[BOOK] Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922

[BOOK] Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922

Partha Mitter, Art and Nationalism in Colonial India (1850-1922) : Occidental Orientations, (Cambridge & New York : Cambridge University Press, 1994)



My carefully laid plan of allotting 20 literature reviews per proposed chapter is gently going astray, but fruitfully so. Even though I am sticking to the format of total 101 entries for this blog (20 per chapter, excluding ‘Introduction’, ‘Overview’ and ‘Conclusion’) the mechanism of choices of sources to be literature-reviewed is getting more complicated, hopefully more sophisticated, as well.

For example, this book, pretty much a priority read on Modern Indian Art History and by now is different beast altogether when I finally review it after 40 blog entries. I am now less terrified of skipping chapters altogether, choosing confidently whether to skim, pore or hang on to every word by second-guessing the turn of argument and division of chapters and placing of the categories of contents (analytical vs. descriptive, for example). In short, my FOMO (‘Fear Of Missing Out’ in internet parlance) is much lower now. On the other hand, my alacrity towards the form of books, shape of arguments and strategies of source collection and evasion of discussed aspects are much higher.

I read Chapter 1 (‘Prologue’, pp. 1-12), Chapter 4 (‘The Power of the Printed Image’, pp. 120-78), Chapter 7 (‘Ideology of Swadeshi Art’, pp. 234-63), Chapter 9 (‘Westernisers and Orientalists : public battle of styles’, pp. 340-74), and Chapter 10 (‘Epilogue : The Passing of The Age of Oriental Art’, pp. 375-80).

For example, when Partha Mitter mocks (p. xxv / 10) his contemporary cultural theorists’ disappointment with his earlier works which he presupposes would be repeated, what he means is he is primarily focussed on generating an alternative art history where technically-sophisticated ‘Eurocentric Naturalism’ (more appropriately termed ‘Illusionism’ in Mitter’s later volumes) is neither the sole ideal of the Indian visual artist nor the sole anti-ideal. In this contested, complicated terrain (like anything Indian usually is) it is laughable to expect a single theoretical approach to fit. This finds a lot of resonance in the area I am working on in my thesis. Creating a solid primary base of scholarship in readable language and respectable arguments about a a new field can be the worthy enough research goal.

As discussed in the last blog entry in January, I am continuing the approach of an attractive header and a brief piling under it of relevant highlights from the literature-reviewed source, so that I can easily reach for them later on.

Utopia as a methodology

Mitter discusses (pp. 243-46 / 186-88) that unlikely and powerful anti-colonial alliances took place between people, nation and organisations in the discussed era (1850-1922) because of a common ethos of being ‘romantic rebels against progress’ and often sharing a ‘primitivist longing for a harmonious pre-industrial community’ and in pp. 244-45 (187) he discusses the crucial role the cultural ideals of Theosophical Society has played in this. Likewise, Secularism in India, the true stuff of Utopia, needs to be checked for its material bases and historical precedents – possibly Theosophical Society and its popular translation of the academic study of comparative religion. Besides the theorisation of cultural utopias, this can be one of the organising principles of the thesis.

Culture as an opium for the unhappy masses

In pp. 377-79 (290-92) the author advances an observation: ‘The Raj welcomed Swadeshi art, the unthreatening face of nationalism, as opposed to the armed revolution’. What he leaves unsaid is the class nature of the dissemination of Swadeshi art. As I intend to look closely at the rise of middle-class in the post-independence India as the purveyor of ideals of morality and propounders of ‘Secularism’ in its cultural forms, whether that was creating a cultural blind spot to create an utopian front to the ground-level abysmal conditions of the society against which the Left in many cultural forms was vocal. This perfectly ties in the formation of subjectivity discourse and Zachariah’s proposed idea of unending sacrifices asked from the citizens for a glorious future which might arrive any time or never. That was the honourable, middle-class ‘Keep Calm and Soldier On’ philosophy of life as opposed to the raucous, lower-class, ‘Yeh Azadi Jhoota Hai’ cries of the Left-inclined. ‘The cleavage between the cultural nationalism and political activism’ which Mitter mentions to be forming by 1920s, might be repeating in another form post-independence.

Print Culture Visual Culture Music Culture TV Culture

In pp. 150-153 (116-17) The conflicted reputation of Bengali ‘Bhadralok’ (as profusely lampooned in the English Language media run by the British) vs. their celebration in the English language media run by the ‘Bhadralok’-s themselves is a useful template to mirror the ideologies of looking closely at post-independence middle-class morality. This also urges me to know more about the contemporary media environment, printing technologies or cultural milieus more closely to correctly read the visual culture of secularism produced by the state. In the late nineteenth century when thanks to the new printing technologies and workforce from colonial art colleges change India into a ‘visual society’ (p. 96 / 120), what changes and upheavals does this ‘visual society’ undergo in the course of 47 years? I also have to chronologise and limit each of my chapters by the chronological span of each archive. Just like Indian freedom movement was a political, rather than social movement and therefore the visual ideals of nationalisms remained artist-specific (p. 17), how much of state policy of ‘Secularism’ was plugging into the socio-cultural ethos has to be looked at as well as the genealogy of various homologues like ‘communal harmony’.

Image Via p. 144


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