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National Icons And Their Representation

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Talk at Hangzhou on November 1, 2010

Partha Chatterjee

In 1962, India went to war with China over a piece of disputed territory up in the Himalayas. I was in high school at the time and impressionable enough to be swept away by the patriotic fervour. Our cause was right, we believed, because the territory in question was clearly ours: wasn’t there a MacMahon line, drawn on a map solemnly signed in 1914 by representatives of the governments of British India and Republican China? What greater proof did one need to support our claim? Of course, the military campaign went disastrously for India and, along with millions of my compatriots, I smarted under the national humiliation. Later, when the scales of adolescence fell off my eyes, I realized we had been fighting not over territory – after all, the land in question was up in the mountains and completely uninhabited – but over its representation. We had been fighting over maps. The image wielded far greater power over our imaginations and passions than the real thing.

It is the same story everywhere with national images. What is interesting is the special way in which a particular national culture turns an image into an icon, to be reproduced, distributed, displayed and sacralized. What is it about an image that allows it to be multiplied and disseminated as a national icon while fully retaining its quality of sacredness?

The Disciplines of Popular Visual Culture

Some scholars have attempted to answer this question by looking at the specific characteristics of visual culture in particular countries. The intuition here is that each nation has its own particular way of turning an image into a national icon. Taking her example from photography, for instance, Judith Gutman advanced the initial argument that Indian photographs, although they were products of the same modern Western technology, did not follow the Western realist aesthetic at all and instead reflected a completely different and distinctly Indian conception of reality.[1] Unlike a Western photograph where the viewer was carefully led from one part of the picture to another according to a familiar set of realist-narrative conventions, in Indian photographs everything within the picture field seems to happen at once, as though in an idealized and timeless space. Using the painted photograph as her example, she argued that early Indian photographic artists used paint not to supplement but in fact to hide the technologically produced likeness to the real object. [Figure 1]

Gutman’s claim of a radically different Indian aesthetic was criticized for being hugely simplistic and overstated.[2] But more recent scholars, such as Christopher Pinney, who have made more careful and nuanced studies of popular photography, have also tried to define the elements of the aesthetic conception that governs popular visual culture in India. For instance, there is the practice of the darshan, widespread in all parts of India, in which the devotee comes into visual contact with the image of the deity and secures, by the physical act of seeing and being seen, the blessings of the divine. The practice extended from divine images to men and women with special qualities of holiness and even into the political field: from emperors to local chiefs, Hindu and Muslim, as well as modern political leaders like Gandhi, all granted darshan to those who came to see them in the hope of gaining merit from visual contact with the holy and the powerful. Several scholars have argued that the conventions that govern the representation of divine or powerful figures in popular visual imagery in India are shaped by this idea of darshan. Pinney has cited the example of a widely available photolithograph of the saintly figure of Ramakrishna, much revered in Bengal, showing him seated with his wife Sarada and his disciple Swami Vivekananda in front of the image of the goddess Kali at the Dakshineswar temple in Calcutta.[3] [Figure 2] The image is a composite one, with photographs of the three human figures inserted in the foreground of a painted photo of the Kali idol, completely violating the norms of both narrative realism and historical plausibility (since the three could never have posed for the camera in this fashion). Curiously, however, the Kali idol at Dakshineswar is shown with two strikingly realist adornments: a framed and garlanded photograph of Ramakrishna on one side of the wall and a clock with the hands at nine o’clock on the other. The lithographed image seems to have been composed to give the viewer the chance to obtain a simultaneous darshan of all four powerful figures, divine and human, for, as it were, the price of one.

To take another example: Ashish Rajadhyaksha, in a classic essay on D. G. Phalke, the pioneer of early Indian cinema, showed how Phalke evolved methods such as frontal staging and direct address into the camera, forms that are antithetical to the aesthetic styles of the Western film, by building into the new technology of the cinema prevailing popular conceptions of viewing such as darshan.[4] Arvind Rajagopal has extended the argument to the much more recent phenomenon of the serially televised Ramayana where the viewing of the epic was regarded by millions as a weekly darshan of the gods.[5] Similarly, Chris Pinney has given us a fascinating analysis of the visual representation of bhakti or devotion to the god Shiva, whose power is commonly represented in the phallic form of the shivalinga. In a widely available calendar print, Pinney shows: “Within the ling Shiv literally encompasses Parvati and hierarchy is denoted spatially. In this image we see the notion that within each consecrated image or murti there lives the pran [life] of the gods: the external form of the image contains the form of the god who contains the goddess.”[6] [Figure 3] It is precisely this image which, Pinney then shows, is cleverly reworked in a photographic montage produced by a small-town studio in central India. [Figure 4] Using complex printing techniques, this “marriage” photograph inserts a full-face portrait of the bride within a profile of the groom and then encloses both of those images within a larger shadow profile of the groom. “The montage clearly replicates the calendar image of the shivling…”

It is clear that the modern technologies of print and photography, even as they penetrated deep into the everyday culture of ordinary people, did not mean the adoption of a realist visual aesthetic in the popular domain. Rather, as Pinney suggests with reference to the hugely popular lithograph images that have been produced since the late nineteenth century, the powers of Western realist art were mimicked and subverted into the “xeno-real” – “the form of colonially authorized realism that circulates outside its framework of origination: it is jettisoned into the colony, where it comes (primarily) to signify itself.”[7] [Figure 5] As several recent exhibitions and studies of so-called bazaar prints and calendar art have shown, many elements of Western realist art were freely adopted in these popular prints on mythological, historical or social subjects, but emptied of their original meaning; there was no gesture of affiliation to any larger philosophical or aesthetic conception of “realism”. [Figure 6] As Pinney explains: “Classicism and mythology supplied a system of references for the forms of their own idealized behaviour, whose translatability was dependent on their vacuity. In the xeno-real there is a double (and doubly productive) emptiness.”[8]

Pinney has made one more point about the political significance of popular visual prints that is worth thinking about. The circulation of a large body of nationalist images suggests, he says, a rather different history from that described in the standard accounts of Indian nationalism drawn almost entirely from textual sources. First, the affective intensity of feeling evoked by the abstract idea of the nation seemed to be conveyed most powerfully by the visual representation of the nation as an actualized landscape.[9] Second, the most powerful image of the nationalist political struggle in the popular imagination was the depiction of armed revolutionaries (called “terrorists” by the British) rather than the leaders of the non-violent mass movement.[10] [Figure 7] It is too early to pronounce on the validity of Pinney’s specific hypotheses, but he has raised, it seems to me, a very important issue concerning the appropriate sources for the study of popular politics, especially in a country where most people do not read. Should visual sources be treated merely as providing illustrative supplements to a history constructed on the basis of the written or spoken word, or can they be allowed to rewrite that history?

More recently, Sumathi Ramaswamy has given us a fascinating visual history of how the map of India itself has been iconicized throughout the twentieth century in the feminine and divine form of Bharat Mata or Mother India, with its own characteristic iconographic marks.[11] She points out that in representing the sacred space of the nation, “Mother India needs the outline map form to set her apart from other female divinities in order to assure her status as a special deity of national territory….”[12] [Figures] The map is also a convenient way of imagining and representing the entire nation simultaneously in its totality. This form of divine representation of the nation attained its most palpable form in the Bharat Mata temple in Banaras, built by a nationalist philanthropist, where the only enshrined deity is a vast relief map of India on the floor, to be viewed from the balconies above. In some ways, this is the most direct mode of turning the geographical representation of the national territorial space into a sacred one. [Figures]

However, all of these approaches assume that there are certain underlying ideas and concepts in the national culture that are somehow visually represented through the practice of producing iconic images. I wish to suggest that we pay greater attention to the practices themselves and the institutions in which they are produced. This involves a move away from concepts and ideas to the practices of production and consumption. I do not insist that practices are external manifestations of concepts that constitute the structure of meanings that characterize a culture; rather, popular culture consists of practices. Of course, practices are shaped by institutional norms. Spaces for “creative freedom” may be available within a specific structure of norms; “freedom” may also lie in resisting those norms. In any case, the question of “freedom” here admits of no universal answer; its relevance and effect depend on specific, institutionally located, sets of practices.

The principal framework within which practices may be described and understood is, I propose, that of a discipline. A discipline is that set of authorized practices by which cultural products are made. It is, as Michel Foucault, has explained, a genealogically assembled set, whose elements may have been drawn from a variety of sources. But within an identifiable institutional space of cultural production and consumption, a discipline will specify authorities and authorized practices, techniques and skills, modes of training, norms of excellence, forms of use of cultural products and judgments of taste. Disciplines usually invoke a tradition that authorizes, through a memorialization of their origins, whether historical or mythical, the specific practices of cultural production and use. Moreover, as Talal Asad has pointed out with respect to the religious disciplines, the aesthetic or ethical quality of the product is not necessarily a function of the degree of “creative freedom” exercised by the practitioner; on the contrary, the more strict and rigorous the adherence to discipline, the more valued may be the outcome.[13]

The study of discipline in this sense is not unknown, whether in anthropology or in the specialized studies of arts and crafts. However, several features will be different in the study of the disciplines involved in contemporary popular cultural production. First, the usual assumption of an organic unity between the disciplines of cultural production and a community of users of culture must be abandoned. One must be prepared to find only a tenuous presence of such a community, or perhaps no community at all. The relation between producers and users of popular culture may be mediated by institutions such as the market or the media. Second, we must, I believe, stay away from the conservationist instinct of preserving the “dying arts and crafts”. This effort has its place, and it may even make some difference to the real world of artisans and craftspeople. But it is not, I think, consistent with the method of investigating how disciplines of traditional artistic production have succeeded or failed to reinvent their practices to cope with the changing conditions of popular culture. Third, this must be a study of traditional disciplines in a process of change. The appropriate methods here would not be those of the old anthropology or studies of folk culture. Rather, one has to be more genealogical, identifying why and how specific elements of disciplinary practice are modified or abandoned and new ones adopted. No general framework of tradition versus modernity will work here. The question of the decline of old institutions and authorities and the emergence of new ones, as traditional disciplines innovate and reinvent themselves, will be a major topic of interest of these studies. Fourth, the criteria for making aesthetic judgments are to be found within the disciplines. This is unlikely to be a simple matter of identifying the norms and criteria that defined quality or taste in the traditional discipline, even though memories of such a tradition may continue to carry some weight in redefining quality and taste under the new conditions of popular culture. There will be contestations over authorities and norms, varying degrees of value attached to traditional skills and techniques, uncertainty about traditional methods of training, new evaluations of competence and virtuosity, search for new sources of patronage, appeals to a new “public” and, finally, an active engagement with the idea of novelty. All of this will make the field of aesthetic judgment on any particular site of popular cultural production a highly contested one. But that is not to say that distinctions and judgments are not being made on those sites, or that disciplinary practices, even if new ones, are not being imposed on both producers and users. By looking more closely at disciplines, rather than at underlying aesthetic concepts, cultural studies may, I am suggesting, find a way of making distinctions among the products of popular culture, and thus of providing a critique of the judgment of popular taste.

Texbook Illustrations

Let me pursue this question by looking at the way national monuments have been displayed in school textbooks in Bengal. I cannot claim deep familiarity with textbooks from other parts of India, but I would be surprised if they turned out to be radically different.

My choice of sources is deliberate. I will be talking about official nationalism, produced as an ideological ensemble within the institutional ambit of a nation-state regime. Most elements in this ensemble can be traced back genealogically to earlier formations in colonial and sometimes even pre-colonial histories. But they are reconstituted into a new discursive order by the official nationalism of the post-colonial nation-state. This ideological function, while it is supervised and directed by the state, is not necessarily confined only to formal state institutions. When successful, the official ideology proliferates in the practices of non-state institutions such as schools, clubs, professional associations, cultural organizations, media etc. Most secondary schools have been run in Bengal as private trusts, sometimes with government grants but often without. Textbooks were provided by private publishers in accordance with syllabi laid down by a public school board.

Official nationalism has a performative as well as a pedagogical function.[14] In the performative mode, it must display the unity and singularity of the nation and the equal place within it of all citizens. In the pedagogical mode, however, official nationalism must reckon with the fact that all citizens cannot be treated equally, because all are not yet “proper” citizens; they must be educated into full membership of the “true” body of national citizens. Under official nationalism, schools become a crucial site for both functions. In the performative mode, schoolchildren frequently participate in events that play out the simultaneous and equal participation in the national space of diverse groups of Indians: the “unity in diversity” theme is the most common trope for performing the national. Here the school largely replicates practices that are more effectively played out on other sites, such as the parades on Republic Day or in cinema and television.[15] In the other mode, however, the school, with its curriculum, its texts and its expository and disciplinary regime, is the place where the pedagogical function of official nationalism can be observed in its purest form. It is not surprising that the content of school textbooks has been so often the bone of political contention in contemporary India.

Before Nationalism

Bibidhartha samgraha (literally, Collection of Diverse Knowledges), founded in 1851 and edited by the polymath Rajendralal Mitra, was the first illustrated Bengali journal that regularly published articles on places of archaeological and historical interest. Besides being a leading figure in the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the most prominent editor in his day of Sanskrit manuscripts, and a leading historian of art and architecture, Mitra was also a pioneer in the publication of Bengali maps and the founder of the Photographic Society of India. Both the engraved illustrations and the historical articles in Bibidhartha samgraha were drawn from current English publications on the subject. The illustrations of monuments have the same picturesque quality that was the hallmark of colonial illustrative art and of early colonial photography.[16] [Figures 1 and 2; for comparison, Figure 3] The age of nationalism was yet to appear in Bengal.

When the gods Brahma, Indra, Narayana and Shiva visited Delhi in 1879, after catching the train from Saharanpur, they were taken on a tour through the city by the rain-god Varun who, judging by the account of the visit, had probably memorized Baedeker’s or Thomas Cook’s guide to India (the former guide was first published in the 1850s and the latter in the 1860s).[17] He knew, for instance, that the great mosque of the city was 201 feet long and 120 feet wide and that the Red Fort was spread across two and a half miles. Objective knowledge was colonial knowledge; the objective gaze was the colonial gaze. Few among the new English-educated Indians were questioning these truisms of the times.

School textbooks in history in nineteenth-century Bengal rarely carried illustrations. Metal engraving, lithography and halftone printing were still expensive and textbooks had to be cheap. Halftone printing was patented in France in 1857 and was commercially used in Europe and the United States by the 1880s. The first halftone press was set up in Calcutta in the 1900s, but some publishers were getting halftone blocks made for them in Europe. Wood engravings were, of course, both cheap and widely used, but they were rarely employed in textbooks, possibly because of their association with the pulp literature of the bazaar. We have to move forward to the 1920s to find illustrated history books for schoolchildren. By then, nationalism was, of course, well set on its journey in Bengal. On the one hand, the revolutionary groups were carrying out daring attacks on British officials; when revolutionaries were tried and hanged, they became national martyrs. On the other hand, the Congress, under the leadership of C. R. Das, launched a very successful mass campaign of non-cooperation with the colonial government. In literature, theatre, art and music, the nationalist agenda was being pushed vigorously.

The school curriculum was, of course, still under official colonial control and no hint of disloyalty was tolerated on the pages of textbooks. Flipping the pages of a widely read textbook from 1924 on Indian history, we find engraved illustrations of rulers and monuments – exactly the same engravings we would have found in older colonial histories and travel accounts.[18] The monuments have the same picturesque quality and some of the engraved blocks look well worn from repeated use. [Figure 4; for comparison, figure 5] If national icons were being produced at this time, they had still not entered into mass circulation in school textbooks. This particular book, however, established one pattern for historical illustrations that would be henceforth repeated: ancient India (called the “Hindu period”) would be represented by Hindu and Buddhist religious architecture, and medieval India (called the “Muslim period”) by forts, victory towers and royal tombs. (The exception for ancient India was the headless statue, lodged in the Mathura museum, of the Kushana ruler Kanishka, a source of endless mirth for generations of schoolchildren.) [Figure 10] Interestingly, the modern or “British” period was illustrated not by monuments but by portraits of viceroys.

Nationalist Transformations

There is a moment soon after Indian independence in 1947 that appears to be something like a nodal point in this story. One is unsure here which way the plot will move. Official nationalism was still being constituted. Ultimately, the plot does, of course, move in one particular direction.

The textbooks of the early 1950s show one important change as far as illustrations are concerned. Engravings are replaced by photographs printed from half-tone zinc blocks. A textbook of 1950 written by the well-known historian Kalidas Nag, a specialist on the art and architecture of South-east Asia, is copiously illustrated by photographs.[19] But they have one curious feature. The picturesque quality has disappeared. There are no trees or images reflected on water or stray human figures in the foreground. [Figure 6] Images of historical monuments are acquiring an iconic quality. What else can one say about the photographed image of the Taj, obviously printed from a metal block that has long outlived its aesthetic appeal?

The contrast is brought out sharply by comparing this textbook with another publication of the same time that was also meant for children but not as a prescribed school text. Biswa parichay, brought out by one of the largest publishers of children’s books, was meant as an up-market publication, printed on glossy paper with photographs on every page, to be bought as a gift or a prize.[20] The photographs here have a self-consciously artistic quality about them; they are not intended to serve any iconic function. Notice, for example, the photograph of the Qutb tower shot through a ruined gateway or that of the Taj Mahal from the bank of the River Jamuna. [Figure 7] These images would not get into officially prescribed textbooks intended for the first generation of Indian children born after independence.

What happens next is inexplicable in terms of any theory of modernization or development. Technologically, it is a reversal, a throwback. But it is not caused by any technological gap or absence. From the late 1950s or early 1960s, photographs disappear from history textbooks, to be replaced by images that look like etchings or engravings but are actually drawings by pen and ink that are made to look like engravings and transferred photographically on to metal blocks. But they are definitely not artist’s sketches: there is not the slightest trace of an individualized aesthetic gaze. These are representations of historical monuments that do not have a significant indexical function – they do not refer to something real out there in real space and time; rather, they are icons.

Let me present some random selections, because almost any textbook published in the last forty years will do. Take the picture of the temple at Tanjore [Figure 8] or of the Qutb Minar or the Taj [Figure 12].[21] They are clearly drawn from photographic images – the angle of vision, the perspective, the framing, all suggest this. But they are not photographs; they are drawings. Even Kanishka, the “headless monarch”, is drawn as a copy of his museum statue. [Figure 13] What can be the reason for this strange denial of the advantages of photographic reproduction?

I suggest that the answer lies in the way in which the effect of sacredness is produced in the national icon. There is an economy of this iconicity that requires that the image be cleansed of all traces of a self-conscious artistic aesthetic. There must be no hint of the picturesque or the painterly, no tricks of the camera angle, no staging of the unexpected or the exotic. The image must also be shorn of all redundancy: any element that does not have a specific place within the narrative economy of this national iconography must be removed from the image. Hence, no superfluous foliage or shimmering reflections on water, no lazy dog sleeping in the shade or stray passers-by going about their daily business. The “artistic” has no place within the visual domain of the sacred.

The sacredness of national icons plays a curious role within the pedagogical apparatus of history. It is well known, for instance, that a common trope in the narration of history is the romantic one of imaginatively inhabiting a past era. The effort here is to close the distance in time by travelling back into another period and, in a sense, participating in the experience of another time and another people. The historical romance – in the form of novels, ballads or drama – is the most obvious literary genre in which this imaginative anachronism is practised. But it is also a common pedagogical tool employed by history teachers and is not infrequently, or so at least I suspect, a powerful affective impulse that drives the work of many professional historians. This romantic attitude towards the historical object encourages proximity; it invites the reader or viewer to enter the world to which the object belonged. The attitude is the same as that which impels modern-day travel, as distinct from traditional pilgrimage. Not surprisingly, it promotes a visual language that emphasizes not just vividness or a life-like quality but also the exotic and the picturesque.

The attitude of sacredness I am talking about is exactly opposed to that of the romantic. It is founded on a reverential distance of the viewer from the object. But this distance cannot be one of time, because then the object would be consigned irretrievably to some lost period peopled by others. To enter the sacred domain of “our” national treasures, the object must be recovered for “our” worshipful gaze. I suggest that this is effectively done by the iconic image of the monument. An iconic image, as I understand it, is not merely an easily recognized or conventional logo. It is the representation of a sacred object in which the image itself partakes of the sacred quality of the original. To imagine, as it were, a treasure-house of national monuments, the schoolchild must be presented with a gallery of iconic images that are situated in no particular place or time but in fact belong to the whole of the national space and to all time. After all, as the nationalist will remind us, has not the nation existed from time immemorial? In contrast with the imaginative anachronism of the romantic trope, the iconic image produces a visual anachronism in which the real object is taken out of its context in a specific place and time and located in an abstract and timeless space. The image now becomes the pure and sacred original, compared to which the real object can only be observed (by the tourist, for example) in its corrupt and utterly profane real-life context. The iconic image is not indexical.

Judith Mara Gutman has argued about Indian photographs that unlike the Western realist aesthetic, they reflect a completely different and distinctly Indian conception of reality.[22]The painted photograph is the most commonly cited example to show how, in this case, paint is used not to supplement but in fact to hide the technologically produced likeness to the real object. It has been, of course, correctly pointed out that Gutman’s claim of a radically different Indian aesthetic is hugely simplistic and overstated.[23] But her argument that in Indian photographs, everything within the picture field happens at once, as though in an idealized and timeless space, appears to hold especially for the iconic images of national monuments I have been talking about. And to achieve this effect, the photograph itself is avoided, for its very life-like quality threatens to introduce into the image those indexical elements that suggest a specific time and context within which the monument actually exists. The iconic drawing allows for much greater control so that all that is redundant to the sacred economy of the image can be carefully eliminated.

Consider, for instance, a picture of the Red Fort in Delhi from a textbook published in 1987.[24] [Figure 14] The Mughal fort, once the seat of imperial sovereignty, entered the sacred geography of Indian nationalism when officers of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army were tried there for treason and cruelty to prisoners by the colonial government in the last days of British rule. Those convicted as traitors by the British were regarded as national heroes by Indians. Since India became independent in 1947, it has become an annual ritual for the Prime Minister to address the nation from the fort’s ramparts on Independence Day. On that day, the national flag flies from the flagstaff on top of the fort. The picture of the Red Fort freezes this moment and elevates it into an abstract ideality by eliminating everything from the picture field except for the bare architectural façade and the national flag flying from an impossibly high flagstaff. Such is the process by which the sacred iconicity of the monument is produced. No photograph could have achieved the effect with such controlled economy.

I should add that there are two other categories of images in history textbooks that are also reproduced, virtually without exception, as line drawings: the maps, always redrawn by artists from unacknowledged originals, and the portraits of national leaders that fill up the pages of the “modern period”; here too photographs are almost never used even though they often form the basis for the artist’s line drawings.

It might be supposed that there are economic or technological reasons for the preference for line drawings over photographs. Are they cheaper to print? Not really, because both are printed from zinc blocks produced by the same photographic process. It is sometimes argued that line blocks produce better prints on inferior quality paper than half-tone blocks. There is some substance in this argument. But if there was a clear pedagogical or aesthetic case to be made for the representational superiority of the photographic image, then there is no reason to believe that it would not have been used in textbooks, even if it meant a slightly higher price. In fact, the use of the line drawing is so ubiquitous that block-makers manufacture and sell readymade blocks of historical monuments for use in history textbooks. [Figure 15] It seems to me that the pedagogical purpose of nationalist education is believed to be served far more effectively by such idealized drawings than by the suspiciously profane realism of photographs.

I should emphasize that we are talking about a professional practice within a pedagogical regime that has acquired the consensual form of a convention. When we try to decode the underlying order of meanings, we do not imply that the artists or publishers or teachers participating in the practice are conscious of that underlying structure or even curious about it. Such is the commonsensical obviousness of every conventional practice.

My argument would be clinched if I could show that even after the latest technological revolution in the Bengali textbook industry, namely, the rapid introduction of computerized phototypesetting and offset printing in the last two decades, historical illustrations continue to follow the same pattern I have described. The evidence on this point is, however, still somewhat ambiguous. Most history textbooks I have seen published in the last ten years do, in fact, contain the same line drawings, even when their texts are phototypeset and the books printed by the photo offset process.[25] One significant novelty is the introduction of glossy colour photographs of monuments on the covers. One textbook has a bunch of colour photographs printed on glossy art paper stuck in the middle of the book: the photos of the Sanchi stupa or the Taj Mahal are the same as what we would find in picture postcards.

But I also found one book that appears to have broken the convention by abandoning line drawings and reintroducing photographs – after half a century since the early days of the Indian republic.[26] This book has a sheaf of colour photos – once again, picture postcard quality – and coloured maps. It also has black and white photographs of monuments strewn across its pages, many with a deliberately vivid and picturesque quality that suggests proximity and indexical familiarity rather than abstract remoteness and sacred iconicity. (Figure 16) Does this mark a new trend? It is too early to tell. It is possible that there is a recognition that with the proliferation of colour magazines, cinema and television, even schoolchildren in small towns and villages are now exposed to a visual language that makes the iconic drawing seem archaic and jaded. In other words, there may be emerging a new aesthetic preference for textbooks to be illustrated with colour photographs. If this is correct, I suspect that new pedagogical techniques, enabled by the most recent technologies of mechanical reproduction, will now be fashioned to create the effect of sacredness by which alone an imagined national space, dotted by timeless images, can exist in its spectral purity, purer even than the real-life original.

Or could it be that that iconic space is being desacralized? Perhaps the romantic trope has finally won the day, making room for those familiar techniques of historical reconstruction by which an object can be imaginatively grasped in the here-and-now while, at the same time, locating it in a specific time and place in the past? I see no reason to believe that this is the case. If the artistic photograph finds a place in history textbooks, my guess would be that sacred images would be produced and circulated by other means. What they might be, I cannot tell. At the moment, I see that the old images have still not yielded their place on the pages of Bengal’s school textbooks. And in any case, I see that Indians, like many other people, are still prepared to fight over maps.

List of Figures

Figure 1: The Delhi fort (showing the chosen residence of the Empress Nurjahan). Engraving in Bibidhartha samgraha, Paush 1776 Shakabda (1854), p. 218. The flag flying above the turret on the left cannot be identified. Before the suppression of the revolt of 1857, the Red Fort was the seat of the Mughal Emperor, even though effective sovereignty in most of India had passed to the British.

Figure 2: The riverfront at Benaras. Engraving in Bibidhartha samgraha, Phalgun 1774 Shakabda (1852), p. 67.

Figure 3: The temple at Kanchi. Engraving in Bijaychandra Majumdar, Bharatbarsher itihas (1924), p. 48.

Figure 4: Taj Mahal. Engraving in Majumdar, Bharatbarsher itihas (1924), p. 111.

Figure 5: The headless statue of Kanishka in the Mathura museum. Photograph in Biswa parichay (1953), p. 55.

Figure 6: The Shiva temple at Tanjore. Photograph in Kalidas Nag, Swadesh o sabhyata (1950), p. 107.

Figure 7: Taj Mahal. Photograph in Nag, Swadesh o sabhyata (1950), p. 245.

Figure 8: The Qutb Minar. Photograph in Biswa parichay (1953), p. 72.

Figure 9: Taj Mahal. Photograph in Biswa parichay (1953), p. 68.

Figure 10: The temple at Tanjore. Line drawing in Dilip Kumar Ghosh, Bharat o bharatbasi (1974), p. 103.

Figure 11: The Qutb Minar. Line drawing in Sarkar and Hore, Bharat-itihaser ruprekha (1973), p. 70.

Figure 12: Taj Mahal. Line drawing in Sarkar and Hore, Bharat-itihaser ruprekha (1973), p. 112.

Figure 13: The headless statue of Kanishka. Line drawing in Ghosh, Bharat o bharatbasi (1974), p. 30.

Figure 14: The Red Fort, Delhi. Line drawing in Sobhakar Chattopadhyay, Bharater itihas (1987), p. 182.

Figure 15: The Red Fort. Metal block for sale, advertised in the catalogue of Dass Brothers, Calcutta, 1960.

Figure 16: The Red Fort, Delhi. Photograph in Atulchandra Ray, Bharater itihas (2001), p. 152. Notice the parked bicycle and people sitting under the tree in the foreground.


[1] Judith Mara Gutman, Through Indian Eyes: Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Photography from India (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

[2] For instance, by Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 95-96.

[3] The photolithograph image printed for circulation around 1920 is reproduced in Pinney, Camera Indica, p. 105.

[4] Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “The Phalke Era: Conflict of Traditional Form and Modern Technology” in Tejaswini Niranjana, P. Sudhir and Vivek Dhareshwar, eds., Interrogating Modernity: Culture and Colonialism in India (Calcutta: Seagull, 1993), pp. 47-82.

[5] Arvind Rajagopal, Politics After Television: Religious Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Indian Public (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[6] Pinney, Camera Indica, pp. 116-8.

[7] Christopher Pinney, Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 31.

[8] Pinney, Photos of the Gods, p. 32.

[9] This is also suggested by Sumathi Ramaswamy in her study of the cartographic representations of an imagined and lost Tamil homeland. Ramaswamy, Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[10] Pinney, Photos of the Gods.

[11] Sumathi Ramaswamy, Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010).

[12] Ramaswamy, The Goddess and the Nation, p. 54.

[13] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1993).

[14] The distinction has been made by Homi Bhabha, “DissemiNation” in Bhabha, ed., Nation and Narration …

[15] For extended discussions on the Republic Day parade and official newsfilms in India, see Srirupa Roy, Beyond Belief: …

[16] The connection between the picturesque and the scientific in early colonial representations of Indian monuments has been discussed in Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, Objects, Histories, chapter 1.

[17] Durgacharan Ray, Debganer martye agaman (1880; reprint Calcutta: Dey’s Publishing, 1984), pp. 45-57. This is one of the first travel guides in Bengali, written as an account of a visit by the gods keen to find out how their creation was faring under British rule.

[18] Bijaychandra Majumdar, Bharatbarsher itihas (Calcutta: Sen Brothers, 1924).

[19] Kalidas Nag, Swadesh o sabhyata (Calcutta: Modern Book Agency, 1950).

[20] Biswa parichay (Calcutta: Deb Sahitya Kutir, 1953).

[21] The Tanjore image is from Dilip Kumar Ghosh, Bharat o bharatbasi (Calcutta: New Book Stall, 1974), p. 103. The Qutb and the Taj pictures are from Dineschandra Sarkar and Kalipada Hore, Bharat-itihaser ruprekha (Calcutta: Vidyoday, 1973), pp. 70, 112.

[22] Judith Mara Gutman, Through Indian Eyes Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Photography from India (New York: … 1982).

[23] For instance, by Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 95-96.

[24] Sobhakar Chattopadhyay, Bharater itihas (Calcutta: Narmada Publication, 1987), p. 182.

[25] Among popular textbooks today that continue to use line drawings instead of photographs are Nisith Ranjan Ray, Bharat parichay (Calcutta: Allied Book Agency, 2001); Jiban Mukhopadhyay, Swadesh parichay (Calcutta: Nababharati, 2002); Prabhatangshu Maiti, Bharater itihas(Calcutta: Sridhar Prakashani, 2001).

[26] Atulchandra Ray, Bharater itihas (Calcutta: Prantik, 2001).