The Sahib’s Pictures

From Merchants to Emperors: British Artists and India, 1757–1930

by Pratapaditya Pal, by Vidya Dehejia
Cornell University Press, 264 pp., $75.00

Ironically, the least “Indian” exhibition among those of the nationwide Festival of India was organized by two scholars from India. This is so not because of the subject—British watercolors, drawings, prints, and photographs relating to India, from 1757 to 1930—but because a significantly large proportion of the works in the exhibit conform to the taste not of internationally minded specialists but of some ghostly Colonel Blimp eager to please an equally outdated John Bull. Although it would be extremely difficult to assemble a perfectly balanced selection, either on historical or aesthetic grounds, one must question the conventionally “colonial” tenor of the present choices. But before this ruffling problem can be considered it must be pointed out that we are concerned not with the exhibition “From Merchants to Emperors,” at the Morgan Library from May 1 through July 31, 1986, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from September 9, 1986, to January 4, 1987—largely taken from the collections of Paul Walter of New York City—but with the stimulating and informative book of the same title, which doubles as a catalog to the exhibition. Its well-reproduced illustrations have been amplified by one hundred or so others or works from public and private sources in India, England, and elsewhere.

Only the Roman Empire has inspired more scholarly books and articles than British India. But unlike ancient Rome, British India, which unlike with India’s independence in 1947, remains a subject that is difficult—or impossible—to approach dispassionately. British scholars, indeed, are now more outspokenly anticolonial than most Indians. In this case nearly three critical centuries have been documented and discussed by two not entirely unbiased Indian scholars. Both Pratapaditya Pal and Vidya Dehejia experienced the Raj through their adolescences, and spent their professional lives in another former British colony, the US, where the Revolution is celebrated once a year, usually at picnics, with beer and firecrackers. Although most Indians are probably now oblivious to the evils of their imperial past (and take for granted its benefits such as transportation and postal systems, a dependable civil service, and the lingua franca, English), the inequalities and pain of foreign rule are not wholly forgotten. Their slightly acrid scent too often permeates the page of the present book.

In the beguiling words of Dr. Pal, a Bengali from Calcutta, he was reared “in a very conservative, nationalistic home” and in 1946 was packed off by his father “to a prestigious English-speaking boarding school in the hills…[where he] was molded into the caricature of a young English gentleman, who loved reading P.G. Wodehouse and playing cricket, but when [he] returned home for the holidays [he] reassumed [his] native guise.” Vidya Dehejia, a South Indian Brahmin, on the other hand, to quote Dr. Pal, “was raised as a true baba sahib, as she was the daughter of one of the first Indians who was permitted to join as an officer the thus far (as late as the thirties …

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