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An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj.

We have long needed a history of British architecture in India that combined an aesthetic sensitivity with sociological analysis, and sympathy for Indian nationalist sentiment with an appreciation for the good which the West brought to India. Such a history ought to combine a study of how the British viewed themselves through their imperial architecture abroad with how architects were compelled to modify both European prototypes and the monumental self-image of the Raj to suit Indian concerns and conditions.

The first thing the reader is struck by in the Metcalfe work is the superb quality of the publication. The book is adorned with seventeen beautifully lavish and expensive color plates, as well as some fifty-three impressive illustrations in black and white. In no other work, perhaps, has so much effort been expended to present an imperial legacy in art and architecture in such a favorable light.

For the student of modern Indian history and historiography, Metcalfe is known for his meticulous scholarship in two excellent monographs also dealing with India during the British period.(1) His current work on what he has subtitled "Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj" was carefully researched in England, Australia, South Africa, and India. His project began with a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982.

If the Metcalfe book could be read primarily as narrative history, An Imperial Vision would certainly rank as a major undertaking. Years of dedicated archival research have brought forth a wealth of biographical information about the people behind the edifices that Indian city dwellers have admired but about which they have known preciously little. For the first time, a historian of Metcalfe's stature has taken us behind the art galleries and colleges, the libraries and museums, the churches, municipal office buildings, secretariats, palaces, and memorials to the men who conceived them. On one level, the author offers himself as an immensely qualified guide conducting his readers on a tour of the British architectural heritage in one of its most important colonies. The tour begins roughly with Robert Chisholm, who is credited with the earliest attempts at creating an "Indo-Saracenic" style of architecture with the arch and dome as its principal features. The tour approaches its end with Sir William Emerson's masterpiece of "Classical Revival" in India, which perfectly epitomized the virtues of British rule, known in Calcutta as the Victoria Memorial. The tour is well documented from collections that include the Baker and the Lutyens Papers at the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Proceedings of the Public Works Department on Buildings and Roads at the National Archives of India.

Metcalfe's narrative style is crisp, clear, and precise. Those familiar with his work know that he goes beyond the descriptive, mixing anecdote with analysis to reach the deeper issues that, in this case, may have divided those with a vested interest in projecting certain ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and values into the design and structure of well-patronized government buildings. In the earlier chapters, such as "Indo-Saracenic Building Under the Raj" and "Princes, Palaces and Saracenic Design," Metcalfe focuses on the efforts of Chisholm, Mant, Gordon, Brassington, Irwin, and Jacob, among other architects and engineers, to recreate an "Oriental" tradition in India out of a variety of elements which art historians such as James Fergusson had ordered, labeled, and classified as "India's historic architecture". In a later chapter, he shows how Emerson's idea for a Victoria Memorial had to be modified after he engaged himself in a dialogue with the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, on everything from the meaning of classical revival in the Indian context to the best means of conveying the idea of Anglo-Indian partnership under the Raj to the modern "native" intelligentsia and elite. In the final chapter, "New Delhi: The Beginning of the End," Curzon's Calcutta had been abandoned and British attention was now focused on a future vision of empire as embedded in the architecture of New Delhi. In the same chapter, architects Baker and Lutyens interacted with Viceroy Lord Hardinge on defining the nature of "Oriental Classicism" as the vision for India's future under the Raj.

In view of Metcalfe's accomplishments as a mature scholar, it is indeed unfortunate that his conceptual framework and concluding generalizations seem rather artificially imposed from outside, or at best represent a very narrow and authoritarian interpretation of the facts which he himself narrates. There appears to be a very wide gap between Metcalfe the historian and Metcalfe the ideologue who is taking great pains to be politically correct in the eyes of the peers he admires. To be sure, as a historian of the British elite in India, he must feel especially vulnerable to the frequent attacks by academic hard-liners in the United States and abroad against those who persist in studying the foreign imperialists and their native lackeys rather than the oppressed masses or subalterns. The so-called "subaltern" school of historiography has taken upon itself to proscribe certain themes or research topics, such as the more positive features of British colonial rule. The Hindu Renaissance, for example, which Metcalfe conveniently ignores in its architectural aspect, not only owes much to the British Orientalist movement but has had many beneficial effects on Indian society, culture, and civilization. The tendency is for hard-liners to deconstruct any historiography that dares to suggest there were good Britishers as well as bad ones and that, as much as Britain profited from India as a colony, India profited from the Western experience and continues to do so today.

Metcalfe, taking his cue from the hard-liners, reduces British architecture in India to the embodiment of imperialism or "how political authority took shape in stone". He abjures the study of "structures or styles of architecture" and "architectural history". He reminds the reader again and again that An Imperial Vision has nothing to do with the "aesthetic quality" but is a work on the "relationship between culture and power". Metcalfe would have us believe that however much art historians like James Fergusson and E. B. Havell differed from one another in their response to India, they shared with the legion of British architects and engineers a secret membership in a grand conspiracy to sustain British imperial power in South Asia.

An earlier Metcalfe was fully aware of British Orientalism in India as a humanistic movement made up of eminent scholar-officials such as William Jones, H. T. Colebrooke, H. H. Wilson, and James Prinsep, whose phenomenal discoveries of the Hindu and Buddhist past revolutionized the world's knowledge of classical Indian history and language and prepared the way for a Hindu consciousness and a collective sense of national pride.(2) Though the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary, Metcalfe, following Edward Said,(3) has lumped everything British from art and scholarship to architecture under the rubric of Orientalism, a pejorative term denoting "a structure of knowledge" that involves "the creation of theories of society and culture which set out to locate colonial subjects in relation to the society of rulers ..." and that by means of various typologies and categories, "social groups were defined and bonded, hierarchized as inferiors in relation to Europeans ...".

This reviewer is not advocating that art historians go back to aesthetic conceptions that predate Arnold Hauser's revolutionary Social History of Art in the 1950s.(4) The sociology of art is a vital dimension of analysis which no one can deny. But Metcalfe has imposed a view of Orientalism that runs contrary to the evidence of scholars who have done serious research on facets of the movement. Indeed, Metcalfe seems to have ignored this scholarship. It is shocking, for example, that Raymond Schwab's seminal work La Renaissance orientale(5) is conspicuously absent from Metcalfe's notes and bibliography, as is any of the definitive work by Garland Cannon on William Jones,(6) and as is the pioneering study by O. P. Kejariwal on The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India's Past. This reviewer's British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance(7) has been deleted as well.

Metcalfe may speak of a sinister conspiracy by British artists, architects, scholars, missionaries, and circus performers, if he likes, on behalf of the Raj, but the only conspiracy that seems to have surfaced beyond any doubt is the one Metcalfe himself seems party to in order to silence those whose interpretation of history differs from his own.

1 T. R. Metcalfe, The Aftermath of Revolt: India, 1857-1870 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964); Land, Landlords, and the British Raj: Northern India in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1979).

2 For a well-researched monograph that tries hard to tell about Orientalism as it was historically, see O. P. Kejariwal, The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India's Past, 1784-1838 (Calcutta: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988).

3 E. W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

4. A. Hauser, The Social History of Art (New York: Vintage Books, 1957).

5 For a recent edition with a foreword by Edward Said, see R. Schwab, The Oriental Renaissance: Europe's Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1984).

6 For Cannon's most recent and definitive study of Jones, see G. Cannon, The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones: Sir William Jones, the Father of Modern Linguistics (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).

7 D. Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1969).
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Author:Kopf, David
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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