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Updated: February 11, 2013 23:46 IST

Colonial politics of display

Anandhi S.
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Colonial History and Cultural
Display: Saloni Mathur;
Orient Blackswan India Pvt. Ltd.,
1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New
Delhi-110002. Rs. 525.
Colonial History and Cultural Display: Saloni Mathur; Orient Blackswan India Pvt. Ltd., 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 525.

Saloni Mathur focuses on the history of representations of Indian art in the West

In the global cultural space, there is an abundant and increasing fascination for the contemporary Indian art. Interestingly, Indian art continues to evoke passion among the western audience mainly in terms of its ‘unchanging’ tradition and ‘authenticity’. This is not different from how Indian culture and art was received and represented during the colonial period.

Indian art history, however, has not sufficiently focused on this complex history of representations of Indian culture and art in the West. In contrast, the book under review attempts to analyse the 150 years of encounter between Indian cultures and the West in order to situate the contemporary meanings of ‘modern’ in Indian art. It, thus, explores how the modern visual understandings of India are produced through interactions between colonial art education, imperial display culture, Victorian industrial consumptions, and nationalism.

Beginning with an account of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in the Crystal Palace in London, the book shows how the Indian Exhibition of 1886 held in London, contrasted the anxieties of the Victorians about the industrialised London with the display of India as timeless, unchanging and as belonging to an idyllic pre-industrial past. Such a portrayal of India, according to the author, was well entrenched in the works of colonial anthropology.

The anthropological art writing of George Birdwood is discussed here to show how it connected Indian art practices to the Hindu religion and reified the Code of Manu which greatly influenced popular knowledge about the Indian Art practices across the continents.

The book equally pays attention to the subversion of colonial projects of museums and visual displays by the colonial subjects including the subaltern artisans and shows how such imperial visual displays were marked by tensions, insecurities and rejections. For instance, the book shows how the sufferings of Indian village artists such as natuch dancers, jugglers, acrobats, and weavers displayed at the Liberty’s exhibition of “Living village artisans” led to nationalist mobilisation against Britian’s colonial exploitation. Similar, as the book argues, is the case of the subalterns kept on display during the Indian Exhibition of 1886.

Narrating the case of a destitute villager from Punjab, Tulsi Ram, who was displayed as a native artisan at the exhibition, the book shows how the movement of this subaltern peasant created a crisis for the official project of the exhibition and its ‘success story’. His demand to meet the queen, the subsequent arrest of him for vagrancy and the Liberty store’s attempt to showcase him as native Indian artisan are elaborated to show the dynamics of objectification and challenges to the same in the imperial display culture.

The book further discusses the portrayal of Indian subjects in paintings commissioned by the Queen and the tensions between such imperial portraits of Indians and the emerging histories of Indian art practices. The arrival of oil paintings and the role of colonial art education in effecting a distinction between the “industrial arts” and decorative arts (leading to the hierarchical distinction of “artists” versus the “native artisans”), and their implications for contemporary art culture are elaborated here. The question of subaltern agency is further examined in the book through a nuanced analysis of the production, collection and circulation of postcards in the colonial era. The ‘native view postcards’ that made available caste, religious and gender differences for mass consumption in Europe, and their imperial representations of colonial architecture are critically analysed.

Fresh insights

The book also offers fresh insights into the question of feminisation of postcard culture. Going beyond an analysis of sexualised images of women in postcards, the book discusses the differing and hierarchical construction of images of European and Indian womanhood and their relationship to the colonial and caste public spheres.

Finally, the book connects the postcolonial history and practices of museum through an account of a 30 year struggle over two Buddhist relics excavated in India. It traces the custody battle between museum officials in London, and the Buddhist Society in Britain and India, Sri Lanka and Burma so as to illustrate how the differing notions of value and meaning associated with objects govern visuality and consumption.

The book, based on extensive archival research and resources, convincingly illustrates how India as a visual object was constantly constructed and shaped by multiple and varied discourses and practices. The series of case studies and events presented in the book to capture the colonial and post-colonial politics of representations are not only insightful of the complex art history of India, but also a delight to read.

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