Passion – and ignorance
India’s style was everywhere, yet Britons still knew very little about the country
Britons were continuously exposed to imperial propaganda through advertising, the press, education and the church, as well as popular culture. Theatrical productions with Indian themes – such as The Grand Mogul (1884), The Nautch Girl
(1891) and Carnac Sahib (1899) – enjoyed long runs. The Indian pageant performed at Earl’s Court’s 6,000-seat Empress Theatre was particularly successful.
Outside the theatre, Victorians were entertained by Indian street jugglers and musicians – or ‘Tom Tom players’, as the drummers were known in London. According to the Strand
Magazine: “Ask the average man for what India is most celebrated, and chances are ten to one that he will ignore the glories of the Taj Mahal, the beneficence of British rule, even Mr Kipling, and will unhesitatingly reply in one word, ‘Jugglers’.”
Another way ordinary Victorians encountered India and Indians was through exhibitions. Some 5.5 million people visited the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886. All aspects of Indian art, architecture, commerce and industry were exhibited, including a living exhibit of Indian ‘village’ artisans, who were in fact prisoners of Agra gaol. As this example proves, it was not just Indians who were put on display during the exhibition: Britons’ ignorance about Indian life was also subjected to the harsh light of satirical scrutiny.
FAR LEFT: An advert hails Indian curry relish as “delicious, piquant and appetizing”, 1890s LEFT: A shoemaker at the Empire of India Exhibition in White City, one of Victorian Britain’s many displays of Indian culture