Pas­sion – and ig­no­rance

In­dia’s style was ev­ery­where, yet Bri­tons still knew very lit­tle about the coun­try

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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

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