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Updated: July 20, 2010 15:35 IST

A magnificent collection

Rajan Gurukkal
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The book is an able attempt at making sense of the drawings of peoples, places, and monuments which Colin Mackenzie, a Scottish engineer of the British Army of the Madras Presidency, collected mainly from southern India and, on a smaller scale, from northern India, Sri Lanka, and Java, during his four-decade career as a military surveyor in colonial India. The ‘Mackenzie Collection,' reputed as much for its complexity as for its enormity, constitutes the largest and oldest of the extant archives of drawings gathered by a single European in Asia.

Painstaking effort

Jennifer Howes, who set out to catalogue them, realised that it would make little sense unless each item is accompanied by a description and contextualised in the light of Mackenzie's varied enterprises. Given the huge numbers and the bewildering diversity, it was obvious that covering the entire collection will be an almost impossible task to accomplish. So she chose to discuss only certain sets of drawings — those that lent themselves to contextual analysis. The outcome is the book under review, a painstaking effort.

The introductory chapter carries a brief biography of Mackenzie. It is primarily a note on his career, projects, and field staff, prepared on the basis of conspicuously scant data. In the epilogue, Howes speaks of her experience, as she researched the collection, a veritable archive.

Comprehensive

The first of the six chapters contextualises the monumental sketches, landscape paintings, and route maps associated with the survey of the Nizam of Hyderabad's dominions, which was carried out during 1792-99. The second examines Mackenzie's relationship with his European Orientalist colleagues in the specific cognitive context of his surveys that aimed at a comprehensive understanding of the land and the people for exposition through illustration. Holding Mackenzie's works against the knowledge base of contemporary Calcutta as well as the Madras-based European Orientalists and local pundits, the author analyses how the drawings were disseminated, and what trends they reflect. The third chapter deals with drawings that portray the peoples and monuments of Mysore.

Howes turns more analytical in the next chapter, which focusses on the interface of drawings and documents, illustrating how Mackenzie studied temples with insights from the then European method of using sketches and drawings as a strategy for understanding the form, function, and history of temples. There is a commendable set of line drawings, diagrams, and plans of temples in the Mackenzie Collection and the author expatiates on their academic import by appraising them in the light of the translated versions of contemporary iconographic and architectural texts, besides local historical traditions.

On Mahabalipuram

The analysis shows that the subject matter of line drawings had a direct link with Mackenzie's interest in local history and religion, and this is exemplified in the succeeding chapter, which is devoted exclusively to Mahabalipuram. Howes clearly establishes that Mackenzie's notes and drawings of the monuments at the site truly reflected the meanings the local population ascribed to those vestiges.

It is interesting to know how Mackenzie drew upon the services of surveyors and translators in the colonial service for his huge academic project. However, the identity of such officials — authors of specific notes, plans, sketches, and drawings — is not known. This could be because it was not customary for them to put their signatures to their work and, probably, also because they, as paid servants, were not entitled to do so since they were produced as part of their official duty.

Howes found the chronology and authorial identity of drawings in the collection a conundrum, when she became curious to know the biographical details of the artists, the copyists, and the draftsmen employed by Mackenzie. The author says, rather modestly, that she has skimmed just the surface of a tiny part of the Mackenzie Collection. What she has done is really a commendable job of piecing together the illustrations and giving a glimpse of the cognitive strategies of a foreigner seeking to understand the other.

Valuable source

This book, together with the British Library's on-line Catalogue of prints and drawings, constitutes the site where the author congregates results of her research. It should be of great interest to researchers in Saidian Orientalism and Cliffordian representational effects. With its high quality reproduction of classified illustrations, the publication can also serve as a resource for analysts of artistic styles.

The book, which enhances one's admiration for Mackenzie as a sustained researcher who valued Indian skills and scholarship — something least expected of a faithful employee of the East India Company — can attract general readership as well.

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