Collecting the Subcontinent

How South Asian art evolved under colonialism

The 1,000-year-old Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance) sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

By Tim Gihring

A couple years ago, Mia received 11 paintings from the series known as the Impey Album, a gift from the collection of Elizabeth and Willard Clark. Lady Mary Impey had moved from England to India in 1773, when Britain’s East India Company was cementing control of the Indian subcontinent through bureaucracy as well as the battlefield, and the company had appointed her husband the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Bengal. The Impeys — far from the front lines, in the relative calm of Kolkata — saw themselves as benevolent and just. They were genuinely curious about the land they found themselves in, even as it was being confiscated by their countrymen.

Lady Impey filled a garden and menagerie on their estate with regional flora and fauna, then commissioned Indian artists to paint them. After six years, she had 326 artworks of hornbills and flamingos and macaws, among many other species, fastidiously labeled and dated in both English and Persian. They were among the first works to combine traditional Mughal miniature painting with British tastes, an original style dubbed the Company School.

Painting of a grey heron by Ram Das, circa 1780 to 82, from the Impey Album. Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Painting of a grey heron by Ram Das, c. 1780–82, from the Impey Album. Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

“It was a fusion of Mughal color, line, and sense of space with a very Enlightenment, natural history impulse in recording these birds,” says Pujan Gandhi, Mia’s Jane Emison Assistant Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art. Over the next hundred years, the style would flourish in colonial centers of the subcontinent, as more and more Britons arrived.

The art of India — and the West’s understanding of it — would be reshaped by this increasingly shared history, shifting in tandem in a fraught, often awkward dance. Indian artists would create new forms and revive old ones, in response to British tastes and British rule itself, suggesting novel purposes for their ancient heritage — including the political.

By the late 19th century, when India’s resistance movement adopted the emergent European notion of the nation-state, art and heritage would help rally India’s disparate fiefdoms in a nationalist fervor against its oppressors. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the art that came to embody this new national spirit was as evocative to Western collectors as it was to the nationalists themselves — symbolic of a venerable and ultimately irrepressible culture.

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The British had been establishing colonies around the world for nearly 200 years, including in India, when the Impeys and other Britons began looking at the subcontinent with fresh, acquisitive eyes. The impulse to inventory, to document this possession with Linnean precision, was something new to British life. While the Germans and French were publishing studies of their colonial outposts and filling their “cabinets of curiosity” with exotic objects from afar, the British had been comparatively incurious.

India changed that. Indeed, the impulse to collect may have been triggered by self-preservation as much as science. The late historian Carol Breckenridge described the British in India as collecting to create “an illusion of cognitive control over their experience” there, which “might otherwise have been disturbingly chaotic.” To collect was to impose order, even a kind of moral order, Breckenridge argues, as Britons reckoned with the dizzying pantheon of Hindu deities.

The Impey family in Kolkata, depicted in a 1783 painting by Johan Zoffany. Collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

But to collect is also to assign value: some things are deemed worthy of collecting, others are not. In India, those values eventually led to a different way of thinking about art. “Do you let a sculptural fragment stay in the field and put a garland around it?” Gandhi asks. “Or do you put it in a museum? Often, you saw both.”

The first museum in India formed in Kolkata in 1814, under the auspices of colonial officials who, like the Impeys, were intrigued by South Asian culture and history. They collected old coins and ancient manuscripts, and in some cases “went native,” adopting local customs even the locals sometimes eschewed.

Charles Stuart, who went to India as a teenager and spent the rest of his life in the army of the East India Company, converted to Hinduism, bathed in the Ganges, and criticized the efforts of Christian missionaries as “impolitic, inexpedient, dangerous, unwise, and insane.” He admonished colonial women to wear saris — an “elegant, simple, and sensual” outfit, he said — instead of the corseted contraptions of English women’s wear, and he required his Indian soldiers to sport full mustaches, in the traditional style. When he died, in 1828, he was buried among the Hindu deities in a Kolkata cemetery. The antiquities he had amassed and displayed in his home formed the basis of the British Museum’s Hindu and Buddhist sculpture collection.

“Certainly, you have condescending reports from British officers of many arms and heads and heathens — a narrative of Indian culture that’s primitive and othering,” says Gandhi. “But you also have the rare Charles Stuarts. There were different ways of engaging.”

As museums began propagating in the late 1800s, especially in Europe and the United States, a network of middlemen formed to supply them, stretching from Europe to China to South Asia to Africa. The old mix of serious archaeological surveys, preservation, and the “hunt” — as early colonial officers sometimes described their collecting in bazaars and back-alleys — became formalized. And so did ideas of what was collectible.

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The rise of museums was coincident with the height of imperialism and its attendant racial theories, of course, and so the art of colonized cultures was seen accordingly. A dichotomy emerged between art from cultures with old traditions of writing and those without (a legacy that lingers in some Western museums’ curatorial structures). The latter included sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. India was included in the former, along with China and Egypt.

Yet within those lines, canons were formed and shaped mostly by market pressures, the changing tastes of museums and collectors and aesthetes. Within a few decades around the turn of the 20th century, for example, collectors of African art went from favoring less refined, ostensibly more powerful objects to seeking more streamlined, stylized pieces. And middle-men responded, stripping or including the raffia and other organic material of masks and statues to give a clean, modern look — or not.

The market was also shaped by decidedly non-aesthetic pressures. Small objects weren’t impressive enough to be collected; large items were too unwieldy. British officers dug up one of the iconic moai, the immense head sculptures on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in 1868, dragged it down a volcano, rafted it out to a ship, and presented it to Queen Victoria — all 4.85 tons of it. She gave it to the British Museum. But otherwise only the most moneyed and determined clients could consider collecting, say, a 30-foot pole from Irian Jaya.

Processional image of a large swan, made in the 19th century as part of a much larger effigy of the goddess Kali for an annual temple festival. Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

How collectors intended to display the art helped determine what was collectible. The desire for so-called parlor sculpture in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as industrialists and aristocrats opened informal galleries in their homes, encompassed a global panoply of artworks. Even sacred works like the yogini sculpture now at Mia, carved from stone in the early 10th century and once enshrined in a temple, could have been collected as a kind of parlor sculpture.

Eventually, colonial rule itself began to shape the nature of art. In South Asia, the decline of the Mughal court — and the art it sponsored — was accelerated by the British Raj, the direct rule of India that began in 1857 when the crown took control from the East India Company. “One could argue that the fall of the Mughal court could have happened anyway,” says Gandhi. “But when the British come, the patronage structures change — the whole original court culture of painting goes out.”

On the other hand, temple arts were thriving — a counter to British rule. The Hindu festival known as Ganesh Chaturthi, for example, had been a major celebration for centuries until the British Raj ended its state patronage. Its revival in the late 1800s was in response to British suppression, a ban on public gatherings of 20 or more people. The ban offered certain religious exceptions, and the freedom fighters who helped revive the festival seized on both the exception and Ganesh, the elephant deity, who was seen as a god of the people. Art and faith, they thought, might unite the educated and uneducated alike against British rule.

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By the early 20th century, more than 84 percent of the world had been conquered by Europeans. What was known as East and West were now thoroughly entangled, locked in cycles of resistance and reprisal, dependence and distrust. In India, the independence movement gave rise to satyagraha, the non-violent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi, who led his first revolt — an uprising of indigo farmers — in 1917.

That same year, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hired Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy as the first curator of Indian art in the United States. Coomaraswamy was himself a product of colonial entanglement, born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and raised mostly in England. His father had been a scholar and a gentleman, popular in the court of Queen Victoria — he was the first person of Asian descent to be knighted. Ananda was among the first historians of Indian art and chafed at the impoverished view of Eastern culture in the West. A self-described cultural nationalist, he believed in an India “for ourselves” as the rightful opportunity to bring its heritage to bear on the global project of “human progress.” After calling for Indians to sit out World War I, he was pressured to leave England.

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy in 1916. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Coomaraswamy arrived in America with his own collection of art. It included paintings made in the Rajput kingdoms in the 1600s and 1700s, which he claimed as a kind of national art form, a visual embodiment of “the great ideals of Indian culture.” Shortly after settling in at Boston, he published a collection of essays called The Dance of Shiva, a galvanizing argument for the aesthetic and spiritual value of Indian art — particularly the Nataraja, the dancing Shiva statue that was endemic to southern India.

To the extent that the Nataraja was known in Europe and the United States, the figure was an exoticized totem of mystery. An example at the Musée Guimet in Paris, which opened in the 1800s as an industrialist’s personal collection of Asian art, had been used as a prop for Mata Hari’s exotic dance performances there in the early 1900s. Coomaraswamy argued that the Nataraja — cobras wrapped around his arms, dreadlocks fanning out from his face, dancing in a ring of fire — was a universal symbol of grace and should appeal “to the philosopher, the lover, and the artist of all ages and all countries.”

The argument worked. Aldous Huxley, the influential English author of Brave New World, asserted that the West had no art quite like the Shiva Nataraja, with its profound and cosmic beauty. August Rodin, the sculptor, called the Nataraja the most “perfect expression of rhythmic movement in the world.” Museums suddenly had to have one, and so the middlemen got to work. Boston struck first, in 1921, thanks to Coomaraswamy. Eventually, there was a Nataraja in New York and Los Angeles and Cleveland and St. Louis and Philadelphia, among other places.

In Minneapolis, the Lord of the Dance arrived in 1929, a 1,000-year-old statue that was recently conserved and reinstalled at Mia as part of a refresh of the museum’s Himalayan, South, and Southeast Asian galleries.

By 1947, when the British left India after 300 years on the subcontinent, the Nataraja had become a symbol of the newly independent nation. Coomaraswamy died a few weeks after independence, in the violent wake of Partition, as Hindus and Muslims sorted themselves into India and Pakistan. He never saw India celebrate its cultural heritage, two years after independence, with a series of stamps. The national stamps were themselves a statement of autonomy, of course, and featured the art of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain monuments and sculptures — including an image of Nataraja.

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