- Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India by Tapati Guha-Thakurta
Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s book is a far-reaching study whose implications go well beyond the case of India. Her focus is on parallel tracks of archaeology and art history from the nineteenth-century to postcolonial modern India. Archaeology and art history were important to colonial Britain for an array of jumbled purposes: preserving monuments, writing Indian history, defining Indian cultural development as declining and linking all these purposes to racial differences between Britain and India. This body of scholarship and the monuments and objects it catalogued, classified, restored and photographed, almost obsessively, became sites of controversy and conflict as a new class of Indian curators and scholars and regional museums came to claim these disciplines as evidence for autonomous Indian cultural histories and origins of art and for affirmative racial identities. These disciplines became crucial to arguments about colonialism, nationalism, regional geographies, religious ownership, gender representations, and intellectual history. They provided knowledge that became power first for colonial historiography and cultural politics, then for Indian nationalists’ reclaimed ownership of Indian culture. Examining ways that Indians applied these disciplines to re-present Indian art and antiquity, Guha-Thakurta tracks the processes by which historical narratives are invested, destabilized and contested as the past is continuously revised and deconstructed through conflicting political, institutional, and public demands.
To trace the changing trajectories of objects’ status from ruins to monuments to historical “evidence” of national and racial origins, she uses the trope of biography: of people, of institutions (the Archaeological Survey, museums), of art works, and of archaeology and art history, both nineteenth-century disciplines. Archaeology and art history shaped imperial custodianship through various British agents and agencies—orientalists, archeologists, collectors, the Survey, and emerging regional museums alongside the Indian Museum in Calcutta, “sanctified” and filled by the British Raj. These activities and institutions mixed history, myth, and academic claims into an “inseparability of the spheres of professional and public knowledges” (xx) and deployed photography and drawings to create a vast visual archive of sites and objects.
Colonial policies and redefinitions of monuments, history, ruins, fine arts and crafts shaped and reflected larger imperial politics and the bureaucratic order. Guha-Thakurta examines a series of careers of Indians working in the Survey and colonial museums. Trained under colonial systems of knowledge and institutions that “wrote” Anglicized histories of India, these men reversed British interpretations to claim Indian art history as evidence of genius, cultural autonomy and the fount of pan-Asian culture. Her diachronic pairing of biographical trajectories is met by synchronic analyses of how their books, ideas and opinions were received by Britons and Indians as ruins became “antiquities” and art objects became “masterpieces” in differing, often simultaneous, contexts of Indian nationalist resistance and British intellectual dogmas.
Her demonstration of the powerful role of art in processes of historical re-visioning is original and profound and embraces new interdisciplinary fields of museum histories, the heritage industry and material cultures in line with burgeoning studies of these three as deeply implicated in colonial histories and in collusion with imperial politics. To wind through the historical range and density of her subject, Guha-Thakurta pairs scholars or monuments to highlight dichotomies. In Part I on the colonial period, Chapter 1 focuses on two pioneers, James Fergusson (1808–86), who wrote the first comprehensive history of Indian architecture, and Alexander Cunningham (1814–93), who systematized the field archaeology of ancient Indian sites. Their work converged in the foundation of the Archaeological Survey and its extensive program of explorations, conservation, visual documentation, and textualizing of objects (she presents interesting analyses of catalogues). Archaeology developed from individual explorations to governmental systematized methods of reading sites and stones as records and revelations of India’s history (4). Chapter 2 focuses on the development of Calcutta’s Indian Museum from a collection of curiosities to a center of disciplinary knowledges, through classification and display technologies intended to address an imagined public of scholars and laypeople.
Frequent clashes between...