Much Maligned Monsters (A History of European Reactions to Indian Art)

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Item Code: NAG649
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Partha Mitter
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9780198089711
Pages: 442 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 inch X 6.5 inch
Weight 800 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


This book traces the history of European reactions to Indian art-from the earliest encounters of explorers with the exotic East to the more sophisticated yet incomplete appreciations of the early twentieth century. Narrating the story of the failure of the West to come to terms with the Hindu art of India-of seeing monsters where there were gods-it gives a gripping account of cultural encounters and the clash of two powerful and antithetical aesthetic traditions.


First published in 1977 and acclaimed a classic in the years since, Much Maligned Monsters continues to influence modern judgements and values about art. This edition comes with a new Introduction that reflects upon the profound changes in the West’s interpretations of Indian art over the past thirty-five years.


About the Author


Partha Mitter is Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Sussex, UK. A member of Wolfson College, University of Oxford and past fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, he is the author of many acclaimed works on Indian art.




It comes as a shock to me that more than thirty-four years ago Much Maligned Monsters: History of European Reactions to Indian Art first appeared in print. Much postcolonial water has flowed under the bridge since then, to use a well-worn cliche. It received generally positive and thoughtful reviews barring a few sneers and swiftly became part of an influential body of revisionist works on the colonial construction of knowledge. The thrust of the work was to question the underlying assumptions of art history that contributed to the misrepresentations of ancient Indian art and architecture. However, the close study of art and architecture of India produced by orientalists, colonial archaeologists, and art historians had wider implications. This aspect was discussed in my preface to the 1992 paperback edition of the book. I would ask the reader’s indulgence to read that preface before continuing with this new introduction. Much Maligned Monsters was one of the first works to unravel Western representations of non-Western cultures as a discourse that reflected a powerful ideology. Soon after in 1978 Edward Said in his classic study coined the term ‘Orientalism’ to describe the ‘corporate institution for dealing with the Orient-dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’


Since the late 1970s, a seismic shift has taken place in many though not all humanist disciplines, shaking their very epistemic foundations and underlying certitude, laying bare in the process their underlying or ‘hidden’ assumptions. A number of radical art historians, inspired by Foucault’s theory of power and knowledge have challenged representations of gender, sexuality, and colonial hegemony, exposing the endemic prejudices and stereotypes that have underpinned art historical discourses with their unquestioning self-assurance about the true value of art. Equally, the new subject of visual culture has offered alternative means of understanding the contextual mechanisms in the production and consumption of art. This helped weaken the Renaissance separation of fine and popular arts, which had led to the banishment of decoration from high art, and later during the colonial era to the exclusion of non-Western art from the high canons of painting, sculpture, and architecture.


These contributions made by a whole new generation of interdisciplinary scholars are of immense importance. Valuable as these works are, few works grapple with what I call the hidden assumptions of art history. I want to stake a claim in this sea change by singling out my own contribution in Much Maligned Monsters, which was to foreground the politics of artistic style. Style constitutes the principal art historical tool for studying the evolution of artistic traditions. However, style has been used as an instrument of authority in colonial art histories in particular. Western art history is the model for global art history, with a universalist canon and a linear trajectory that ranks world art according to a powerful notion of linear progress. Colonial art historians, almost without exception, were disturbed by the rich polychrome surface decoration of south Indian temples, which they described as tasteless, overripe, and decadent. They claimed to be objective in their assessment of the inferiority of Indian art. Such assessment was not confined solely to Indian art; similar charges were laid by classicists against Baroque and Rococo art in Europe. Far from being neutral, these stylistic categories were essentially neoclassical criticisms of non-classical art encapsulated in Winckelmann’s dictum on ‘the noble simplicity and quiet grandeur of Greekart’. In the nineteenth century, Hegel’s debt to Winckelmann is evident in his declaration that Indian civilization displayed the staggering contrast between the gross materiality of sacred eroticism and the highest abstraction of Indian philosophy.


One of the underlying assumptions of the colonial history of Indian art and architecture has been the concept of ‘decadence’, expressed with a telling simplicity by lames Fergusson, the doyen of British scholars of Indian art and architecture. Sculpture in India, he thundered, ‘is also interesting as having that curious Indian peculiarity of being written in decay ... The Indian story in that of backward decline, from the sculptures of Bharhut and Amaravati topes, to the illustrations of Colernan’s “Hindu Mythology”. Apart from Fergusson’s own taste for classical simplicity, which is clothed in Victorian objectivity, the concept of decadence is useful to unpack here. The most extreme expression of the concept was the article, ‘Decadence in India’, written in the 1930s by the leading anthropologist A.M. Hocart, who extended the metaphor to cover Indian history in order to construct a systematic and overarching theory of culture. He proposed to identify the moral decadence of Indian society though a formal analysis of Hindu art and architecture, as revealed in its florid and ornate style and many-armed gods. Taking the cue from Fergusson that racial mixture had caused the degeneration of Indian society, Hocart boldly applied the insight to his own British society, ‘the leaders have lost control, the masses have rebelled and sought their inspiration in negro and other barbaric music, that defiantly sets out to shock all accepted canons of taste ... ‘


Social and cultural degeneration was a well-known fin-de-siecle trope which spilled over from aesthetics into historical discourse. Max Nordau’s celebrated work Entartung (Degeneration, 1892) was the symptom of a crisis in Western self-representation, the reverse of the belief in progress. Decadence was a topic touched upon by Karl Lamprecht in his equally celebrated treatise, ‘What Is History?’ Decadence of late Hindu art as a surrogate for bad taste continued right down to 1959 in the work of the art historian Hermann Goetz. What art history needs to ponder is this: seemingly innocent and reasonable words such as decadence tend to perpetuate Western art historical taste disguised as rational discourse. The absolute standards of the classical canon remain the hidden assumptions of many ‘objective’ descriptions of Indian art and architecture.


Since Much Maligned Monsters has had an impact on the discipline of Indian art history, radically reassessing the contribution of leading authorities who had created the subject, notably James Fergusson, Ernest B. Havell, and Ananda Coomaraswamy, it might be appropriate here to trace its inception, and reflect on how I came to write the book. Based on my doctoral thesis with a long and ponderous title that I am too embarrassed to recall here, its initial inspiration was my work with my supervisor E.H. Gombrich, from whom I learned to ask insistent questions rather than seek final answers. Gombrich has been a controversial figure, in part because he was possibly the greatest art historian of his generation, who needed to be challenged, and in part because of his polemical opposition to the avantgarde, especially Abstract Expressionism.


This is somewhat surprising given Gombrich’s radical approach to the discipline of art history but it may lie partly in his temperament and partly in his distaste for Expressionism as part of an internal debate in Germany and Austria. An ardent admirer of the clarity of the Italian Renaissance, and someone who considered Raphael to be the acme of aesthetic perfection, he was suspicious of German Romanticism with its primacy of emotion as well as some of its extreme nationalist utterances that turned into xenophobia under the Nazis. His taste was thoroughly classical in the Enlightenment sense, as he was proud of Western contribution to world history. He had a complex attitude towards Expressionism, which was pushing the boundaries of emotion and feeling during his youth. And yet, in his personal reflections he disclosed that Kokoschka as one of the influences in his life, whom he was proud to know.


While he was put off by Romanticism’s assault on reason, his response to Modernism was far from simple. He was a man of paradoxes with a questioning mind, his head constantly challenging his heart, which often opted for the certainty of values. And yet, as early as 1960, long before the advent of Postmodernism, he had strongly questioned Ruskin’s dictum that art was natural and declared that there was no such thing as innocent eye, only cultural perceptions. Even more strikingly, citing Benjamin Lee Whorf, he contended that language limited our world of experience, not vice versa, again anticipating semiotics and postmodern studies by almost two decades.


His inability to engage with art from outside Europe in The Story of Art has been widely noticed and often condemned. But as a profound thinker he himself agonized over this. My first encounter with him was quite singular. He posed the question more to himself than to me I think: why does he as a European find the many-armed gods and the florid decorations of ancient Indian art so hard to come to terms with? He set me the task of trying to answer this cultural predicament. With this initial inspiration, I began to explore this enormous question, which took me along a route he had not quite expected and had little knowledge of, the world of colonial dominance, later to be coined by Edward Said in the pithy phrase Orientalism. To put it in a nutshell, coming from a country that had been colonized for nearly two centuries, my own perspective was essentially critical of colonial representations of the colonized. Although my answer provided in Much Maligned Monsterstook him by surprise, he had the imagination and intelligence to appreciate its message, which I found deeply moving.


Ironically, Gombrich’s first advice to me was to make an inventory of major collections of Indian art in the West, which I duly did. What he did not expect was that I would not continue with the history of taste and collection but would in a somewhat recalcitrant act turn in an entirely different direction. My change of heart followed from my meeting with a leading scholar of Indian painting who told me that the study of the reception of Indian art in the West had hardly any mileage since there was no aesthetic interest in Indian art here. He was of course right. But the question was: why was Indian, especially Hindu sculpture and architecture, treated with indifference or even distaste in the West, whereas East Asian art was prized by connoisseurs, while African art has enjoyed a continuous vogue among the avant-garde?


In search of an answer to this puzzle, I returned to Gombrich’s classic, Art and Illusion, which I had known since undergraduate days. His particular explanation of the role of mindsets in our representations of the visible world proved to be fecund for my studies of Western interpretations of Indian art. The theoretical framework to Much Maligned Monsters is the notion of schema and correction and the formation of stereotypes. Gombrich had posed the question: why do different cultures and different ages represent the visible world in different ways? His explanation centred on the notion of schema. The artist started not with his impression of the visible world but with a mental image of it, which he constantly modified in the light of his observations. What I found particularly useful was his notion of stereotypes, which were formed when the mental image bore little relationship to the actual object. Much Maligned Monsters took its title from the eponymous monsters that masqueraded as Hindu gods in European travel accounts. They bore less relation to the Hindu gods than to the literary tradition of classical monsters and Christian apocalyptic demons. Even though early travellers were able to observe actual Indian gods, they preferred to trust their preconceptions of monstrous races living in the East rather than trust their own eyes. In short, their representations were determined by their preconceptions or mental sets.


My second eye opener was Rudolf Wittkower’s path-breaking essay, ‘The Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters’, many of which were of Indian origin. His opening comment that Greeks ‘rationalized [their instinctive] fears in another, non-religious form by the invention of monstrous races and animals which imagined to live at a great distance in the East, above all in India’ laid the foundations of the study of medieval representations of monsters. In 1965 when I embarked on research there were only a few significant analyses of the phenomenon of monsters, apart from Wittkower’s seminal essay and Jurgis Baltrusaitis’s fascinating and erudite Le Moyen Age Fantastique (The Fantastic Middle Ages, 1955). Baltrusaitis contrasted Wittkower’s heroic and humane world of classical gods with another world inhabited by fantastic creatures of complex and remote origin.




The Reception of Indian Art in Europe presents a curious paradox. On the one hand, it still remains a misunderstood tradition in the modern West, whose aesthetic qualities are yet to be properly appreciated. On the other hand, possibly no other non-European artistic tradition has been responsible for so much discussion among intellectuals from the very end of the Middle Ages. It therefore offers a striking case study of the cultural reactions of a particular society to an alien one. And nowhere can this clash of the two essentially different, even antithetical, cultural and aesthetic values be better studied than in European interpretations of Hindu sculpture, painting, and architecture. Indo-Islarnic architecture or Mogul painting did not present any serious problems of assimilation for the European, as they reflected a taste that could be understood in the West. Accordingly, collections of Mogul paintings began at an early period. On the other hand, there is very little in literature to indicate whether they had much effect on prevailing tastes and interests, apart from being objects of curiosity. The great Rembrandt was exceptional in his appreciation of their aesthetic qualities. In contrast to Indo-Islamic art, although very little Hindu art was collected before the nineteenth century, travellers, ethnographers, philosophers, and the literati in general showed an almost obsessive interest in it. In short, the problem of accommodating multiple-limbed Indian gods in the European aesthetic tradition became the leading intellectual preoccupation as early as the sixteenth century.


India had meant a great deal to Europeans since the time of Alexander, but the actual knowledge about it had become confused in the final days of the Roman empire and had given rise to certain myths. These myths about India could not but influence the way Indian art was seen in the West. Arguably, Indian art presented a test case for the Western understanding of India, because its aesthetic standards differed so much from those of the classical West. In the early period of European explorations of Asia, travellers saw Hindu sacred images as infernal creatures and diabolic multiple- limbed monsters. This early attitude may not be entirely unexpected; what is remarkable is that the attitude persisted even into the modern period, though different critics sought to evaluate these alleged monstrosities in different ways. A further aspect of Indian art which presented problems of assimilation, the eroticism connected with certain cults and images, was responsible for numerous speculations in the eighteenth century. The end of the century was marked by the discovery of the wealth of Sanskrit literature and Indian philosophy which went hand in hand with increasing archaeological explorations of the subcontinent. However, even in the nineteenth century, the new accession of information was generally fitted into an earlier framework. Thus, Hegel saw in the supposedly formless images of Indian art an expression of Indian mentality which was identified by him as dreaming consciousness. A new aspect of Indian art came into focus with the growing Victorian concern with the industrial arts and decorative ornament. Ruskin approved of the sense of colour and form of the native Indian craftsmen but abhorred Indian sculpture, painting, and architecture as representing unchristian ethos. It was only with the general revolt against the classical tradition that the search for alternative values led from the appreciation of medieval European art to the praise of the Indian tradition which was exalted for its spirituality. The examination of these attitudes strongly suggests that the Western world still has to find a way to appreciate the values of Indian art in its own context and in its own right.


As is clear from the above, my work deals primarily with Hindu art and architecture and to a lesser extent with Buddhist and Jain art. It is based mainly on printed sources with relevant references to early collections. The work is also about people, about how they felt and expressed themselves. Therefore, importance has been attached to the actual language used by authors in different periods. For that reason contemporary English translations of authorities have been preferred to my own. Only in cases where the translation is in serious disagreement with the original have I provided my own interpretation. In the case of Sanskrit words standard diacritical marks have been used. Indian place-names have been rendered in current form. Arabic numerals within square brackets in the text indicate the numbers of the plates.


The present work grew out of my doctoral thesis for the University of London. My debt of gratitude to friends and acquaintances to whom I have turned for assistance and advice has grown over the years. However, I cannot hold them responsible for views expressed or errors made. I should like to thank Mr. and Mrs. WG. Archer, M. Jean Adhernar, Professor K.A. Ballhachet, Professor CR. Boxer, Mr. G. Brans, Dr. J.G. De Casparis, Mr. D.E Cook, Professor L.D. Ettlinger, Miss K. Geiersberger, Dr. Richard Gombrich, Mr. B. Gray, Dr. J. Harle, Dr. A. Harvey, Mr. J. Irwin, Professor M. Jaffe, Professor O. Kurz, Dr. B. Pereira, Mrs. Caroline Pillay, Professor J.M. Plumley, Dr. Chiara Settis, Dr. Elinor Shaffer, Mrs. Helena Shire, Mr. Robert Skelton, Dr. G. Steiner, Dr. E.Timms and Dr. W Zwalffor their generous assistance.


I derived considerable benefit from the seminars I held with Dr. ER. Allchin of the Oriental Faculty, Cambridge in formulating my ideas about Ruskin, Havell and Coomaraswamy. My thanks are also due to Mr. Simon Digby for letting me consult his unpublished dissertation on European reactions to India. I have received assistance from the staff of the Dept. of Oriental Antiquities in the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ethnographic section of the Nationalmusaeet, Copenhagen, the Etnografiska Museet, Stockholm, the Rijksmuseum and the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, and the Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden. In connection with the last museum I wish to thank especially Dr. P.H. Pott for his kind- ness. Thanks are also due to the staff of theBibliotheque Nationale, Paris, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the Senate House Library and the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. I am grateful to the staff of the Warburg Institute Library and especially to Mr. J.B. Trapp for his kind assistance on all occasions. I wish to thank the staff of the University Library, Cambridge, most warmly for their constant readiness to help and especially for the excellent copies of illustrations made by the photographic department. To Mr. Roger Ferguson I owe a debt of gratitude for patiently preparing the index.


I am grateful to the University of London for providing financial sup- port in the first three years of research and to the Central Research Fund of the University for providing generous travel grants. I am also grateful to Churchill College, Cambridge, for offering me a Research Fellowship in the fourth year of my research.


To the President and Fellows of Clare Hall, who have shown generosity to me not only by granting me a handsome stipend during the tenure of my Fellowship in the College but in every other way, I wish to express my deep appreciation. I should like to take the opportunity here to thank Mr. Peter Dronke and Mrs. Ursula Dronke, Dr. Deborah Howard, and Dr. M. Lapidge of Clare Hall for their helpful suggestions and the stimulating discussions I have had with them.


It is difficult for me to express in a few words how much the work owes to Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich. His constant inspiration, unstinting support, and admirable patience are deeply appreciated. Finally, a special fond word for Swasti who shared with me the excitement of producing the book from the very beginning.





List of Figures



Introduction to the 2013 Edition



Preface to the 1992 Edition






List of Abbreviations






Indian Art in Travellers’ Tales



Much Maligned Monsters



Wonders of Elephanta



Paganism Revealed



Eighteenth Century Antiquarians and Erotic Gods



Orientalists, Picturesque Travellers, and Archaeologists



Anquetil-Duperron, Niebuhr, Le Gentil, and Sonnerat



The Sublime, the Picturesque, and Indian Architecture



India and the Rise of Scientific Archaeology



From Reynolds to Ram Raz



Historical and Philosophical Interpretations of Indian Art



The Debate on the Origin of the Arts



Creuzer and Hegel



The Victorian Interlude



Owen Jones and the New School of Industrial Design



John Ruskin and William Morris



Towards the Twentieth Century: A Reassessment of Present Attitudes



Appendix 1: Outline of Early European Collections of Indian Art



Appendix 2: On Elephanta and Salsette from Castro’s Roteiro












About the Author



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