For those accustomed to reading histories of colonialism through the British presence in the Indian mainland, objects and episodes that bring alternate interactions into view help refresh our idea of nineteenth century history. With the recirculation of historical images freely available on websites, both old and new inhabitants of Mumbai can probably instantaneously summon up distinctive photographs that embody their idea of the city’s past. A work that introduces a little known image photographed in a studio of the city of Bombay, as it was called then, is Filipa Lowndes Vicente, Other Orientalisms – India between Florence and Bombay 1860-1900. Deftly translated by Stewart Lloyd-Jones from the initial Portuguese, and published by Orient BlackSwan in 2012, the book traces the exchange of objects and the creation of a conception of the Orient generated by an interaction between Florence and Bombay.
The book opens with an account of a sketch reproduced in an Italian weekly newspaper L’Illustrazione Italiana in December, 1885. The sketch was based on a photograph received from Bombay and carried a caption: ‘professor Angelo de Gubernatis with the Brahmans of Bombay’. The linguist and Indologist Angelo de Gubernatis, professor of Sanskrit and Indian literature in Florence, had been made a ‘Brahman’. There were three other figures in this image – Gerson da Cunha, Shyamji Krishnavarma and Bhagwanlal Indraji. The photograph, taken at a studio in Bombay by a Parsi photographer two months before its publication in the newspaper, ‘was the coda to a religious ceremony in which the Sanskrit-speaking pandit Bhagwanlal Indraji 1839-88 initiated his European colleague as a Brahman’, which, the author suggests, may have been an investiture with the sacred thread, ‘in recognition of his profound knowledge of the Hindu religion’.
Gerson da Cunha, medical doctor, surgeon and historian, is well known to aficionados of the history of nineteenth century Bombay for his publications, many of which interpreted the history of Goa through notions of caste and race validated by British colonial institutions. da Cunha was a member of the Asiatic Society in Bombay and various other academic organizations in Italy and Portugal, a prominent figure from that section of the Goan elite, which had been able to switch to writing in English after their migration to Bombay. Aside from his linguistic studies, da Cunha had translated Savitri; an Indian dramatic idyll, which he had encountered through Angelo de Gubernatis’ Italian translation. In the preface to his dramatized translation, which was published at Bombay’s Ranina’s Union Press in 1882, da Cunha traced a history of the text through its appearance and performance in Italian cultural institutions, and through Schlegel’s critiques in French.
His academic associate, Gubernatis, according to this account by Lowndes Vicente was attuned to the possibilities opened up by recent developments in the reproduction and circulation of images from different cultural contexts. One of these contexts was that of Italy of the late nineteenth century, and the newspaper in question, the L’Illustrazione Italiana which, the author informs us, was filled with images of the Eritrean cities of Massawa and Assab, Italy’s first attempt at establishing colonies in Africa. The image also circulated in Bengal, where a description of the ceremony was read, and Brazil, whose emperor asked Gubernatis to send him a photograph.
Other meanings and locations of this one sketch unfold as the possibilities of context are detailed for us, an instance of which is the riveting exchange between the, Gerson da Cunha and Gubernatis. Quite aware of his social position and the repercussions of the image in which he had participated, da Cunha is said to have asked Gubernatis when he saw the sketch, ‘did you ask me for permission to call me a gentile in the Illustrazione Italiana?’ The author suggests that he did not like being described as one of the Bombay Brahmans, as the caption made no mention of his being Christian. ‘Who were the observers with whom Gerson da Cunha was so concerned?’ asks the author, and proceeds, while answering this question, to unfold the intricacies to upper caste Catholic identity in Bombay, the lives of the Sanskritists, as well as the interests and anxieties that drove Angelo de Gubernatis’s ventures in India.
The introduction moves between Gubernatis’s private manuscripts and his published texts, corroborating or reinterpreting the one in the light of the other. In his intimate description of the ceremony, Gubernatis revealed his religious ambivalence with regard to his status as a Brahmin, says Lowndes Vicente, while in his published work he was more assertive about his Christianity. This negotiation was quite removed from the symbolic transformative process of the ritual, which worked, the author says, to endow Gubernatis himself and his work with legitimacy that he may not otherwise have enjoyed in both India and Florence. Among other instances, she notes, ‘When during his journey through India, the Brahmans of a temple told him he could not purchase a pumpkin in the shape of an idol, Gubernatis opened his shirt and showed them his sacred thread.’ This recreation of the ambitions and expectations of each protagonist and the visual and verbal codes of cultural identities at the time, form an interesting counterpart to how this event might be read, or this image received in the present. Not only did Gubernatis fulfill Orientalist expectations with his self-fashioning, Lowndes Vicente suggests, but the image was a record of the sanctified objects and clothing and body of the newly embodied Brahmin.
Rather that seeing this photograph through the anodyne relationship suggested by syncretism, the account brings together the histories of Bhagwanlal Indraji, an expert in Sanskrit, numismatics and epigraphy, listed as a professor in the University of Leiden, Shantaram Narayana, a brahmin lawyer whom Gubernatis knew from da Cunha’s literary salon, and his pregnant daughter who had recited the Shakuntala in Gubernatis’s house, and lastly, Shyamaji Krishnavarma, an expert in Vedic philosophy, once da Cunha’s Sanskrit tutor, who assisted Monier Williams in Oxford, became a lawyer and lived in Europe until his death.
A pivot on which the inclusions and exclusions of the carefully staged photograph seemingly turned, the author suggests, was the dilemma of Gerson da Cunha’s wife, who was apprehensive of the ridicule to which they would be exposed back home if photographed as distinctively Hindu brahmins. Gubernatis’ could not understand why da Cunha and his wife who were of ‘ancient Brahman blood’ would fear their identity being compromised with a foregrounding of caste in the photograph. Notwithstanding his published account of the disagreement, Gubernatis privately believed (as his manuscripts revealed) that she wanted to ‘pass for a European’ and the circulation of the photograph would interfere with that. The author examines this disgruntlement, and reads it as Gubernatis’s ‘obvious difficulty in dealing with someone he believed to be hybrid,’ aligning it with ‘an attitude similar to that of Isabel Burton, wife of the famous traveller and writer Richard Burton, when living among the Goan elite.’ The da Cunhas’ desire to protect the perception of their status was met with the decision that only the ‘learned’ should be photographed, a source of dissatisfaction for Gubernatis and perhaps future viewers of this image as it resulted in the exclusion of Narayana’s daughter despite her demonstrated familiarity with Shakuntala.
As she connects images and references across Rome, Panjim and Madurai, the author remarks that the subjects of the photograph seem to have exercised significant control, relegating the Parsi photographer, she surmises, to the role of a technician. The studio was not embellished to reproduce a ‘staged Orient’, she notes, and asks, given the complexity of this event, whether we should not accord the history of photography in the non-west’s late nineteenth century the diversity that we accord its absorption in the US or Europe.
From the elaboration of a single image, the book unfolds into a largely descriptive and detailed account of Gubernatis’s involvement with orientalist conferences and the process of opening an Indian museum in Florence in 1886, the Italian Asiatic Society and their respective journals. Attendant to developing museological practices in Europe as elsewhere, Lowndes Vicente remarks that while the destruction of museums by Napoleon’s armies saw the emergence of protective laws in Europe, these were not extended to practices of sourcing material in the colonies.
The book is replete with details for the historian of the nineteenth century, particularly historians of Bombay. The contents of the museum, the journeys and choices that decided the acquisition and placement of objects, the detailing of Gubernatis’s and da Cunha’s life in Bombay makes this book a trove of information for those interested in the material culture of the period. Dinner parties, argumentative correspondence and objects that did not arrive in Italy can however, be found in the pages of this text. Lowndes Vicente notes that in the absence of a strong colonial policy framing the acquisition and arrangement of the museum in Florence, it is the links between trade and art history that become more visible in this encounter between Italy and Bombay, urging us to perceive that even in what we assume is the politically determined world of the colonies ‘objects have many points of arrival.’