South Asia at Chicago:
Fifty Years of Scholarship



Recurrent Themes in the Representation of South Asia

Early European travelers found India to be a strange and confusing land filled not only with unusual flora and fauna but inhabited by peoples with seemingly different orientations towards life. Many of these travelers during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries prepared images to accompany the narrations of their journeys. These visual representations allow us to see India through the eyes and cultural preconceptions of these early voyagers. Four themes are traced in these cases: asceticism, sati, Hindu divinity, and cartography.

Asceticism was among the several Indian practices that particularly fascinated and perplexed early European travelers. Dutch and French voyagers often described the Indian religious devotees who practiced various forms of physical penance in an attempt to transcend their bodily and earthly desires. Early European images typically portrayed these ascetics, known as fakirs or sadhus, as fanatical extremists who, for the Europeans, were "more like devils than living men" (Hamilton 1930 I: 91). India was alternately seen as either a land of "gentle gymnosophists, ascetics and philosophers" or a realm of "threatening and bizarre marvels" (Cohn 1992: 2). Both these opposing qualities infuse the European representations of the precolonial period. During the colonial and postcolonial eras, indigenous Indian artists also harnessed the image of the ascetic for their own particular purposes as symbols of personal or political power. This reached its pinnacle in the figure of the political and spiritual leader M.K. Gandhi, portrayed as an ascetic in ways that captured the imagination of Indians and Westerners alike.

A rite frequently described by European travelers in both word and image was sati ("suttee"), in which a Hindu widow burns herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. The abolition of sati was a central concern of colonial reform movements in the nineteenth century, and met with resistance from those who considered sati a sacred "tradition" of Hindu women. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the issue was introduced to European consciousness through graphic images. These depictions appeared so often that it "became the totalizing image of India as the land of the bizarre" (Cohn 1992:9). Sati remains a source of contention in India today, particularly in the wake of a highly publicized sati in 1987 by a young Rajput widow named Roop Kanwar. While sati seems to have been a relatively rare occurrence, the rite has long engendered debates about the conditions of Indian women. The image of sati, once emblematic of barbarous oriental otherness for Europeans, is now again at the center of Indian debates about modernity and tradition, secularism and civil rights.

Hindu divinity is an enduring theme in the history of images from India. The earliest European travelers’ accounts from the sixteenth through the mid-seventeenth century represented the Hindu pantheon as little more than devils. Prejudiced by Christian expectations of demons in heathen lands, these narrators found what they already expected. But in the seventeenth century, in the context of a growing scientific humanism, differences in cosmology and religious practice were recognized. A new interest in information about Indian mythology created a demand for "authentic" pictures of Indian gods. Indian art historian Partha Mitter writes that a "new class of sources dating from the middle of the seventeenth century marks the beginnings of changing attitudes in the West towards alien societies and provides the essential key to the understanding of Indian iconography." The majority of drawings and engravings displayed here date from this seventeenth century period of reinvigorated European interest in Hindu iconography.

Cartography and the history of the mapping of the Indian subcontinent is the final theme explored here. Any given cartographic depiction recognizes the aspects of the subject in question that are most salient to the cartographer’s needs. Under different ruling authorities, "India" has appeared in many forms and aspects. The cartographic project of mapping and re-mapping the nation continues to this day.


A Land of Ascetics

European images of Indian fakirs circulated throughout the seventeenth century via frequent re-printings of a limited set of illustrations. As Bernard Cohn noted in "The Past in the Present," they had their particular historical location in the city of Surat.

One of the great congregating places of the fakirs was outside of Surat, the most important trading center for Europeans on the [west] coast of India in the seventeenth century. Here under the encompassing branches of what the Europeans referred to as a "banyan" tree (Ficus Indica), whose branches stretched over 500 feet, were a number of shrines and temples, to which a large number of the "Gentoos" [Hindus] came to worship the "devilish stone images" and their living counterparts, the fakirs.

The banyan tree just outside Surat and all the confusing bodily mortifications performed by Hindu ascetics beneath that tree became for Europeans a central symbol of India’s otherness. Centuries later, asceticism, still symbolically redolent of Indian otherness, was effectively and powerfully re-deployed by M.K. Gandhi in the independence struggle.



Widow self-immolation, or sati has played a vivid role in European visions of India. First visually depicted by Jan Huygen van Linschoten in his 1595 Itinerary, the iconic pattern established with his drawings endured into the eighteenth century. Linschoten was a Dutch merchant who sailed to India in 1593. His book -- a mixture of his observations and accounts of other Europeans in India, accompanied by his drawings -- was quickly translated into Latin, French, German, and English, and was widely known through Theodor De Bry’s India Orientalis.

Cohn writes in "The Past in the Present":

Linschoten’s drawing of a woman performing sati was to appear repeatedly and became the totalizing image of India as the land of the bizarre. Most of the seventeenth century travel accounts featured a description of a sati, and even though the textual details varied, the basic form and content of the scene was fixed.

Beginning with the De Bry reproduction of Linschoten’s drawing, the display is intended to suggest that the iconography of sati developed by and circulated among Europeans has fed into contemporary Indian debates about modernity and tradition and about the condition of women in particular.


The Representation of Hindu Divinity

European visitors to India have long had difficulty "coming to terms with Hindu art," notes Indian art historian Partha Mitter in Much Maligned Monsters, his influential study of European reactions to Indian art. At the core of the historic European inability to assimilate Hindu art lay a problem of perception: "early travelers preferred to trust what they had been taught to expect instead of trusting their own eyes." Instead of seeing images of gods, these voyagers saw medieval monsters, more devils than deities.

In Europe, says Mitter, the "sixteenth century saw a substantial widening of interest in non-European societies, for Humanists engaged in collecting information as assiduously as they amassed natural and artificial objects in their cabinets of curiosities." With this growing interest in other cultures came increasing recognition of differences in cosmology and religious practice. By the seventeenth century, the demand for information about Indian mythology in turn created a demand for authentic pictures of Indian deities. "A new class of sources dating from the middle of the seventeenth century marks the beginnings of changing attitudes in the West towards alien societies and provides the essential key to the understanding of Indian iconography." The majority of drawings and engravings displayed here date from this period of informed European interest in Hindu iconography, during which time "Indian gods began rapidly to shed their previous monstrous guises, as their own character and attributes were increasingly restored to them."

In the twentieth century, representations of the Hindu pantheon were again reshaped by the cross-cultural interactions of East and West. This time Indian artists adapted European painting styles for their modern interpretations of deities and myths. The Ravi Varma oleolithograph on display here is an example of this transformation in the representation of Hindu divinity.


Cartography and the Creation of India

Cartography has long been central to Western knowledge of India and played a conspicuous role in the colonial dominion with India. The history of Western maps of India begins with sixteenth-century voyagers who were intent on charting all they saw. Such documentation is not however a neutral enterprise; acts of visualization are a way of making what they see their own, of claiming dominion.

As Cohn observed in "The Past in the Present":

The population of the British in India grew from a few hundred in 1700 to thirty or forty thousand by the end of the century. Integral to the emergence of the colonial state and a distinctive overseas British society in India was an ever-expanding documentation project. India by 1800 was an observational site, its physical features to be measured and mapped and transformed into a topography; its flora and fauna given a natural history; its peoples and their forms of thought, institutions, and social practices described and classified. Engaged in the naturalization, domestication, and documentation project was an army of professional and amateur delineators, surveyors, topographers, natural historians, map makers, scholars, linguists, historians, antiquarians, archaeologists, engravers, artists, architects, and photographers. New descriptive and interpretive strategies had to be constructed and deployed if India was to be effectively domesticated. The devils of the 17th century travelers, with their satanic rites and satyrical priests, the wildness, the bizarre, and the weird had to be submerged if India was to be effectively and profitably ruled.

The British colonial project of mapping bequeathed a legacy that lives in the postcolonial era. Modern examples of cartography in service of independent India illustrate the continuities.