An artistic power trip | Deccan Herald
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spectacular exhibitions held in Western European countries emerged as a tour de force, drawing crowds to view a range of items, from a Maharaja’s throne to diamonds from southern Africa. The only thing that connected the dizzying array of cultures was the forces that brought these objects to the exhibition site: the colonial governments and their foot soldiers.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 was arguably one of the earliest examples of such a display of colonial power in Britain, attracting the attention of the public and the intellectual community. Organized by Henry Cole under the aegis of Prince Albert, the exhibition was a way for the empire to show its industrial prowess on a global scale.
The exhibitions also played a crucial role in introducing new designs and methods for British industries to emulate, in line with the growing popularity of commercial textiles from India, such as the recreation of the buta on Kashmir shawls like paisley. Colonial exhibits became central to British consumer exposure to the rich techniques of the colonies, thus affecting commercial design and the eventual emergence of movements such as the Arts and Crafts movement in the 19th century.
Carrying forward the success of the 1851 Exhibition, the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 demonstrated the spoils of the empire through the introduction of live artisan exhibitions.
A simulated environment of India was created for visitors to walk through, which included over 34 artisans – weavers, miniature painters, engravers, dyers, goldsmiths, sculptors and potters. Artisan exhibits presented a romanticized view of artisanal craftsmanship in direct opposition to machine-made goods in European markets. These craftsmen were both glorified as ‘true’ creators of objects and simultaneously cast as objects themselves by the colonial voyeuristic gaze.
According to researcher Frank Banfield, one craftsman remembered that visitors were not looking at their work, but rather at their movements, as if the craftsmen were “animals” to them. The body of Indian workers was perceived as a first visual of the authenticity of South Asian craftsmanship, erected as the “other” of the machine, more animal than human, more organic than a machine.
Most of the craftsmen featured in this exhibit were prisoners of Agra Central Jail; they had been trained in different textile arts and traditions as part of their rehabilitation program. The value of these handicrafts, marketed to the British public as combating industrial mediocrity, rested on the labor of inmates, who were closely watched by their prison warden and, in many cases, even exploited. The Colonial and Indian exhibition reflects the emptiness of relying on an abstract and ancient cultural history that depended on colonial and capitalist exploitation.
While on the one hand the merits of witnessing artistic work done in person were meant to reinvigorate the nation’s design aesthetic, it was the same mechanized industry that went on to undermine existing indigenous artistic practices. of India, the repercussions of which can be felt to this day.
Discover Indian art is a bimonthly column that delves into compelling stories about art from across the subcontinent, curated by the editors of MAP Academy. Find them on Instagram as @map_academy