Book review: Under the Banyan Tree

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Under the Banyan Tree
Romita Ray (Yale, £50, *£44)

This book is something of a hybrid. It is a survey of British visual responses to the experiences of travelling in, and ruling, India, but it reads as if filtered through a third layer of perception, that of American academia. This is natural enough, as although Romita Ray is Indian-born, she is American-educated and now associate professor of Art History at Syracuse University, New York.

For much of the book, the Picturesque is something of an irrelevance. The really interesting thesis is the political use made of originally exotic, but ultimately stereotypical imagery. Here is the banyan tree of the title, together with the elephant, the choreography of the tiger hunt and the displays of jewellery by which the Indian princes demonstrated their domination over their people and, at the same time, their subservience to the Queen-Empress.

There is a sympathetic account of the strange deracinated life of Victoria’s favourite, Duleep Singh, deposed king of Punjab, and a discussion of the icono-graphy of his portrait by Win-
terhalter. One intriguing thing might be added to that: how like the painter has made the young Sikh to the Prince Consort.

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The Picturesque is a fascinating subject, or, rather, series of subjects. At the outset, Prof Ray states: ‘With so many different geographies and so many ardent followers at home and abroad articulating its methodologies in different ways, the picturesque was bound to resist any clear-cut definition.’ This makes for a difficult task, and it might have been wiser to impose a narrower focus.

Originally, from about 1770 to 1820, the Picturesque aesthetic as expressed by William Gilpin and his fellows was, in fact, clearly defined. It was not a matter of topography-portraits of places
-rather of sensibilities and emotions, ‘that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture’. The key to Picturesqueness was that: ‘Nature is most deficient in composition; and must be a little assisted. Her ideas are too vast for picturesque use, without the restraint of rules’.

Gilpin’s publications were not practical tourist guides, but the Indian prints and texts of the Daniells did have that function, at least in part. Botanical illustration, like topography, was not Picturesque in this sense, but a product of the Enlightenment passion for listing and codifying. Although the word continued in use through the 19th century, it changed meaning, first to signify exotic (which could as well apply to Prout’s Gothic Rhine-land as to India) and, ultimately, to patronise the merely quaint.

Another area in which attitudes have changed between the times of the White Mughals, the full Raj and now is race. When the fictional Dr Syntax (a satire on Gilpin) says he would only draw lions and
tigers from ‘the tall back of an elephant; With half a hundred Indians round me,’ he does not ‘conflate the fierce “beasts”… with the “native” body’, as the professor has it, merely admits natural timidity.

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