Daniells' Calcutta: Visions of Life, Death, and Nabobery in Late-Eighteenth-Century British India
Rasico, Patrick David
This study investigates the form and function of early, mass-produced visual representations of British society in Calcutta during the last two decades of the eighteenth-century, a time when the English East India Company's power was expanding in South Asia. In particular, this essay examines the aquatint streetscapes of the “white town” of Calcutta produced by Thomas and William Daniell between 1786 and 1788. The relationships between European aesthetic theories and Indian ecology, anxieties of colonial rule and difference, projects of colonial knowledge and representation, and metropolitan controversies of imperial rule informed the Daniells’ Views of Calcutta. Their “picturesque” prints depicted this sector of Calcutta as a neoclassical locus of colonial development and European civilization, differentiating a largely South Asian urban population from the white ruling elite. This paper reveals how these images of British and Indian life in Calcutta served multiple functions when circulating in the subcontinent. The Daniells’ streetscapes argued against metropolitan criticism of Company misrule by challenging assumptions that Britons in the subcontinent had succumbed to “oriental corruption.” I argue that by depicting the British as a necessarily distinct social sector that acted as a civilizing force and proper ruler over the Indian peasantry, these images mystified cultural borrowings and the fragility of European life in India.