Impossible subjects
The subaltern in the shadows
in Empires of light
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Taking a small portrait by Ravi Varma of a scholar reading in the glow of a lamp as a servant waits upon him in the background shadows, this chapter evaluates the emergence of the elitist figure of the artist against the backdrop of the subaltern craftsman. The differential inscription of light marks their place within the new order of visibility – the named artist whose face glows in the lamp and the anonymous craftsman marked by his labour. Keeping in mind recent art-historical scholarship that has tended to view the figure of the artist as the paradigmatic modern subject, this chapter tracks the developments in portraiture and the assertion of individualism, arguing that the representation of the elite artist allowed for a way to transition from the dominant anthropological model of portraiture popular in nineteenth-century India to the fiction of the assured subjectivity of later portraits.

Empires of light

Vision, visibility and power in colonial India

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