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Image Cultures of Modern India


Tapati Guha-Thakurta

PICTURING THE NATION: ICONOGRAPHIES OF MODERN INDIA
Edited by Richard Davis
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 274, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

This book belongs to an emergent genre of scholarship that has come to represent the latest, most prominent face of South Asian cultural studies. The main concern of the genre has been with the popular public cultures that have shaped the complex histories of modernity and nationalism in 19th and 20th century India, tracking a variety of representations and practices that make up this cultural field. More recently, there has been an obsession with visual imagery that has driven this scholarly trail towards the many picture worlds and print complexes of contemporary India, with the conviction that it is this image-field (running across popular prints, posters, calendar art, photography, stage performance, television and cinema) that provides a unique key to the nature of the Indian modern. This new trend rides on a wave of citations from cultural theorists who have argued for the hegemony of vision in modernity – ranging from Heidegger’s statement that ‘the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture’,1 to Susan Sontag’s observation that ‘a society becomes modern when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images’,2 to W.J.T.Mitchell’s proclamation that ‘the problem of the 21st century is the problem of the image’.3 This volume of essays edited by Richard Davis confidently takes its place within this celebrated ‘visual turn’ in modern Indian studies, to show how visual iconographies have played a fundamental role in the imagining of nationhood across diverse official, non-official, pictorial, architectural and performative spheres. In tune with a number of other books of this genre, it wishes to shift the ground from the primacy of written sources to make a case for visual practices as forming not a supplementary but a constitutively different site of knowledge, yielding their own different histories of Indian modernity and nationalism. And it carves out a discrete field of study—of popular visual culture—that stands apart from the disciplines of art history, film or television studies, even as it leans heavily on their analytical apparatus.   Let us briefly look back over a decade to the evolving lineage of this book. We could track, here, certain unbroken lines of concern, while also charting some significant shifts in the objects of study and in the designations of the ‘popular’ and the ‘public’. The precedent has been set by a series of seminar volumes, most of ...


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