Colonial views of India too “Europeanized?”

I think we’re familiar with the notion that making former colonies “exotic” and “alluring” satisfies how many people want to see “foreign” places like India these days, when places are packaged as unique travel destinations and people are decorations for the travelers’ set. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Europeans reacted more favorably to visual and literary depictions of India in the second half of the 19th century that emphasized the differentness of India. But nevertheless, as I read the excerpt of Christopher Pinney’s Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs on Amazon, I actually was a bit surprised in (a) the durability of this tourist point-of-view, and (b) modern societies’ slowness to adopt skepticism toward pictures of the “other.”

And yet nonphotographic truth was always very much in question: “One encounters time and time again in the administrative and anthropological literature [of Colonial India] the complaint that in India nothing is as it seems.” There is a “general fallability of native evidence in India.” (p. 20, quoting Norman Cheevers). No doubt the very act of colonization and the insecurities of minority government instilled European distrust, but I suspect the extreme differentness of religion, language, and symbology must have converted “unknowability” into a maleable substance that Europeans could construct for their home audiences.

As Indians present themselves, the subcontinent, and the diaspora in images today, how do they present notions of truth and react to outsiders’ expectations? How do contemporary Indian photographers reforge symbols and culture, both in global an national contexts?

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