Monthly Archives: May 2015

Visual Constructions of South Asia

University of Cambridge

Monday 27th April, 4-6pm, Alison Richard Building

Death and Sanitation: Imperial Representations of the Ganges

On Monday 27th April, Cleo Roberts held a seminar at the The Centre of South Asian Studies University of Cambridge as part of the Visual Constructions of South Asia series. Presenting material from her recent fieldwork in India funded by an Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) travel grant, the presentation looked at the imperial reportage of the river as a site of aesthetic, ethic and sanitary missions.

Using images predominantly from text book compendiums such as ‘United Geography’ and ‘A New and Complete System of Universal Geography’, the visual constructions of the river reflected moving Governmental concerns and changes in rhetoric. Satiating the appetite for exploration and the consumption of cultures, these images were said to be fundamentally performative during a time of emerging education systems and a lack of wide-spread literacy. Roberts spoke of the importance of recognising this context and the distribution of these images.

The river as a visual focal point, rendered in cartographies, marine surveys, engravings and oils, reflected its initial importance in enabling the colonial encounter. Roberts stated that the river became increasingly visible and pertinent as Calcutta was re-established following the Battle of Plassey. As a primary site site of infrastructural development, the interaction with daily pujas, religious enactments and the disposal of corpses into the water received inflated social and political attention.

The seminar spoke of the Government’s administration of these practices, commencing with the well documented and researched instances of sati whose visual representation were, as Metcalfe asserts, ‘essential to the self-image of the Raj’. Roberts stated that whilst this riverine activity was purportedly curtailed, the position and practices of the river’s burning ghat at Nimtollah proved a prolonged and sensitive issue for legislators into the later 19th century.

Roberts described how the Government judicial department moved from religiously informed discourses to adopt sanitary and medical rhetoric in order to limit cremation and corpse disposal along the river. Visual representations of this site and details from travelogues built an impression of the inundation of the water prior to the bye-laws passed and publicised in 1863 to curb these now, ’unhealthy practices’.

GangaSagarMela January 2014

GangaSagarMela January 2014

The seminar concluded with a selection of contemporary film footage taken from fieldwork at Sagar Island, which enlivened the historic practices and rituals described. Capturing the Ganges during GangaSaga Mela, a festival of particular fascination and preaching for colonial Baptist missionaries, Roberts asserted that the river and its visual representation provided access to colonial Calcutta’s aesthetic, religious and sanitary complexity.


Metcalf, T (1994) ‘Ideologies of the Raj’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p.96

West Bengal State Archives Judicial Department June 1864