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What you see isn’t all you get

This book that explores philosophy and change in art. Its essays span Renaissance Europe, the 18th and 19th centuries, concomitant developments in India and a bird’s eye-view of the post-colonial, writes Srijana Mitra Das.

books Updated: Feb 26, 2010 22:53 IST

Word, Image, Text

Edited by Shormishtha Panja, Shirshendu Chakrabarti, Christel Devadawson

Orient Blackswan

Rs 445 || Pg 212

This book explores philosophy and change in art. Its essays span Renaissance Europe, the 18th and 19th centuries, concomitant developments in India and a bird’s eye-view of the post-colonial. Subjects include architecture, Titian, Bruegel and Lorrain’s paintings, Rabelais and Shakespeare’s writing, Emperor Akbar represented in miniatures, images enthusing revolutionary France, Jain and Buddhist sculpture, Lockwood Kipling’s idyllic Indian drawings, photographs of ‘the native’ in colonial collections and the post-colonial cartooning of O.V. Vijayan.

At times, the expanse of the book appears exhaustive, its focus spread too thin. However, it contains many insights. Stuart Sillars analyses arches in early modern Europe not as architectural fancies but as symbols of important change, representing the crown giving way to emerging Nation-States, science and citizenship cutting across theology and court-based power. Maria Escayol explores Jesuit missionary Antoni de Montserrat’s progress in Akbar’s court, pointing out the minute detail with which every feature of the Indian landscape was recorded.

Megha Anwer discusses how popular images of the king in revolutionary France earned disregard due to his supposed sexual inability while those of Marie Antoinette earned hatred because of the queen’s believed sexual overdrive. Anwer highlights the misogyny of revolutionary France with its later turn to images of the ‘nursing mother’ as Republican ‘nurturer’. The essay is thought-provoking in the Indian context, imaginings of this nation as ‘mother’ troublesome inception onwards.

Sonali Pattnaik discusses the ‘violent capture’ of Indians in colonial photography post-1857, mentioning the Muslim man classified as “repulsive” and “bigoted” alongside his picture in the ‘People of India’ collection. This has resonances within contemporary India where processes of ‘othering’ continue, based upon vaguely defined notions of origins, habits and inclinations. The essay provokes further questions — it’s simple enough to accept that colonial imagery strengthened native impressions of ‘the other’. However, it’s also important to explore the role of native informants in furnishing such information to the colonial. This is vital to get at the roots of continuing communal suspicion.

Some of the writing in the collection is thick and heavy, more suet pudding than soufflé, containing long quotations and palpable anxiety about analyses. However, the volume contains nimbler pieces. James Yoch’s essay almost flies off its pages that takes nothing away from the insights he brings to Shakespeare’s uses of time and space, the bard’s use of changes in his audience’s imagination, quantum mechanics and theology to literally path-break with audacity and style. The volume carries glossy plates of paintings and images. These, however, emphasise the tricky ‘third meaning’ suggested by Roland Barthes, where every image conveys an unintended meaning to viewers, differing understandings thus challenging these essays as well.

The volume could have been more tightly edited; the jump from the colonial to the post-colonial is abrupt while there are typos (a mask discussed has a “tragic backside”). Yet, the book is a stimulating read. It doesn’t fit snugly into popular ‘tunnel vision’ where texts must explain aspects of contemporary life to be relevant. It is, in fact, the kind of book you might read before a dinner party where everyone wears black and slim white candles shiver amid animated conversations of Wittgenstein, Warhol and Wajid Ali Shah. Dig the image? Read the text.

Srijana Mitra Das is a social anthropologist and writer