- The Classics and Colonial India by Phiroze Vasunia
The study of classical reception is typically the study of a single linear process, but Vasunia’s theme has a triangular shape, as it involves not only the effect of antiquity upon two nineteenth-century cultures but also the British and Indians’ effects on each other—a mutual engagement between rulers and ruled as complex as any since that between the Greeks and Romans in antiquity itself. And inevitably, Indians did not receive the ancient world 100 percent pure: they received it after it had been routed through later Britain and Europe. This ambitious book is rather disparate in its topics, but that, after all, is the point. Its first part is devoted to Alexander the Great, whose afterlife is especially intricate, since as Iskandar or Sikandar he had long been a hero of Eastern tale. Other areas investigated are the comparison between the Roman and British empires, so often made, and neoclassical architecture, which brought ancient Greece and modern England to India simultaneously. A glance forward into the twentieth century takes Vasunia to New Delhi, where Lutyens blended classical and Mughal allusion (as Gothic [End Page 529] architecture had sometimes interbred with Indian, rather earlier). The classical education of leaders of the Indian Civil Service (tested in its examinations) is a more solidly British theme. More unusual, and sometimes touching, are Vasunia’s accounts of those Indians who became captivated by the culture of the ancient West. Classical reception in the nineteenth century is now a much traveled road, but this book opens up a new region.
Richard Jenkyns, emeritus professor of the classical tradition at Oxford University, is the author of Classical Literature; God, Space, and City in the Roman Imagination; The Victorians and Ancient Greece; Dignity and Decadence; Virgil’s Experience; and A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen.