The British interaction with India initiated on the trails of trade carried out by the East India Company. However, with the establishment of the British Empire it developed a ‘gaze’ through which an ‘idea’ of India and its people emerged. The idea mentioned in the title as also here talks of the Indian society because in this paper I am trying to study how the British people conceived the Indian society since a certain perception of this society had developed in their minds. In the latter half of the 18th century the outlook of the British towards India was influenced by the philosophies prevalent during the Age of Enlightenment. In addition to this the British had consciously adopted a policy of non-interference in social and religious customs and practices.
This gaze that had developed was that of the ‘Orientalists’ (who in the past were not reluctant to use this term; and also they are different from that group referred to by Edward Said who wanted to show superiority of the European cultures and thereby justify their ambitions) – who contributed to the rediscovery of the glories of India’s ancient past.
With the establishment of the British Empire and the encouragement by the government, Englishwomen started coming out in greater numbers to reside with their families in India. This was done with the intention of creating a ‘self-contained English-style society moulded on the pattern of “home”’.1 A policy of socially distancing oneself from the ‘natives’ (as they used to call Indians in the days of the Raj) had become a part of the imperial culture especially in post-1857 India.
The retinue of British officials was soon followed by a – never-seen-before – retinue of ‘memsahibs’ – the word suggesting power and authority of the English woman.2
In spite of their restriction on mingling with the ‘natives’, the loneliness of these British women probably drew them to find out more on what was just an ‘idea of India’ for them. This curiosity resulted in a number of British women showing interest in things Indian. As Indrani Sen aptly remarked, ‘One striking feature about the writings of these European female visitors was that they displayed a relatively open-minded interest and curiosity about the country and tended to be noticeably free of the narrower prejudices that afflicted British India’.3
The nineteenth century in India is seen as a period of tremendous change in different aspects of society with the upliftment of the women in the Indian society being an important aspect to be dealt with. The focus was majorly on social reforms. Some of the British in India posed themselves as emancipators of the Indian women from oppressive social practices. This was one of the ways in which the British warranted the need for their rule in India.
The establishment of the British Empire in India in the nineteenth century opened the doors of India to a number of travellers. With these travellers was born the ‘idea of India’ which was dual in nature – one was the idea with which they came to this land and the other was that which they created for their friends and families back home through their private correspondence, diaries, memoirs, paintings, etc. It is with the help of these accounts – literary and non-literary – that we can trace the difference between the ‘administrator’s gaze’ of India and the ‘traveller’s gaze’ of India – if I may call it so.
I am looking at two different kinds of constructs of India - the literary, mainly through John Lang, Col. C. F. Hodgson and some of the writings included in Sen, and second, the non-literary through paintings.
There was always an official idea of India and a semi-private idea of India. Just like colonialism was a project in the making so was the idea of India. India is contextualized at different times and understanding the context of these ideas gives rise to further ideas.
The Literary Construct of India
As for the literary my focus is mainly on the writings of a journalist – John Lang (who is outside the Imperial culture and system) – and his book ‘Wanderings in India and other sketches of life in Hindostan’ and an anthology of ‘Memsahibs’ Writings’ edited by Indrani Sen, to trace the idea of India as represented by the travellers/visitors. I am convincingly drawn to their perceptions of the Indian society – something which not only amused them greatly but also found by them to be very fascinating. They travelled through this exotic country in search of the picturesque. It was the ‘people’ of the native land of India which always caught the British fancy on first stepping on this intriguing land.
John Lang, though a novelist, sought his fortune in India as a successful barrister and newspaper proprietor. While at a ball in Agra, he had for company a Frenchman and a German Baron. The ball saw two distinctively huddled groups of blacks and reds – of civilians and military officers respectively. The Frenchman found it difficult to comprehend this exclusiveness on the part of the civil officers of the British. However, for the German, it was not the exclusivity of these two camps which was surprising but the fact that the civilians looked down on the military unlike in his own country.4 It was through such experiences that these travellers created images of any country with deep rooted ideas.
On meeting Nobinkissen at Agra, a Bengali Baboo who was a 70 year old educated man, Lang does not mince his words in comparing him to any educated European on account of his ‘marvellous fluency and accuracy in speaking English and in reading and writing the language as well and as elegantly as them’.5 He further observed that only one civilian in a hundred could read and write Hindostanee or Persian though could append signatures to documents.6 He goes on to state that ‘The Hindoos and Mussulmans in India (like the Arabs) do not regard being guilty of a fraud or theft as a disgrace. The degrading part of the business is, being convicted……’.7
Lang also points out the complexities and contradictions of the Hindu religion, in its beliefs and practices as followed by the Indians. He shares an experience of being drawn to a commotion being caused by the falling of a bullock. On being asked the reason, his servant replied thus – ‘A bullock has fallen down, and they are trying to get him up – that is all, Sahib’. The servant’s three words ‘that is all’ shows the insensitivity and attitude of the Indian society towards the treatment of animals, especially those considered to be holy. What Lang saw there was something he said would not have been tolerated by the crowd assembled in any other country. A weak and tired bullock unable to draw an over-laden cart had sunk beneath the burden. The driver of the cart tortured the bull to move. In an exasperated attempt the driver collected some straw and sticks and lighted a fire all round the bullock. This was despite the remonstrance of the foreign onlooker. The poor beast unable to rise succumbed to the fire. Lang is taken aback with the cruelty with which a sacred animal to the Hindus is dealt with. This leads him to question the ironical reaction of the Hindus at Benares to any European striking a sacred animal with a whip and their absurdity and inconsistency in doing so.8
A similar such insensitive attitude of the Indian male was seen with regard – not to an animal this time – but to a woman as experienced by Colonel Hodgson. He writes in his diary From Hell to the Himalayas that when a Muslim woman was accidentally hit by his car and Hodgson thought her to be probably dead or severely wounded, an ex-Subedar – who was passing by- on being explained the situation commented thus – ‘Don’t worry, it’s only a woman (Kuch ficker nain, Sahib, yej surif aurat hai)’.9 From such experiences are born two ideas which are transferred to the others – one is that of the woman being an unimportant and incognisable element of the Indian society; or second probably of the dislike of some of the Indians for the Muslims in general which made them react in this manner. This second idea is brought forth clearly in one more experience of Hodgson’s as a Cantonment Magistrate.10
The discussion on religion, festivals, customs, etc. between Lang and the Bengali Baboo brought out two facts, both put forth by Nobinkissen. One was that only the rich and poor classes want to continue obnoxious religious practices, like the Holi or Bakree Eid, celebrated on public streets but sensible and respectable Indians do not like them. Secondly, the people in India, Hindus and Muslims get converted to Christianity to get temporal benefits and not for religious beliefs. This was corroborated by a Jesuit priest.11 Therefore, one can clearly see how the British shaped some of the ideas of the people through discussions with the Indians.
European writing on India did include the tyrannical character of the Muslim rule. They became more suspicious of the elite Muslim loyalty after the Revolt of 1857. This vindicated their idea that India was populated by ‘wrong doers’. The British justified their imperial attitude by believing their colonial rule to be far more just and principled as compared to those of the cruel Mughals. Moreover, the European traders preferred to work with Hindu financiers and merchants over the Indian Muslims fearing unnecessary political connections the Muslims might have.12
Similarly, the disunity amongst the Indian Princes during the Revolt of 1857 gave the impression that the people of India are not consistent with their policies. In the process of an idea this one particular instance becomes generalised for the country and the people as a whole. Their representations are based on personal experiences and presented as an idea of India.
The British idea of the identities of the people of India was guided by certain preferences and prejudices of their own community. This was reflected in the colonial perceptions. The women through their writings were more observant of the classes in the Indian society as compared to the intricacies of caste. They treated the Indian women of all classes – higher and lower – on the same footing. These British women generally preferred those whom they perceived as ‘inferior’ and were easy to patronize.13
Mary Martha Sherwood (the wife of a Captain) on seeing Hindu women of lower classes for the first time remarks thus of their physical appearance and their attire in detail. Most of them wondered how a piece of cloth ‘so curiously arranged as to form, without the use of needle, thread, or scissors, a petticoat, mantle, and veil’.14
Another ‘memsahib’, Marianne Postans (wife of a Captain in the Bombay Native Infantry) is mesmerized at the sight created of a washerwoman singing in a melodious voice at sunset and the effect of the ray of light on her as she chants ‘Mahratta’ songs. She says, ‘There is certainly something exquisitely attractive in colour and sunlight. How charmed I have often been in watching the groups of oriental women massed about these Indian wells at sunset!’15
It is through writings like these that an idea was created – in this case that of a sunset being magical with its colours when falling on groups of simple native women – which led to vivid images of India in the minds of the British readers back home. A similar description of a sunset and Muslim ladies in Calcutta is vividly given by Elizabeth Mary Bruce in her diary.16
Mary Carpenter, a prominent social reformer in Britain observed thus: ‘The sight of women employed as ordinary labourers – as porters toiling under heavy burdens – was most repulsive. The features which nature intended to be soft and refined, are worn with hardship, and the degrading employments they are compelled to undertake seems to destroy the sense of feminine propriety’.17 This remark by Carpenter reflects the perceptions of their own country women as contrasted with the circumstances in India through which they generate a new idea of this land and its people.
The idea of the Indian women was represented through the vivid descriptions of the female ensemble as well. The attire of these women and the jewellery they adorned always remained an area of great interest to the British in India. It was in the ‘Sari’ that we can see shifting colonial ideologies and perceptions of the Indian women’s attire. The shift in attitude was from the ‘sari’ being graceful and elegant at one point to it becoming immodest at another.
Fanny Parks, the daughter of a Captain, is far more admiring of the ‘Musalmani’ dress of northern India than the ‘remarkably graceful’ sari with reservations on its decency and modesty. It is the ‘dopatta’ which captures her fancy. ‘The dopatta’, she says, ‘is so transparent it hides not; it merely veils the form, adding beauty to the beautiful, by its soft and cloud-like folds. The jewellery sparkles beneath it; ……’18 As Sen aptly remarks that ‘Parks rates this dress far higher than western apparel. According to Parks, a lady in the European dress is “as stiff as a lobster” while a Mussalmani attire “recalls the statues of antiquity”.19 Through these writings it was clear that a European woman’s dress rarely allowed her to walk gracefully unlike that of the Indian attire which the British women admired.20
This is completely in contrast to a view expressed by another memsahib – Mary Frances Billington, a journalist – writing almost 60 years later, that of the sari being completely indecent but rather a ‘modest’ garment.21 This opinion is further contradicted with Margaret Urquhart’s (a missionary in Calcutta) writings as the sari being a ‘complete, graceful and dignified dress’.22
It was through such distinctive and contrasting opinions over decades that ideas were recreated. The attires of the women of royal families like the Begum of Oudh or the dress of the ‘Mahrattas’ were also described by the travellers in detail and greatly admired.23 As far as the women of the royal families, princely states or the richer houses were concerned their dresses and jewellery equally enamoured the British. The stage where such observations were made was generally at balls and royal gatherings where the Britishers were welcomed cordially. The admiration of the Europeans for the royalty and princely women speaks laudably of their rich apparel and magnificent jewellery adorned by them.24
It is the ornaments which according to Margaret Urquhart, ‘form the most significant part of a woman’s dress’. Vivid descriptions given could attract the attention of women back home. This created an idea of prosperity, richness and wealth of the Indian princely ladies. Thus further creating an idea of it being either their cultural compulsion or personal desire.25 Poor people wore jewellery too but of other metals like brass and silver. By describing this they created an idea of the beauty of an Indian woman – both the rich and the poor – and how they tried to enhance their beauty by wearing profuse jewellery. Similar such sentiments are echoed in the writings of Lady Anne Wilson who describes her hostess; a middle class woman whose entire family savings hung as silver ornaments on her but the room she lived in looked quite barren. This made Anne sigh on how ‘Poor things, their luxuries end with their ornaments’.26
The representations of the native people in these writings created an idea of the people of the Orient – commonly referred to as the ‘natives’ or Indians. Be it a queen or a princess, a young boy in attendance or an old man of 70 years – the common trait observed in all these descriptions was that of the intelligence of these people.27 Lang comments thus on the acting skills of the Indians – ‘There are no such actors in the world as the people of Hindostan’.28 He describes a mature conversation he has with a six year old boy commenting on the wickedness of a man beating up a dear looking woman. Lang’s opinion of the little boy speaks very high of the Indian children. He said, ‘Charles Lamb says that the children of the poor are adults from infancy. The same may be said of the children of the rich in India’.29
Women writers described the physical features of the people of India, more so of the royalty, as well as how intelligent and charming they were and their disposition being very pleasant and dignified displaying as much grace as an English princess.30 This went on to create an idea of the women of the royal families. At the same time we also come across opinions wherein the position of the Hindu woman in society is not like it is accorded to women in Europe and America; ‘but she is by no means as degraded as is so frequently represented by travellers……’.31 This is a clear example to show us how in some cases the people of India were misrepresented through writings of some of the travellers leading to the creation of a negative idea back home. This idea was primarily caused due to the misunderstanding of the Indian society by the travellers as the Indian culture was different from theirs.
Lang also mentions an interesting experience he had with a native doctor who cures him of his illness by ‘locking his eyes’ and mesmerising him which reduces the pain of the patient but causes some distress to the doctor himself.32 It is through writings like these that the idea of the land and people of India being mysterious and full of awe are created.
P. J. Marshall in his edited book “The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century” discusses the dilemma faced by the Europeans, both travellers and missionaries in their understanding of the philosophy of Hinduism as a religion in contrast to Christianity. He says that ‘Even if some intellectual curiosity about Hinduism was aroused, the attitude of the great mass of Europeans who came into contact with it was always either ridicule or disgust. Books were filled with accounts of a multiplicity of deities, repellent images and barbarous customs. Most early travellers concluded that the Hindus were no more than idolaters, worshipping images or natural objects.’ The British deplored the religious practices and rituals of Hinduism. In the initial stages when they did not understand the religion fully they criticised it but after studying it in detail they understood the element of spiritualism in Hinduism and its metaphysical nature which they praised. So, to the British, the philosophy of Hinduism was great though its practices were appalling. Generally, they observed that though many Hindus performed the rites and rituals of this polytheistic religion, yet some of the Hindus believed in the existence of one Supreme Being controlling everything which therefore had to be worshipped. They were most critical of the religious practices due to those being irrational to the British mind. It was because of their writings the picture of Hinduism created outside was that of the religion being inferior to Christianity.33
The British came to the ‘mysterious land’ which obviously created curiosity in their minds. If one tries to trace the origin of these ideas one notices the following: One that the travellers’ ideas were created by the already existing literature on India. Secondly, when these visitors came to India a range of advice were given to them by the British already living in India; thirdly, these ideas evolved through their actual experiences and lastly, these were born through the discussion with some educated intelligentsia or the common man which led to the creation of an idea. These ideas were reflected in various aspects of life – social, economic, cultural, etc. as we have just seen.
Their impressions created the idea of India which changed from person to person. Colonel C.F. Hodgson, clearly admits on being very unhappy when he was asked to go to India for four years and told to accept it nonetheless. However, what seems strange is the fact that instead of spending four, Colonel Hodgson spent twenty-five years of his life in India – the happiest indeed. He said, ‘So……I……embarked on the trooper S.S. Syria bound for India, where I was destined to spend twenty-five years – the happiest of my long army career’.34 This makes me wonder what was it that India offered them and what did they get from India which changed their idea about India to a diametrically opposite idea.
Construct of India through the Non-Literary Source: Paintings
The issue of painting is only touched upon and has been brought in here more as an area in which there is a visual dimension that draws attention to certain aspects of society. Paintings have been looked at only as a non-literary source of understanding the portrayal of Indian society by the travellers. I haven’t looked at other aspects which these paintings may bring about.
Nicolo Manucci, an Italian who travelled across India in the late seventeen and early eighteenth century writes in his Storia del Mogol, that his portraits of kings and princes presented to the European public are most authentic. He further states, ‘I do not present portraits of queens and princesses because it is impossible to see them as they are always covered; and if anyone has made them, they are not to be believed, for they can only be of prostitutes, dancers etc., reworked according to the fancy of the painter. It should be remembered that all the figures who have a halo and parasol over the head are persons of royal blood.’35
Sanjay Subrahmanyam analyses the portraits of Manucci in the following words: ‘…. the portraits are always presented using a stereotypical mise-en-scène, with soldiers carrying weapons on the borders and surrounding the central figure of the monarch who is always in movement, whether on palanquins, an elephant, or a horse. These soldiers however at times have curious expressions, including smiles and grimaces, of a sort that would never be seen in official Mughal portraiture. On the other hand, the nobles are often presented in a courtly scene…… Further, the usual Mughal conventions of hierarchized presentation — where persons are presented in profile or semiprofile depending on their status, as Ebba Koch has noted — are not fully observed.’36
The sketches and paintings that the travellers, British officers and soldiers, and British women made of India also led to the creation of an image of India. There was a greater visual impact created through the paintings. Literature created an imaginative painting for the readers who were free to interpret it however these paintings were so real that it gave the identical image of the subject being painted with accurate details. The subjects painted were those of scenic landscapes, monuments - both religious and secular including temples, palaces, forts, Indian people from different regions of India, their fairs and festivals, customs, figures of different castes and trades, gods, bazaars, Indian attires, flora and fauna, etc. The landscapes developed the British romantic concept of the picturesque. A contrast of nature through depiction of deserts, plains and hills is also very obvious. They were pencil sketches or water-colour paintings or oil-paintings brought to life. Europeans trained Indian artisans in their style and technique of painting. The features of the people were shown distinctively according to the regions, wherein neither European faces were given to Indians nor people from different regions of India were represented in a similar way. In addition to this each face in a painting was different from the others which showed deep observations of the Europeans. Their paintings were also proportionate with the knowledge of perspective being used effectively. Through the paintings and the costumes of the people portrayed the professions, financial and social positions of the people were well depicted. These paintings were more documentary than imaginative. In other words, the style of the paintings was ‘realistic’ whereas the subjects of the painting were ‘romantic’.
There are some interesting paintings which depict the Indian lifestyle of Nawabs being lived by some of the British officers while in India on official duty. They were shown behaving very much like an Indian gentleman would at home, relaxing with a hookah and attended by his servants.37
Such paintings created an impression that some of these British officers had become one with the Indian society and developed no inhibitions of being identified with the Indian ‘Other’. These paintings exemplify the transculturation of romanticism which occurred during this period.
In this paper I have tried to understand this ‘idea’ of India interspersed in the numerous writings of travellers to see how India was represented through travel accounts and also through the paintings. Broadly, we can see three distinct layers of these representations – the first is that of a colonised India which is reflected greatly through the official reports prepared on their occupation of India; second is that of the ‘imagined’ India – which was probably created based on the reports read back home or through the experiences shared by the officers posted in colonial India with a little bit of exaggeration to portray themselves in good light; and the third was that of representations in literature wherein the idea of Asia was being recast38 through a comparison of its exoticisation of the past as opposed to is poverty of the present. (For example, through Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’ written in the 19 th century.) With this began a movement of the idea of anything and everything that India represented which went back and forth resulting in a new idea of India being created with every movement.
In this context of the movement of ideas, it will be interesting to study whether the impressions these visitors had of India were confirmed by their actual experiences or did it lead to the creation of a different idea. Colonial historiography counterpoised with the administrator’s personal gaze – as seen through their observations of the society – also created the idea of India.
The writings of the memsahibs also help to deepen this idea of India in the minds of the Britishers back home. One must remember that the moment of recording and the context in which it is recorded also helps in shaping this idea. The writings of the memsahibs were largely guarded by the ‘social context as well as the cultural paradigms’ expressed through the written word. A mixture of these different perceptions of the writers leads to the portrayal of a new idea.
What most British women write shows an appreciation of things Indian – the nature, attire, use of mehendi (a hand-colouring powder of a plant), etc. Mentally they are outside colonial thinking. They were not bound by this colonial framework. Therefore, the women’s and travellers’ perception is probably more realistic than the prejudiced British officers’ and administrators’.
As regards the paintings, they too similarly focus on the social and cultural contexts of Indian life as witnessed by them while in India. We find a number of similarities in the subject being written about and the painting being made of the same. The major difference between the two representations is that the thinking of the Indians has been written about very clearly in their writings but the same cannot be and therefore, is not depicted through their paintings. The paintings were more realistic in representing India as compared to writings which were free to be interpreted in the mind of the reader.
This leads me to my final set of questions – whether these newly created ideas truly represent the ever evolving image of India or do these re-present the same idea of this land and its people as seen through some of the writings and paintings? Do these writings question an idea of India? or Does it resonate an idea of India – whether complementary or juxtaposing to the already existing ideas? or Are these travellers ‘interlopers’ not only to the country but also to the idea? or Was it that these ideas were created by the natives themselves through their discussions and interactions with these travellers? And it was only shared through the accounts of these travellers with their kinsmen back home?
Notes & References
Dr. Sandhya Pandit
Assistant Professor, St. Mira’s College for Girls, Pune
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com