Cleo Roberts on “Rogues River: Seeing and Speculation in Colonial Calcutta” – a report

Cleo Roberts presented her latest research at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, on 3 March 2015. The session was attended by several researchers of the ETIC project, as well as architecture students who were interested in histories of representing the Ganges in the visual arts. Adopting several methodologies, Roberts spoke not only of the aesthetics of representation in works such as Lambert and Scott’s View of Fort William (1731), but also looked at the circulation of these images and the position they held with respect to political power. Her research took into account a wide variety of texts—varied not only in their nature but also in their time-frame—starting with one the illustrations of the Cynocephali in Mandeville’s Travels (1482), right down to images painted in the 19th century, maps, photographs clicked by herself, and exciting field-research that Roberts has been undertaking over several weeks now.

(Courtesy: British Library Online Gallery. Reproduction of an image that was part of the visual presentation.)

(Courtesy: British Library Online Gallery. Reproduction of an image that was part of the visual presentation by Roberts.)

An image of The Modern Phaeton or The Hugely in Danger (1851) by Thomas Rowlandson in particular drew a lot of attention, with Roberts inviting people to help interpret the image along with her. (A mysterious tower with pendula hanging off it, positioned towards the right edge of the frame  is yet to be explained!) Taking off from that, Roberts pointed out the images of the crocodile and the vulture which take on iconic significance in these paintings. Roberts observed how, by and by, death becomes one of the predominant subjects of representation of the river. A number of paintings were used to illustrate this—featured were works by Mme. Belnos (around 1851), Captain Robert Smith, and Prince Alexis Soltykoff around the same time. Stylistically different were Marshall Claxton’s Scene at a Ghaut on the Banks of the Ganges, and an almost cartoon-like representation of The Death of Hindoos (with two vultures in the foreground) that came out in 1860. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Nikolaus Pesvner’s The Geography of Art informed Roberts’ reading of her texts and served as a critique of the predominant, realistic mode of representation.

An engaging discussion ensued, where members of the audience posed questions for Roberts. Aritra Chakraborti, a PhD scholar at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, also made several pertinent observations about ‘alternative’ representations of the Ganges in contemporary pamphlets, where two ways of thinking about the river and indeed about the cities that it separates, and now connects, came into conflict with each other.

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