Arenas of Display and Debate: Britishness, Exotica, and the Material Counterflows of Empire in India, 1750—1825
Rasico, Patrick David
This dissertation reveals how the importation of South Asian artworks, antiquities, religious images, and other items were central to British understandings of the subcontinent and of British national character. This study begins with the East India Company's acquisition of a territorial empire in India in the mid-eighteenth century, a time when larger quantities and varieties of Asian material culture flowed into private collections and museums in London. This study presents a series of thematic case studies that shed new light on the ways that the circulation of Indian material culture encouraged a series of British re-imaginings of the geographic divisions and definitions of British and "oriental" spaces in colonial India and in London. Throughout the Georgian period, Britons held diverse perceptions of Britain and the colonial territories as heterogeneous geographies capable of containing both British and “oriental” sectors. Just as Indian exotica could render spaces in Britain as “oriental,” Britons perceived European sectors of cities as appendages of Britain defined by the presence of European peoples, architecture, and other material culture. The chapters explore the production of images and the re-envisioning of the European sector of Calcutta by British topographical artists; London and Calcutta art and estate auctions; the gifting, shipment, and smuggling of South Asian material culture to Britain; private collectors and intellectual organizations' circulation of Indian exotica; and London museums' acquisition and display of artworks and antiquities from the subcontinent. This dissertation draws upon diverse textual and visual sources, ranging from auction records to Anglo-Indian prints, to demonstrate that there were distinct phases in British uses and attitudes towards Indian artworks and antiquities resulting from imperial expansion in the subcontinent. While there was not a singular British vision of the delineation of Britishness, Britons' uses, circulation, and display of Indian artworks and antiquities reflected and engendered continuous British reevaluations of the oriental nature of Indian and British peoples and geographies.