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The Aesthetic in Colonial India

Tania Roy
Theory Culture Society 2006; 23; 244
DOI: 10.1177/026327640602300251

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244 Theory, Culture & Society 23(23)

The Aesthetic in Colonial India

Tania Roy

Benjamin drew a distinction widely deployed by

Keywords aura, disinterest, exhibition-value,
recent scholarship between the exhibition value
icon, Raj, realism, taste
of a publicly accessible, mobile work of art and the
cult value of a ritual object, veiled from view and
fixed to its consecrated place. In this tradition, a

ants Critique of Judgment (1790) con- post-sacred appreciation of art-works is funda-
tinues to be read widely as the most mental to the exercise of good judgment.
compelling articulation of the modern In the mid-19th century, the shade of this
discourse of the aesthetic; this supplemental entry Kantian imperative passed from Europe, through
addresses only those aspects of Kants text that have England to India, into the programmatic attempts
been aligned with the question of good and bad taste of colonial educators to inculcate taste in their
in art. While it has been construed as a misinterpre- native students. Taste was itself construed within
tation, this reading of Kant has remained influential the parameters of disinterest, that is, as a denial of
since the turn of the 18th century. So, historian the religious or cultic function of images. Conse-
Martha Woodmansee (1994) has shown how the quently, it was thought that a properly aesthetic
authority of the third Critique was deployed in education would suppress the natives concern
public debates about art and culture in Germany, with the works proximity to divine power; and
France and Britain in the late 18th century, in would reform a putatively primitive interest in
disputes over standards of artistic creativity and the the objects usefulness as a fetish or icon.
status of authorial property rights. As a supplement, This pedagogical preoccupation with taste
this entry traces the after-life of Kants text, as it came to provide a broader, ideological justification
passed from its contested European origins into the for the foundation of Government Art Schools.
British colonial administration of India; it makes no Institutionalized dissemination of the visual and
attempt to establish the authenticity of readings cognitive precepts of good judgment would
attributed to Kant in this period. advance the scientific progress of a culture so
Kants dichotomous distinction between a argued the eminent art-educator and amateur
taste of sense and a taste of reflection, in this painter, Sir Richard Temple, in 1883:
version, marks the distinction between high and
[Art schools] will teach them one thing, which
low culture; and between upper and lower orders
through all the preceding ages they have never
of society (Bourdieu, 1984: 414, 48191). Kants
learnt, namely drawing objects correctly,
text appears to devalue the former, which is associ-
whether figures, landscape or architecture.
ated with immediate, interested or deeply
Such drawing tends to rectify some of their
private satisfactions associated with bodily desires.
mental faults, to intensify their powers of obser-
On the other hand, the taste of reflection assumes
vation, and to make them understand analyti-
a disinterested perspective, an attitude of
cally those glories of nature which they love so
distance from both the art-object as well as from
well. (from Temples Oriental Experience,
ones own demands. Kant himself argued that such
cited by Mitter, 1994: 32, emphasis added)
exercises of taste had a place in public life. These
judgments were valid, as much for oneself as for From 1798 onwards, individuals as well as organiz-
others; as was the pleasure, a cerebral kind, ations had founded numerous art schools that were
afforded by the object (Kant, 1987: 578). perceived as pioneering in their attempt to system-
Within the terms of the European debate, the atically import artistic techniques of the West.
aesthetics distinction between sense and reflec- However, it was during the 1850s that schools in the
tion was deployed in a cultural context where urban centres of Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and
religion was, purportedly, a private affair. Since the Lahore were placed under the direct control of the
exercise of taste involved publicly valid judgments, Department of Public Instruction (Guha-Thakurta,
a properly aesthetic engagement with an object 1992; Mitter, 1994). The centralization of academic
would presumably transcend religious, that is to say art in this period was justified in terms of larger
private, passions. Echoing this assumption, theorist imperial policy, as the impetus for a sweeping
of 20th-century European mass culture Walter analytic transformation of Indian culture. The

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Problematizing Global Knowledge The Aesthetic 245

Government Art Schools would inculcate public devotee gazing at the image (2003: 115). From
taste, or, what was the same, secularize the basis of the 1880s until the 1920s, this principled denial
aesthetic judgment. Based on the disciplined obser- of the beholders presence became the consum-
vation of nature and the practice of its accurate mate expression of disinterested art. The images
reproduction, the art school curriculum was self-absorption, its elliptical acknowledgement of
supposed to fragment the fictive world of the a distanced viewer, the genres of portrait and
Hindu, whose idolatrous artistic traditions, as history painting adopted from European salon art
understood by Victorian art historians, had of which these characteristics were typical all
remained incapable of distinguishing between the this was disseminated by the British Raj through
natural and the supra-natural. By the 1880s, the Government Art Schools (Mitter, 1994). The
education of colonial subjects in urban art academies perspective of the absent-beholder came to
was aligned with the imperial mission of cultural and represent the very antithesis of cultic art, whose
societal modernization (Mitter, 1994: 123). single purpose lay in enabling a direct address of
The technical component of academic art the deity. For a colonial urban elite, perspectival-
training focused on one particular visual conven- ism became the signature of Western distinction,
tion of Western European salon art, derived from a token of their distance from the obsolete world
the Italian Renaissance, that of single-point of Hindu icons (Jain, 2003; Pinney, 2003: 116).
perspective. For those who argued that a regime Yet even during the decades of its ideological
of visual instruction was of fundamental import to ascendance, in the years between the 1880s and
the British administration of India, an intractable the 1920s, this strand of aesthetic discourse
anti-naturalism was a source of recurring concern. retained a fragile authority over the arts in the
Training in the uses of perspective, according to subcontinent. For if the standards of taste had
Temple, provided a conclusive solution to such been imparted through the institutional frame-
recalcitrance. Perspective was fundamental to works of Government Schools, the British were
practices most approved in European Art but also themselves divided over the purpose of art
embodi[ed] principles applicable to art in all teaching. In the imperial metropolis, art instruc-
climes, insofar as it imparted the ability to draw tion was concerned either with fine arts as taught
objects from nature correctly, that is, with a at the Royal Academy, or with vocational training
fidelity to empirical detail, anywhere. It was in the industrial or applied arts as at the Depart-
argued that the use of perspective awakened an ment of Science and Art at South Kensington
appreciation of realism in the arts; that the (Mitter, 1994: 32). The Government Schools did
practice of drawing objects true-to-life instilled turn out a class of gentleman painters and collec-
respect for the actual proportions of the subject- tors in colonial centres, urban English-literate
matter, training attention to changes in its appear- gentry who had (restricted) access to the fine arts
ance that were relative to the position of the curriculum at the schools. However, there was still
beholder. In the commentaries of art school an unbroken exchange between academic art and
educators, perspective is treated as the proverbial the mass market via the prolific popular image
silver bullet that would fracture, once and for all, industry. Indeed, one of the earliest lithographic
the contact between the eyes of the beholder and presses, the Calcutta Art Studio, set up in 1878 in
those of the deity. Art school instruction articu- Bengal, was established by five graduates of the
lated a comprehensive rejection of symmetry and Calcutta school. Still, not all trained artists had
frontality visual norms that had hitherto framed had an education in the fine arts, for many were
traditional representations of deities (Mitter, vocationally trained as skilled craftsmen for the
1994: 35; Pinney, 2003: 115). service of the British administration. This was due
In the late 19th century, colonial perspectival- in large part to the British ambivalence over the
ism became the sine qua non of good taste. Ethno- definition of the arts; an uncertainty that was
grapher Christopher Pinney has argued that the exacerbated in the colonial context by a racialized
denial of eye contact between the pictures subject distinction between the decorative arts (at which
and beholder evolved into a classical aesthetic of traditional Indian artisans were purported to
absorption, where the composition is dominated excel) and the fine arts (that were apparently
by an internalized gaze. So, the aristocratic sitter non-existent within Indian civilization).
of Maratha Lady (1920s) by Abalal Rahiman of In tandem with the institutionalization of
the Bombay school averts her eyes from the Victorian taste rather than in spite of its imper-
viewers, remaining absorbed in the minute task of atives the decades between the 1880s and the
threading a needle; in the mass-produced colour 1900s witnessed an exponential increase in the
lithographs of the Calcutta Art Studio (1880s), production and sale of popular, mechanically
even the god Shiv, ubiquitous within popular reproducible prints. These were dominated by
imagination, now turned his vision towards the chromolithography, and the Calcutta Art Studio
Oriental Cupid [within the image], not to the was one of the most successful in the market. The
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246 Theory, Culture & Society 23(23)

Studio owed its popularity to a mass demand for 2003, 2004). Significantly, the two commercially
images composed according to the traditional successful centres of chromolithographic produc-
iconic norms of frontality, and a corporeal tion, Bengal and Maharashtra, were witness to
acknowledgement of the viewer. However, the volatile mass mobilization in this period.
proprietors owed their commercial dominance Painted Indian icons did incorporate the
within a pan-Indian market in no small measure to lessons of Victorian taste; paradoxically, its author-
their own mastery of Victorian perspectivalism. ity was rapidly overwhelmed by paintings prolific
The naturalistic rendering of human figures and of after-life, in print.
landscape had taken on an appeal that cut across
class and geographical lines. Indeed, indigenous References
entrepreneurs had to respond with aesthetic and
technical innovations to competition from global Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique
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European subjects (that included erotic art) Indian Art: Artists, Aesthetics and
(Neumayer and Schelberger, 2003). While the Nationalism in Colonial Bengal
Calcutta Art Studio produced mainly religious c. 18501920. Cambridge: Cambridge
icons, their prints consistently deployed the University Press.
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a carnal three-dimensionality, Hindu gods acquired Circulation of Images and the Embodiment of
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2003: 17). In Kantian terms, these images were London: Sage Publications.
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of 19th-century lithographs their aura of Neumayer, E. and C. Schelberger (2003) Popular
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and by virtue of their sheer excess, printed images
of gods were difficult to monitor, to categorize as Tania Roy is a visiting fellow in the Department of
politically inflammatory, and therefore to censor: English Language and Literature at the National
sacralizing politics, they became integral to nation- University of Singapore, with interests in the
alist agitation in the 1920s and after (Pinney, 1997, Frankfurt School and Indian modernism.
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