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The naked and the clothed

A discourse on veiling and unveiling was implicated in changing notions of the body in nineteenth century India, prominent amongst which was the place of the female nude. Introduced by European artists and taught at the British-run academic art schools in India, the nude was also displayed in the houses and palaces of the elite as a symbol of good taste. This chapter argues that this idea of the nude – as the body shorn of all clothing – was premised upon Enlightenment ideas of the ‘naked truth’ that assumed the naked body as ‘natural’ and prior to representation. In the Indian context, however, as many authors have noted, it was the adorned body that was regarded as auspicious. This chapter evaluates how the female body becomes the site of an inordinate erotic investment in nineteenth-century Indian pictorial practice, premised upon exactly such a mechanism of veiling and unveiling, providing us with some historical perspective in recent debates on nudity in Indian painting.

in Empires of light
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The veil as technology of illumination

This chapter examines the emergence of the Indian landscape into the visibility of the Western world, drawing upon the iconography of unveiling as consonant with the trope of ‘discovery’. In the context of the civilising mission of empire, such acts of unveiling served as technologies of illumination, bringing light into benighted lands. The images examined foreground not only epistemological issues where visibility implies a transcendence of the darkness of Oriental mystique but are equally invested in aestheticising landscapes, so that exotic lands emerge as sites of visual pleasure. The ritual of unveiling dramatises the act of seeing, holding out the promise of an unmediated vision and the revelation of buried secrets and hidden pleasures.

in Empires of light
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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