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Bayly_pg12to18 - HIST 0353 SOUTH ASIA 1 750 ON “LYNN”[I)D Christopher Bayly organiser of a major new exhibition on the British and India

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Unformatted text preview: HIST 0353 SOUTH ASIA 1 750 ON “LYNN” [I )D.\\' Christopher. Bayly, organiser of a major new exhibition on the British and India opening in London at the National Portrait Gallery this month, discusses its making and the complexities of presenting the myths and realities behind the Raj. nyone who has been involved in the Aprganisarion of a large art-historical ex- iibition will sympathise with the prob- lems of Professor jonathan Alexander who wrote some years ago in this journal about ‘The Age of Chivalry’ exhibition at the Royal Acade- my. the very title of which stirred considerable scholarly controversy. in what sense. some people asked. could the period between 1200 and HSO meaningfully be considered an ‘age of chivalry?’ Yet the word 'chivalry‘ was essential to the popular appeal of the show. In the case of ‘The Raj: India and the British. pounded by the political sensitivities that con. tinue to afflict the historical memory in Great Britain, India and Pakistan. For instance. Pakista- nis and Bangladeshis were understandably .‘on. cerned that the origins of their national :radi. tions should be fully represented despite the privileged position of the word 'lndia’ (the alternative. the deadly “South Asia’. was rejected early on). interestingly. though. it was institu- tions and individuals in this country. not in southern Asia. whose political antennae seemed most sensitive. There was some questioning as to whether the exhibition might show the Raj crosscunfmz?m‘:“fla _ 1600-19472 problems of scholarlv accuracv in an unfavourable light — evidence (ha: the priestsgnran ing e gs 4 , ‘ . ' _ . 1 .1 i . . . ‘ ofmcssm Benplme5_a and the dangers of anachronism were com lndun Empire still remains important in the painting by an Indian artist. c.1845. EXHlBlTl —r G ’ H 3‘ Reprinted with permission for one-time classroom use a ; composition of British national identity nearly half a century after the last Tommy marched away through the Gateway of India. I The term ‘The Rap", with its echoes of Paul ‘;5cott's popular Raj Quartet novels and the . television series based on them. was a neces- '. adjustment to the realities of running a M; gallery today. Visitors. of course, have to be ‘P attracted in the first place. Drier academic titles " ‘or obscurities along the lines of ‘Glories of the Orient' could not be guaranteed to do this. If 'some British Asians or expatriate Indians, Pakis- _.tanis and Bangladeshis have already thrown up their hands and cried ‘Not Raj nostalgia again!‘ .one can only plead guilty on the title and urge ' them to come to an exhibition which tries to represent Indian nationalism and Muslim move‘ , ments as fully as it does British conquests. (.1 bugles and tiger-shoots. ‘ Again, although the term ‘Raj‘ is probably :1 more correctly used for the period of India 7,under the Crown (1858-1947), Indians did use 1the term Kampam’ ki Raj (the East India Com- pany’s Rule) for the period between Robert {Clive’s conquest _of Bengal in 1757 and the Mutiny-Rebellion of 1857. And even before 1765 (though one may seem to protest too much here), the Company held royal rights transferred by the King of Portugal in 1661 over Bombay, and exercised many of the pre- ogatives of raja and zamindar (landholder) in ts other commercial settlements by virtue of grants from the Mughal emperors. 7 However, the difiiculties of hitting on the 'ght title were as nothing compared with those of selecting the right central image for publicity "sters and the catalogue cover. One image 'tially considered was Francis Hayman’s pre- -- design for ‘Lord Clive meeting Mir ‘ after the battle of Plassey (I757)’, which .' painted in about 1762 (the larger painting inow lost). Mir Jafiir, ruler of Bengal, had nspired with Clive to overthrow his prede- f r, Siraj-ud-Daulah, who had been hostile to '1' British, and had thus precipitated their liquest of Bengal, and ultimately of India. "I . . picture has the merit of portraying a rittsh conqueror, an Indian prince, and a ', " cw'nat unlikely-looking elephant. Its topic is ’ ' cdiately recognisable and it has the advan- 3"1 9f belonging to the National Portrait Gal- itself. However, it has considerable draw- Which throw light on some of the prob- . of putting together an exhibition such as ~ Mir Jaffir is clearly shown in an act of _' C8 of the East. Clive, the union flag resplen- "- a: "is back, accepts the gift with scarcer MPERIAL 1M; concealed hauteur and no sign of 'absence of mind‘ with which the Victorian historian. Sir John Seeley, claimed the British undertook the conquest of India. It is not simply a woolly liberal concession in post-colonial, multi-ethnic Britain, to feel that such a triumphalist image might set an uneasy tone for an exhibition that aspires to some degree of historical objectivity. Yet the history of this image and others like it does tell us some very important things about the use of art as propaganda, and about the definition of British national identity. As Dr Brian Allen notes in his catalogue entry, Hay- man was one of the new breed of historical painters who was inspired by the patriotism (and the prospect of rich clients) that emerged during the Seven Years War against the French (1756-65). The paintings on patriotic themes commissioned for Vauxhall Gardens and pic- tures such as Benjamin West’s ’The death of General Wolfe‘, signalled a new public taste for such themes. They celebrated the merging of a popular imperial sentiment (which had often been anti-government in the first half of the century), with the strategic aims of ministers. For the war marked the beginnings of a shift in GE e'lite thinking, as Professor Peter Marshall has shown. from the idea that oriental wealth cor- rupted 'civic virtue‘ to the happy conclusion that the British could be both a ‘free and conquering people'. The culmination of this change in concep- tions of empire and of their visual representa- tion was to come somewhat later, in the late 17905 and early 18005. This was the period when the Marquis Wellesley and his brother, Arthur, were engaged against two implacable enemies of British power in India, the Muslim ‘tyrant’. Tipu Sultan, who was ruler of the southern state of Mysore, and the Marathas of western India, both regarded as ‘freebooters' by the British. In the 17605, the tone was as yet muted. Interestingly, in an earlier preliminary sketch for ‘Lord Clive meeting Mir )afiir’, Hay- man had shown the Indian ruler bowing even more submissively before Clive. He then changed his mind. For Indians were still held. at least in public, to be allies and coadjutors of the Company under the overarching sovereignty of the Mughal Emperor. Other renowned painters of the next two decades who are represented in the exhibition -Johann Zoifany, Tilly Kettle, Thomas Hickey — painted Indian princes as munificent patrons, while many pictures showed the British in that very Enlightenment role of ‘benefactors'. The pictures of the death of Tipu Sultan, and the finding of his body, which became immensely OCTOBER I990 13 W In pre-British India religious boundaries were not yet rigidly fixed - this 17th-century illustration from the Mughal school shows a Brahmin and Muslim holy man disputing. 14 popular throughout Great Britain after 1799, were of an altogether tougher temper. Here justice and fate are shown revenged upon the fallen tyrant whose body is discovered by Col- onel Baird. one of those British captives he had previously imprisoned and maltreated in the dungeons of Seringapatam. Indian history. perhaps even India itself, was thus shown dead at the feet of conquering British arms. The history of imperial history painting. then. provides marvellous material for the new analy‘ ses of British nationalism and empire that are being undertaken by historians such as Kath- leen Wilson and Linda Colley. Yet these paint- ings might convey the wrong impression about the exhibition to the man or woman on the London Underground, so the picture which was finally selected as the central image is by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, the famous European court portraitist. It shows Maharaja Dalip Singh, the heir to the last great, free Indian state, the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab. which was con. quered by the British between 1848 and 1852, The prince is shown elegantly, indeed gaudilv, attired. his leg thrust jauntily forward. Here is an Indian of the Raj, but not, apparently, one engaged in an act of submission. Yet there is a paradox: while Mir )afflr retained some degree of autonomy, Dalip was a mere pensioner of Queen Victoria. His kingdom, his religion and even the famous Koh-i-Nor diamond had been snatched away from him. He was to die young, miserable and frustrated. denied the chance to see his homeland again. The image suggests the ‘ vigorously exotic; the reality was defeat and dispossession. This European painting mirrors the ‘mendacity‘ of some of the Indian images in the exhibition. Several miniatures and larger works portray the great durbars and ceremonial events of the late eighteenth and early nine- teenth centuries. In them the raja or nawab is invariably shown as a dominating figure sur- rounded by the characteristic ‘halo‘ of kingship. British residents or political agents are por- trayed at best as important powders of the Indian sovereigns, often as small figires on the periphery, whose European dress has been ad- justed to harmonise with the costume of sur- rounding Indians. Yet almost everywhere, even before 1857, it was the British who held real power. Not surprisingly, after the Mutiny- Rebellion, traditional Indian painting, tied closely as it had been to an illusion of con- tinuing Indian sovereignty, rapidly withered. This brings one to the heart of the problem about representing the history of the British in' India, with pictures. Coherence over this large period and huge range of topics could only be maintained by structuring the exhibition - * 5 around an historical narrative. A written histor- ' ical narrative can always be nuanced and shaded; paintings and objects may be internally. complex, but it is difficult to make them argue; ,. t... important to make clear that India before the British was neither savage or anarchic, as I -’ remarkably large number of Europeans still seem to feel, or a ‘Merrie India’ of temples, elephants and philosophical peace. Instead, it: was a great centre of trade and production and~ ‘ the frontier of expansion for a great Islamic: world state, the Mughal Empire. This at 1635‘ could be shown by displaying some of th ' brilliant miniatures, textiles, fabrics and weapons which are so abundantly represented in British museums and galleries. The founding and organisation of the East India Company could thus be set in its proper context. ; The visual record of Mughal India could 315° ’ be used to introduce the viewer to India's religious and cultural complexity. One of favourite exhibits is the miniature (c.1620) l " by the Keir Collection, London, which Show? Muslim learned man and a Hindu Brahmin arguing with each other on a raised platform under a domed roof. This miniature, about which whole articles could be written, illus- trates the face-to-face contestation of ideas and religious beliefs that took place in the India of the Emperor Akbar, a vision so difi‘erent from the savage confrontation of communities de- fined by religious confession which tore the 'subcontinent apart in the last days of the Raj. 'There were other points it was very difficult " 0 make. Our first inclination, for instance. was to avoid as far as possible certain types of colonial stereotype' about India. Some sections 0f the public. it was felt, would simply be . Waiting to see India as a land of ‘suttee‘ (widow urning) and ‘thuggee‘ (the supposedly ritual- d strangling of travellers on the road). Hav- _ g seen these representations, people might 5iInply ignore the rest and go away with their l‘Cluzlices confirmed. This was particularly un- irable since the amount of heat and debate 1: erated by the, admittedly horrible, deaths of scvCral thousand widows was quite out of prop- : seen as a naturaJ phenomenon. Equally, .orians are very sceptical that ‘thuggee‘ was Smille conspiracy unified by religious lore ret knowledge. Probably it was an Robert Clive meeting Mirjafzr, Nawab ot'Murshidabad; Francis Hayman‘s evocation of the aha-math of the battle of Plassey (1757), where Clive's victory installedjafar as ruler of Bengal instead of the hostile incumbene'Sir-ajoud Beulah. initiating the British lmperium in India. (Below) A Bengal village scene, c.1820. by George Chinnery. 15 ’_ — _ _ _ ‘— _ _ _ — — _ _ fl _ — _ — —‘ HISTORY TODAV The East throughWester-n eyes; (opposite) Franz Winterhaltcr's mistin lush romanticisatlon of the .Vlaharaia Dalip Singh. which denied the harsh reality of his political situation. (Below) Two British views of ‘suttee'. or the practice of immolation on their husband‘s funeral pyre for the newly-widowed. Zofl'any's classicised motif of the 17805 contrasrs sharply with Rowlandson's aggressive caricature of the 18205 below. V amalgamation of different types of homicide perpetrated sometimes by robbers, sometimes by starving peasants, sometimes by laid-off military people. trying to keep alive._on the road. What unified ‘thuggee', as Radhika Singha has argued, was the Western conception of India as a land of dark deeds and religious fanaticisms. However. it proved impossible to avoid the colonial stereotype without distorting the his- torical record itself. What was fascinating, in- deed. was how the image was created, sold and circulated. in the early days of British pub- lishing and mass media. 50 we show the paint- ing (c.1780), newly attributed to Zotfany. of a woman ascending the burning pyre which rep- resents the act of ‘suttee‘ as a species of classical piety. This can be contrasted with the aggres— sively anti-Hindu image of the 18205 of a ‘sut- tee' scene in Rowlandson-type cartoon form. The change in attitude, which lay behind Lord William Bentinck‘s banning of ‘suttee‘ in 1829 and the ideas of the ‘Age of Reform’ of the 18305. was also embodied in the grotesque contemporary models of thugs attacking travel- lers. These became popular after the publica- tions by the old India-hand, Meadows Taylor. of Memoirs of a Thug, a fictionalised history which attracted the interest of Queen Victoria herself. Indian artisans immediately responded to the new ‘shock-horror’ market, paradoxically helping to reconfirm this sanguinary ‘oriental- ist' stereotype. These powerful images could only be criti~ qued with other images and not simply with prosy exhibition captions written by equivocal- ing historians. This proved more difi‘icuis. An image of the great Bengali reformer and re ligious leader of the early nineteenth century. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who blended ancient Vedic Hinduism with Unitarianism. is included. So too is Swami Dayananda. who from a more conservative position, urged Hindus to return to the Vedic purity of their .religion in the 7 18605 and 18705. But slow reform, the genefil- __ tion of new ideas and the debates of scholars .1; are not very easy, or very interesting, things (0 represent. This difficulty applies even more to I the representation of the important Islamic ' reform movements of mid-nineteenth cemeY India. Muslim divines did not in general wish (0 have themselves painted. since Islam frowns upon the depiction of man and animal. And the visitor could be presented with only so many . ‘ indistinguishable books in Persian. _ It was only with the coming of Indian Izolitlc' al photographers, such as the brilliant liombaY' Zr. based photographer Narayan Vinayak Vifk‘r' 1." .mum I that it became possible to represent Muslim movements in an interesting way by showing V the symbols used in their political demonstra- ':tions. A similar problem surfaced in the section on the ‘Mutiny’. There are several striking pic- tures of military engagements and atrocities against British women and children. But since the work of Thomas Metcalf, Eric Stokes and Rudrangshu Mukherjeei there is no doubt that . the ‘Mutiny’ was also a great peasant rebellion ' and settling of rural scores. This point is virtual- W W m n. mM‘fimmui tip-wanna! "an r u pry-«Mtqmw-i- ttmmm - .-o‘ " ‘ JED—ekg‘fitpj J R‘nguzol‘ ly impossible to convey visually. There are no drawings or photographs of peasants massing for attacks on British treasuries or burning the books of the money-lenders to whom they had mortgaged their land, while the crabbed analy‘ ses and reports of panicky British officers in the districts are not‘ in the end, very interesting to look at. On a broader level there was a danger that the ‘Raj‘ exhibition might simply over-dramat- ise the eifects of British rule on lndian society. (K. I Ofll‘j I990 The cross-fertilisation of Indian and British subjecu and artists produced interesting results: Tilly Kettle‘s ‘lndizn Dancing Girl with a Hookah‘ conveys a Western stereotype of Oriental sensuality. while Mir Knmar Al Din Minnat’s portrayal of Warren Hudngs sets the Governor~General against a backcloth of traditional design and iconography. Penny plain, tuppenny coloured -a mid d9Lh-century plaster model of‘thuggee' aimed at the British mass market and fostering an image of lndin as the dark sub-continent. l7 HISTOIY TODAY The mg: 01' the benevolent Raj - Sir Charles War-re Malet concluding : wry in 1790 at the Durbar of the Maratha ruler Madhar lino ll. (Below right) a turn-of-the- century coloured postcard of a bhistee or water carrier: (below left) 8:] Gangadhar Tilak blessing the flags of Muslim Khlllfat volunteers - this photograph by N.V. Virkar underlines the way in which nationalism tried to depict India's growing unity within its cultural and religious diversity. 1' Dr. Rajnarayan Chandavarkar undermines this view of the all-powerful Raj in his catalogue essay. One way, perhaps, to argue visually against the view of the Raj as a juggernaut of modernisation, was to include plenty of repre- sentations of more ‘typical’ Indian scenes. But often that ‘typicality' itself was constituted by an imperial agency. As Dr. Giles Tillotson shows in his section on painters of the ‘Indian picture- sque’. the artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, such as William Hodges or George Chinnery, were seeking to represent arcadian or exotic themes that conformed to the canons of the contemporary European aes- thetic. More robustly yet, Dr. Christopher Pin- ney insists in his section on colonial anthro- —________.____.-————'———'* pology that the visual image of India prol agated in early ‘scientific' photography, w; tightly controlled and selected so as to repre sent India as an unchanging land of tribes ant castes, held together by British power alone. Ultimately then, the strength of the exhibi tion. rather than its weakness, is that it shows the extraordinary vitality and diversity of the British image of lndia. For even Indian national. ist artists and photographers were influenccg by prevailing modes of colonial representation. and sought with their images to confront Brit- ish myths. This comes through very strongly in the last section of the erdiibition. The great oil paintings and exotic scenes are now behind us. Instead. we see Indian photographers, cartoon- ists and popular painters. along with their WeSt- ern supporters. visually fashioning the mythic narrative of the Indian nationalist struggle and its heroic leaders. Where the British repre- sented the fragmented diversity of caste and creed, the nationalist photographers and their supporters show the new unity in this diversity. Vast gatherings of people of different regional. religious and caste origins are shown gathering around the symbol of the national flag, Mahat- ma Gandhi. Jinnah. and the Other leaders of the freedom movement. Christopher Bayly is a Reader in Modern Indian History at the Universin of Cambridge. and the author of imperial Meridian. The British Empire and the World, 1780-1850 (Langman. I989). The pictures in this article are all taken from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition The Raj.- India and the British. 1600-1947 (sponsored by Peatsons) which Opens in St Martin‘s Place, London, on October 19th, and continues until March 17th next year. History Today has arranged a special ofier with the NPG for its readers visiting the exhibition — for details and coupon see page 2. ...
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Bayly_pg12to18 - HIST 0353 SOUTH ASIA 1 750 ON “LYNN”[I)D Christopher Bayly organiser of a major new exhibition on the British and India

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