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The subaltern in the shadows

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.

in Empires of light
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The introduction examines the empire of light formulated at the intersection of industrial and imperial visual technologies during the era of the industrialisation of light. It argues that this had a profound impact on public life and practices of seeing, instituting new regimes of visibility. It asks how this was a legacy of Enlightenment ideas of light and evaluates its reception and negotiation by Indian artists.

in Empires of light
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in Empires of light
Masculine subjects in Ravi Varma’s scholar paintings

This chapter examines the discourse on light and shadow in two paintings of scholars by Ravi Varma that use chiaroscuro to depict men reading within the interiors of a westernised home. Ravi Varma uses the symbolic qualities of light and shadow to produce private interior spaces, in this case an imagined inner world, where the Nayar matrilineal tharavad (household) is transformed into an intimate space for the cultivation of the (male) self. In step with the contemporary Malayalam novel, the paintings identify the domestic interior as a stage upon which a private life is imagined, where personal space and reflection are brought together to convey an interiority that one typically associates with the bourgeois modern subject. The chapter evaluates how the interior figured in domestic architecture and family life, its implications for gender and social relations and, finally, how a new idea of home emerged in tandem with a territorial imagination fuelled by the new possibilities of travel in late nineteenth-century Kerala. It argues that chiaroscuro emerges as an effective visual device to produce the fictions of the self-reflective autonomous self, with the light and darks suggesting hidden interiorities and buried subjectivities.

in Empires of light
Proscenium theatre and technologies of illusionism

Countering the predominantly literary analysis of Parsi theatre, this chapter reassesses theatre as the site of many experiments with visual technologies as the proscenium stage introduced a fixed grammar of the curtain into the fluid spaces of premodern performance. Framed like a painting, the stage introduced illusionist painting, directional lighting and lavish costumes to present stories with verisimilitude, enticing viewers into its world. Exploring links between Parsi theatre and Ravi Varma’s paintings, the chapter discusses melodrama as an alternative aesthetic mode that bound viewers and performers. Finally, it proposes limits to the gaze of darshan as a visual trope in analyses of theatre and mythological imagery, arguing that innovative optics of theatre and painting were influenced by and in conversation with technologies of the spectacle within imperial networks.

in Empires of light
The phantasmagoria of Elephanta

As a symbol of opaque darkness, the mysterious subterranean caves of Elephanta haunted the imagination of writers and painters ranging from John Ruskin to Flaubert and were notably memorialised in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. This chapter examines the recruitment of optical devices like the camera obscura and the magic lantern, aimed at solving the caves’ mysteries, suggesting that these instead exaggerated the ghostly character of the caves, undermining the claims of a rational vision in apprehending their complex iconography and architecture, going on to feed a fantastical visual archive of the caves (and, by extension, the Indian landscape) in German cinema of the early twentieth century.

in Empires of light
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Portraits of the monarch in colonial ritual

This chapter charts the growing, diversifying circulation of the Dutch monarch’s image for different audiences and purposes across the early twentieth century. It discusses Queen Wilhelmina (r. 1898–1948) and Queen Juliana (r. 1948–80), portraits of whom played an important ceremonial role at government and viceregal occasions in the East Indies, and were also adapted in creative ways by different ethnic groups as effigies at pageants. In demonstrating how the queens’ portraits were used in imperial rituals, rather than simply attending to representation, this chapter addresses scholarship on royal tours, mass spectacle and empire that has to date overlooked the role of photography in forging connections between monarchs and their colonial subjects. The chapter assesses colonial audiences’ engagement with European monarchies beyond the parameters of the ‘royal tour’, which was actually uncommon in most empires other than British overseas possessions.

in Photographic subjects

This chapter examines continuity and change in photographs of royal celebrations made by Dutch authorities during the long decolonisation of the Netherlands East Indies/Indonesia. It discusses the celebration of Queen Juliana in Dutch New Guinea (1948–62). It also presents evidence that, during the Dutch military actions (1945–50) that preceded Indonesia’s independence, royal celebrations were an important opportunity for Dutch soldiers to celebrate victories and claim territorial sovereignty for the Netherlands. Royal celebrations were also instrumental in the battle for civilian hearts and minds, particularly to demonstrate the benevolence of Dutch soldiers to Indonesians. This chapter reveals that Wilhelmina was not just a hero of the Second World War in the Netherlands, but also very much a soldiers’ queen in Indonesia during the dying days of the Dutch empire in Asia.

in Photographic subjects
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Mass photography, monarchy and the making of colonial subjects

This chapter reveals how colonial subjects recorded their own participation in royal celebrations as amateur photographers, and collected mass-produced photographs of the Dutch monarchy, thus placing the East Indies and family events at the centre of historic, imperial occasions. It shows how family photography emerged as an important medium for diverse colonial populations to forge a cosmopolitan identity predicated on support for an institution that was still mostly parochial (a national monarchy) at the beginning of Wilhelmina’s reign in 1898, but emphatically international (in terms of an empire) by the 1940s, when Wilhelmina was in her maturity. It also explores the connections between the emergence of family photography and the popularisation of the Dutch monarchy during the 1930s, particularly through the marriage and childbearing of Crown Princess Juliana, when the image of the ‘ordinary’ monarchy first emerged.

in Photographic subjects
Unity in diversity at royal celebrations

This chapter analyses photographs of Wilhelmina’s subjects participating in koninginnedag festivals from both the East Indies and the Netherlands. Photographs of games and competitions, traditional dances adapted to new purposes and the distinctive costumes of folk and ethnic ‘types’ at royal celebrations appeared frequently in the photographs of European elites throughout the Dutch colonial world. The chapter explains the intellectual movements in ethnography and ‘folk studies’ that underpinned this photographic convergence in Wilhelmina’s lifetime, and the political role ascribed to the monarch as a benevolent unifying force that transcended geographical distance and racial difference. This chapter also attends to representations of the monarch’s body – that of a European, female king – to explain how photography mediated Wilhelmina’s and Juliana’s relationships to their subjects. In having themselves photographed wearing folk costumes, Dutch royals bodily identified with and mirrored the diversity they were expected to recognise in their Dutch subjects. By contrast, the queen never physically embodied the ethnic and religious diversity of her colonial subjects.

in Photographic subjects