Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 28, 2022
Niharika Dinkar Empires of Light: Vision, Visibility and Power in Colonial India Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019. 304 pp.; 22 color ills.; 38 b/w ills. Cloth £80.00 (9781526139634)

Light and vision have been considered central to the experience of Western modernity, from the rhetoric of illumination in the European Enlightenment to visual technologies that produced new subjectivities, public and private spaces, and modes of surveillance and control. Niharika Dinkar’s Empires of Light: Vision, Visibility and Power in Colonial India not only probes the ideology and materiality of light in modern empire building, but also turns to the shadows—the dark, mysterious, and uncivilized colony that “the empire of light and reason” (1) sought to illuminate and inscribe. Drawing upon a broad range of representational practices engendered by new visual technologies of the long nineteenth century, such as the magic lantern, theater, photography, and film, Dinkar traces how “the Indian response to the aesthetics of illumination” was not passive but instead “both adapted and elaborated the mechanics of the imperial gaze” (8).  

The shadows, however, do not stand in binary opposition to the “regimes of light.” Rather Dinkar’s aim is to unravel “the mutual imbrication . . . [of] empire and colony” (29). The interdependency of light and shadow thus provides an alternative framework to the Western single-point perspective and the non-Western response and resistance that have dominated narratives of vision and modernity (22). In the case of India, the rational perspectival gaze has often been pitted against the enchanted gaze of darsan, or the frontal exchange of sight between devotee and deity that animates the sacred and dissolves the boundary between spectator and image. Dinkar’s exploration of the “photo-graphic archive” (22) in colonial India departs from such polarities between rational and enchanted visions, secular and sacred, and center and periphery; instead, it focuses on the experience and experiments of light, contemporaneously shared across imperial and industrial networks. The modern visual and lighting technologies traced in the book are no longer exclusively “Western” nor do they flow universally in one direction.

In so doing, Empires of Light also offers a revision of a nationalist narrative of Indian art based on Hindu Brahmanical imagery and practice. Central to Dinkar’s photo-graphic archive is the celebrated artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906), whose oil paintings in the style of academic realism have acquired the status of the origin point of modern Indian art; even the shift in the reception of Varma, from a celebration of his mastery of Western perspectival realism to its dismissal as derivative imitation, has been marked as a defining historiographical moment. Dinkar examines how Varma’s Pauranik paintings drawn from Hindu sacred literature (or purana) have “provided a visual template for evoking a classical Indian past” (126), entwined with and amplified by the theatrical staging of nationalist dramas, the politics of body and dress, and the centrality of darsan in scholarly discussions. Moving beyond the primacy of Hindu iconic imagery and perspectival vision, Dinkar places Varma’s work in the heterogeneous technologies of light and reinstates the role of portraiture in the construction of a modern national subjectivity. Dinkar’s displacement of such “Brahmanic story of origins” (142) makes a timely contribution to current scholarly concerns over the rise of Hindu nationalist politics and sectarian definitions of “Indian” art, history, and citizenship.  

Dinkar’s “archaeology of visual practices” (6) progresses from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century in three parts, each divided into two chapters. Part 1 explores British visual strategies of representing India during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Dinkar opens the book with the amplification and distortion of darkness rather than its illumination, exemplified in the fantastical representation of the Elephanta Caves in Thomas Rowlandson’s graphic satire The Grand Master, or Adventures of Qui Hi? in Hindostan (1816). Rowlandson’s reference to the magic lantern and kaleidoscope—optical devices associated with deception and multiplicity—instead of the “truthful” camera obscura indicates that “a rational vision was not the only means for apprehending the complex phantasmagorical darkness of Elephanta” (56). Chapter 2 focuses on the iconography of unveiling as a visual device that claimed to disclose the mysteries of India for the Western audience. In the four case studies, curtains are drawn back to dramatically reveal Indian landscapes, “monstrous” Hindu deities, and even the forbidden harem. In this conscious “visual dramaturgy” (68), the Enlightenment trope of unveiling the goddess to reveal nature’s secrets is applied to the feminized Orient with the promise of possession and consumption. However, as Dinkar suggests in her discussion of William Hodges’s landscapes, increasingly underlying the expansion of European vision is also the anxiety of “seeing too much” (95) and sullying the mysterious and idyllic land.

Part 2 examines the adoption and transformation of such visual technologies in late nineteenth-century India, not only in the new urban arenas of theater and film, but also in the oil paintings by Varma. Chapter 3 turns to the Parsi proscenium theater, where the veil was used both physically and metaphorically in the form of stage curtains. The lighting and smoke effects, illusionist backdrops, and melodramatic gestures employed in the Parsi theater find their counterparts in Varma’s Pauranik paintings, which drew upon the technologies of spectacle to “summon the real” in their representation of Hindu mythologies (142). By linking Varma’s work to the broader visual and corporeal practices in urban mass culture, Dinkar unsettles the idea of a singular lineage of visual modernity based on rational vision and its refusal by darsan. The act of unveiling was also charged with new meanings in nineteenth-century India, as anxieties and interests overexposing and clothing the female form emerged amid the introduction of the nude in art schools and the circulation of eroticized female bodies in print. Chapter 4 situates the veiling and unveiling of Varma’s female subjects in the “terrain of an erotics of the body politic” (154), where ambivalent perceptions of the female body, from the Enlightenment celebration of the “naked truth” to the violated body of the mother nation, uneasily collide and intersect.  

Part 3 offers a rare examination of Varma’s two lesser-known paintings outside Hindu mythological subject matter. The Student (ca. 1901) and Man Reading a Newspaper (ca. 1904) present a marked departure from Varma’s Pauranik paintings. Instead of voluptuous female bodies displayed in public, we see a solitary male figure in a private interior space immersed in his daily paper. Light and shadow again play a crucial role, as Varma uses heavy chiaroscuro to demarcate space and highlight the act of reading. Chapter 5 explores how the two paintings carve out a new private space and subjecthood for the elite Indian male in the home. Devoid of any markers of regional identity seen in colonial ethnographic surveys, the male figures in Varma’s paintings express a pan-Indian identity, united by the experience that the technologies of lighting, transportation, and print media brought to urban centers. Chiaroscuro also inscribed racial and class relations, which form the focus of chapter 6. Taking the figure of the attendant standing in the shadows in Man Reading a Newspaper as a point of departure, Dinkar further explores the construction of an elite male identity defined against the subaltern. Like the entanglement between empire and colony, Varma’s self-portrayal as a genius “gentleman artist” is bound to, and dependent upon, colonial representations of the nameless craftsman engaged in bodily labor. Dinkar’s exposure of the connection between Varma’s paintings and the broader colonial economy of labor thus destabilizes the genealogy of modern Indian art based on “fine art” and its elite creators (242–43).  

Drawing upon interdisciplinary perspectives from art history, drama and theater, and film and media studies, Empires of Light provides a productive approach to colonial modernity and its legacies. As Dinkar notes in the postscript, technologies of light offer the potential of a new analytical framework extending beyond nineteenth-century India: Gaganendranath Tagore’s cubist paintings from the 1920s, for example, can be reframed from a derivative imitation of Western modernism to a nuanced visual experiment drawn from a contemporary experience of theatrical design and electric lights. Particularly exciting in Dinkar’s account is the possibility of exploring global networks of theatrical and lighting technology beyond a single imperial system, as seen in the international tours of Parsi theater companies outside the territories of the British Empire. The book’s transnational premises are therefore a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship that has expanded the location and networks of modernity and modernism.

Still, the book is not without minor shortcomings. The introduction briefly lists the history of “metaphysical implications of light” in India as another possible source for painters experimenting with light and shadow in the early twentieth century (6–7). However, preexisting practices and effects of light and their imbrication with new technologies are largely missing from the rest of the book. The imperial light cast on the colony in part 1, for example, may have been refracted through local practices such as the dramatic staging of the reliefs at Elephanta or the participation of Indian assistants operating optical devices and producing drawings for the East India Company. Yet Empires of Light illuminates the way for future studies of light as a transformative agent in the making and writing of art.

Heeryoon Shin
Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual Culture, Bard College