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People of India: Cambridge puts on a visual history

On display are texts by British officials and writers since the early nineteenth century, which describe the people of India, along with visuals.

world Updated: Aug 02, 2017 21:32 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
The display charts the changing visual culture of anthropology in India.
The display charts the changing visual culture of anthropology in India.(University of Cambridge)

The many theories and ways of categorising the people of India since the early days of the East India Company are on display at the University of Cambridge, part of its India Unboxed series marking 70 years of independence and the UK-India Year of Culture.

Texts by British officials and writers since the early nineteenth century describing the people of India, along with visuals, are on display, including by key figures such as Verrier Elwin, whose anthropological work won him much acclaim.

The display charts the changing visual culture of anthropology in India. It begins with the growth of the East India Company and follows the history of anthropology through to independence in 1947, when anthropological theories underwent significant change.

“In the early nineteenth century, anthropologists tended to describe Indian castes and tribes in Romantic terms. But, as the British Empire continued to expand, anthropology was also used to support scientific racism and colonial violence,” said curators James Poskett, Harry Stockwell and Koyna Tomar.

“Despite these troubling legacies, Indians themselves also made extensive use of anthropology. Anthropological theories provided a means to critique the colonial state and bolster a sense of national identity,” they added.

The exhibition includes the work of Indian anthropologist Sarat Chandra Roy, widely considered as the father of Indian anthropology, who established the journal, Man in India in the early twentieth century.

People of India has been the title of at least three major book series, two of them by colonial writers (by JF Watson and JW Kaye, and by HH Risley), and one edited by K Suresh Singh, former director-general of the Anthropological Survey of India, and published from 1992.