knowledge-production” in particular spaces, which will necessitate rereading the juxtaposition between modernity and coloniality from a consciousness of race, gender, and sexuality, and to examine the emergence and development of those categories as well. Here Sharanya refers to an article by Gurminder K. Bhambra that discusses an essay on the connection between modernity and colonialism by Anibal Quijano—something I’ll take a look at. For Sharanya, decolonizing walking is an attempt to recast the politics of walking practices through a consciousness of race, gender, and sexuality as categories (86). There’s no question that one needs to think about walking in terms of those categories; I am quite aware that my ability to walk is different from the ability of others whose identities are different from mine.
Sharanya also argues that attention needs to be paid to specific urban forms. The limitations involved in reinscribing new forms of walking within older forms, such as Baudelaire’s (and Benjamin’s) flâneur, “are revealed quickly when one encounters the postcolonial body/city dialectic, which is itself new epistemological ground for walking discourse to be engaged with” (86). That dialectic—the place of the body, and the body in its place—Sharanya calls “locus of enunciation,” following an article by Walter D. Mignolo on epistemology and colonial difference. That article is another discovery I’ll read some other time. “Our walks are created by our loci of enunciation: the you/as, and the you/in,” Sharanya continues. “Find your focus as you articulate it” (86). I’m not sure what that command means, but it seems to be a call for an awareness of both who one is, in all of the complexity of one’s identity, and of where one walks. In addition, one needs to attend to the “temporal details of walking”: “the type of walk the rhythm and pace of the walk; the walk as an exploration; the walk as an experiment; the walk as an accumulation of chance-happenings; the walk as affective discourse. These are just elements of the walk, and must be gathered alongside urban politics—not just over ‘there’ in a strange land, but also ‘here,’ in a place that is familiar” (86). Sharanya praises Cathy Turner’s account of walking in Bangalore both for its richness of detail and for its approximation and incompleteness, qualities she believes are central both to the documentation of walking and to walks themselves (88). What Turner’s notes regarding her walks suggest, Sharanya writes, is “that which cannot be assimilated into text, yet remains a crucial part of the performance (text). Making visible the process of narrativizing the walk in retrospect is crucial to decolonial practices, as it reveals the construction of the locus of enunciation” (88). The short article ends with a description of the page of photographs it contains. Those photos of signs in Delhi are, Sharanya suggests, “a partially legible map of my walks, and an approximate imprint of an attempt to decolonize the form of the walk” (88).
I’ve been told that my walks in Saskatchewan are inevitably colonial. That’s because I am a white settler walking on the land, and therefore I will be understood as being a colonist inspecting the property. That’s why Sharanya’s title grabbed my attention: I want my walking practice to be decolonial, not colonial, and so I am interested in anything that might suggest ways to do that. Sharanya’s manifesto might suggest that, by paying attention to my own locus of enunciation, by being aware of both who I am and where I am, I might be able to address such critiques directly. Her praise of Turner’s poetic notes suggests that it is not impossible, at least from her perspective, for a white person’s walk to be understood as decolonial, although it must be emphasized that while India is a postcolonial country, Canada is not, and the land where I walk in this province is subject to a treaty that has been deliberately misunderstood, as Sheldon Krasowski argues in his recent book. I know my research is fraught with difficulty, and it may be completely misunderstood, but I still believe it it worth carrying on with it. Sharanya’s reminder regarding the locus of enunciation is important, and it’s one I will heed.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. “Postcolonial and Decolonial Dialogues.” Postcolonial Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 2014, pp. 115-21. DOI: 10.1080/13688790.2014.966414.
Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous. U of Regina P, 2019.
Mignolo, Walter D. “I Am Where I Think: Epistemology and the Colonial Difference.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1999, pp. 235-45. DOI: 10.1080/13569329909361962.
Quijano, Anibal. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.” Cultural Studies vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2007, pp. 168-78. DOI: 10.1080/09502380601164353.
Sharanya. “A Manifesto to Decolonize Walking: Approximate Steps.” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, vol. 22, no. 3, 2017, pp. 85-88. DOI:10.1080/13528165.2017.1348596.