The British Empire Library

Colonial Self Fashioning in British India, c.1785-1845

by Prasannajit de Silva

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Up until recently there has been a widely held and romanticised view that the last thirty years of the 18th century was a period of remarkable inter-racial harmony and tolerance between the British and Indians. This changed significantly to one of deliberate segregation on the part of the British in the 19th century. In this remarkable and meticulously researched book, Prasannajit de Silva considers how the British in India imagined their lives through the visual context of paintings and prints. He comes to rather different conclusions from the stereotypical view of this period of transition and reveals a much more nuanced interpretation of how the British identified themselves in their Indian colonial setting. The study of these various visual images raises important questions about identity - what distinguished the British in India from the British at home, but also how they expressed their difference from their Indian surroundings.

The first part of the book considers a small group of oil paintings by artists in the narrow period from 1785 to 1805. These paintings, by some of the most eminent painters ever to visit the subcontinent from Europe, are portraits of members of mixed- race families and also individual portraits of bibis (Indian wives and mistresses). Perhaps the best known of these is the Palmer Conversation Piece - a painting that is, to this day, much argued about. Many authors have seen this work which shows William Palmer with his beautiful Mughal wife and their three eldest children as evidence of a remarkable moment in the history of British and Indian relations. De Silva argues that the reality was much more complicated as the painting of these portraits coincided with a period of increased social pressures on mixed race relations and legal restrictions on the Eurasian population of British India. He further contends that these paintings constituted an attempt to stabilise extremely complex fluid identities but at the same time they are characterised by underlying ambivalence. They do not simply reflect an idyllic period in colonial history but mirror the changing attitudes towards race and the position of the British in India.

The second part of the book examines printed images of the domestic life of British residents in India in the first part of the 19th century. The author particularly considers the publications by Sir Charles D’Oyly, William Taylor and Mrs Belnos. These books were, of course, done largely for an audience back home in Britain. What is most apparent about almost all these printed images is the hybridity of the colonialist’s existence. Exoticism and distinctiveness from Britain was a major part of their appeal. They constitute an extraordinarily complex statement about identity that was both different but at the same time compatible with British mores of the time. One is struck by the fact that middle-class civil servants in India were taking possession of aristocratic modes of behaviour. In contrast with the oil paintings of mixed-race families, most of these prints emphasise that although India encroached on the lives of the British, there remained a much more profound separateness between those depicted and their colonial neighbourhood.

The last part of the book looks at a number of printed images of the Nilgiris by clever artists like James Barron and Captain Peacocke. They show a much more deep-rooted vision of Britishness and this is the crucial element in the colonialist’s identity in the period of the 1830s and 1840s. It is as if here in the cool hills that were not so different from England itself, the British tried to lead a lifestyle that was essentially independent of India when in fact the reality was so different. Barron frequently showed Todas in the foreground of his landscapes emphasising that this was still Indian soil. The hill stations could never be just a recreation of life back in Britain. Indians are always present in the plates, albeit in a subordinate role.

The images, which the author discusses in great depth, represent lifestyles of the British in India during a period of flux and change. They are also an essential part of fashioning them - that is they not only observe but codify and are explanatory. This is particularly true of the printed plates of British domestic life in India. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the lives of the British in India but also for anyone seeking an interpretation of the images that have come down to us. It is a very complex book and sometimes the author’s language is unduly scholarly but overall I consider it a highly important new look at a fascinating period in Indo-British relations. The production of the book is impressive, with numerous clear albeit black and white illustrations and a good text.

British Empire Book
Prasannajit de Silva
First Published
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2019 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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