Art and the Raj

As dusk settled into the horizon, we moved towards discussing the bygone eras of India. The atmosphere was fitting, the excitement subsided and the gathering calmly awaited the perspectives that cameras had captured of our pasts. 


We missed Mr. William Darlympole’s perspectives on painted records of the past due to his unfortunate absence during the session. However, Ms. Alka Pande very comfortably filled in his shoes and took us through the visuals captured by the colonial camera. Until this session, I believed cameras to be impartial to the subject. There are only so many ways in which you could capture the truth in the past. We didn’t have photoshop after all! But the biases underlying each shot were very skillfully addressed by Ms. Pande. She brought to the spotlight the idea of colonial documentary. Unlike documentaries today, which delve into multiple imagery, photographers relied on single image documentaries to describe and tell the story of a given location, architecture, or people, colonial photographers in particular always brought a glaringly obvious view to their art- The white gaze. The white gaze looked at exotic elements with such an object of scrutiny that they no longer remained as organic elements. They reduced people to objects and human culture to hollow architecture.


With great finesse and detail she took us through slides of old photographs, described styles, tones, colours, and distinct individual styles of capturing a frame. We were able to witness the works of renowned British Era artists like John Murray, Cuthbert Christy’s Album of India, Watson and Kaye’s The People of India or the works of Baker and Burke through the 19th century.


When describing Kaye’s People of India, with quite disdain and distaste, Ms. Pande went on to describe the chronicling of tribes and the real objectification of nativity in India. The pictures were staged to capture the naked Indian in shades of brown, with distinct features and characteristics used to describe exotic species. This lack of empathy was integral to the white man’s gaze.


However, we also witnessed an Indian photographer Raja Deen Dayal’s works. He documented the opulence of the British colonial era more compassionately. His pictures were as exotic and removed from everyday British reality. His photographs were also heavily staged. However, the dynamics portrayed were familial dynamics. The architecture was displayed with pride, royalty were depicted in full glory, and the settings were picturesque.


Through this vivid imagery, the Q&A also took a turn towards the inter cultural influences in art. With India’s enormous past and multicultural influence, no art form could be claimed to be purely Indian. We have embraced hybridity in expression. Irrespective of the lens that perceived our past two centuries, the documentation of biases that has accompanied physical documentation has added a wealth of perspective to our understanding of colonial India.





About the Author: Deepika Aiyer is a 20 year old Literature Fest enthusiast who looks forward to being blown away by new ideas, opinions, and schools of thought. She currently writes for TheSeer.

Body Sutra

The event commenced on time at the Red Couch venue with an introductory address by Lucy Nelson followed by an extensive talk by Dr. Alka Pande (famous Indian academic and museum curator). Dr. Pande spoke about her literary safari over the years absorbing the need to explore deeper into Indian history of aesthetics with respect to the depiction of bodies to represent different cultures in the country, instead of tailing behind the western vestiges. Alka elaborated on her use of ekphrasis to cover the historical journey of sensuality in female bodies and their portrayal in Indian art. She talked about her latest book “Body Sutra” which traces the human form through art and imagination.


The famous curator spent 5 years of her life culminating the arguments for this vivid and enthralling expedition about Indian aesthetics of sensuality and form. In the most subtle manner possible she covers the chronological development of ekphrasis in the country. She rendered her perspective on the gender-fluid contemporary India and also enlightened the audience about various cultures, time period, and their approach towards the sensuality of the human body. She looked upon the framework that works behind the pre-modern body, medieval body, modern body as well as the contemporary body. Alka then emitted her expertise about various vestiges of Indian culture and dynamic approaches to a women’s body. She enlightened Lucy about the contradictory muses between western verisimilitudes and Indian version of sensuality which mainly deals with Shringar and Vilas. According to Alka, the concepts of body sutra are mainly inspired by ancient Rasa theories and Natya Shastras. In her book, she mentions about a lot of historical sculptures and monuments which depict the sensuous body of goddesses as well as other women. Her understanding of symbolism in Indian art is beautiful as she goes on to explain the Indian body where she talks about imagery portraying them with pendulous breasts, extremely cervical hips, curled flicks and Mukulas which are eyes formed in the shape of a lotus. This extremely alluring mannerism of women portrayal can be witnessed in a lot of Indian historical venues like Ajanta Caves and Khajuraho group of monuments. The nakedness portrayed in these sculptures refers to the spiritual element of society much more than the commodification aspect. She used a lot of mythological analogy to draw home her point regarding body sensuality. She talked about Arthanareshwar who symbolizes the body of Shiv Shakti, philosophies of Buddha and different portrayals of goddess Kali who is one of the fiercest goddesses in Indian mythology.


Dr. Alka explained the aesthetics of the human body and form with respect to her latest book “Body Sutra” in the most subtle manner possible, covering the details of the human body from wide-hipped, voluptuous woman that is Yakshi to her cover for the book which represents a sculpture of goddess Parvati (currently in Los Angeles county museum). This session provided extensive insight into the dynamics of body depictions and portrayals of the human form as a whole, led by the genius of Dr. Alka which paved a new platform for understanding of self and identity in respect to Indian culture.




About the Author: Abhinav Kumar is an MA in English with Communication Studies student from CHRIST ( Deemed To Be University), Bengaluru who believes in “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world”. He is interested in sports journalism and travelogue writing. He currently writes for TheSeer.