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Conference Keynote: Santanu Das 'The Colours of Memory: the racial politics of the centennial commemoration'

Date published: 
Wednesday, 21 March, 2018

The abstracts for the keynote speakers for the upcoming Reflections on the commoration of World War One conference are now available on the conference page.

The Colours of Memory: the racial politics of the centennial commemoration


One of the important legacies of the centennial commemoration will be the greater recognition of the contribution of non-white colonial troops. But this much-needed expansion has been accompanied, I argue, by a process of double sanitisation: the erasure of the ignominies of race and colonialism as well as the cleansing of the brutality and violence of combat. As the war is being reinvented in Europe as the grand stage to play the laudable anthem of multiculturalism, the responses from the former colonies as well as from the ethnic communities abroad have often bordered on triumphant valorisation, as if the only way to recover the non-white soldier is by turning him into a war hero. My talk will examine the poetics and politics of this process: whose memory are we talking about, what is at stake politically, and is it in the sphere of colonial war remembrance that the tension between celebration and commemoration - or for that matter, between ethical and instrumental uses of memory - is at its most intense? What level of complexity could or should commemoration accommodate: how do we, for example, remember a Turkish soldier killed by an Indian Muslim sepoy recruited by his own people at the behest of the British colonial government? I shall here look at a range of material - from official centennial events to commemorative art work, video installations, dance-theatre and literary imaginings - with reference to South Asia and South Africa to examine the contradictions of colonial memory and the meaning of commemoration itself, and reflect on how and what we remember. 


Educated in Kolkata and Cambridge, Santanu Das is a literary and cultural historian based at King’s College London. He is the author of the award-winning monograph Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge, 2006) and Indian Troops in Europe, 1914-1918 (Paris, 2014) and the editor of Race, Empire and First World War Writing (2006) and the Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War (2014). His latest book South Asia and First World War Culture: Literature, Images and Music is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2018 and he is currently editing the Oxford Book of Empire Writing of the First World War. From 2013-2016, he directed a large pan-European research project on 'Cultural Encounters During Global Conflict: Neutrals, Colonials and Belligerents in the First World War'. He has been involved in a number of centennial commemorative projects on the war, from radio and television programmes with the BBC to advising on concerts, exhibitions, and, most recently, dance-theatre.