U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Colonial Aesthetics

I have written before about Juliette Derricotte‘s response to the beauty she experienced in India and my struggle to conceptualize it. It was so exciting to stumble upon English Writing and India by Pramod Nayar on google books recently. Here is the general description:

Mysore Palace, Derricotte’s destination

This book explores the formations and configurations of British colonial discourse on India through a reading of prose narratives of the 1600-1920 period.

Arguing that colonial discourse often relied on aesthetic devices in order to describe and assert a degree of narrative control over Indian landscape, Pramod Nayar demonstrates how aesthetics furnished a vocabulary and representational modes for the British to construct particular images of India.

Looking specifically at the aesthetic modes of the marvellous, the monstrous, the sublime, the picturesque and the luxuriant, Nayar marks the shift in the rhetoric”from the exploration narratives from the age of mercantile exploration to that of the ‘shikar’ memoirs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s extreme exotic. English Writing and India provides an important new study of colonial aesthetics, even as it extends current scholarship on the modes of early British representations of new lands and cultures.

Nayar places each of those modes in a different time frame. I’ve been reading about the “marvelous difficulty” response of the seventeenth century. Even though the date range is significantly different (JD traveled in the 1920s), there are some commonalities with Derricotte’s response. She does find India overall marvelous and wondrous, and sees difficulty in the poverty and man-made idols. But unlike the English travelers of the 1600s, she saw and appreciated the working class–she did not see India as devoid of people, ready for English control. For example, Nayar writes, “”Each of the above descriptions carefully omits descriptions of farming labour. The apparently ‘magical’ flowering of harvests … suggests a land or field that was ripe and fertile without any human effort” (11). He continues, “the emphasis on the intrinsic goodness of the land aestheticizes it, empties it of people and their activities, and distances native or human threat from the English traveller who is free to perceive the land clearly and fearlessly” (12).

Where English travelers feared the extravagance and excess of Indian royalty and landscape, Derricotte embraced it as evidence of the proof the intelligence and power of a brown king to white visitors. She wrote to her family, “It made my blood chase through my veins at a merry pace to see all those brown folk doing things up to the notch.  It was certainly no slip shod royalty that all the Westerners gazed upon in Mysone City.” This is very different from Edward Terry, who described “one of the richest emperors of the early modern world,” as “an overgrown Prince in the vast extent of his territories, being like a huge Pike in a great pond, that preys upon all his neighbors” (1655, p 40).

I continue to read.

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