Arts and Culture
In his essay “The Material and Visual Culture of British India”, Christopher Pinney situates indigenous Indian artistic expression in the colonial period under three distinct categories: “‘transculturation’, ‘purification’, and ‘autonomy’.” He describes the term “autonomy” as a form of cultural production “capable of creating its own history free from the shadow of colonialism.”
In the historiography Indian art during the British period, the primary focus has been to highlight interactions between Indians and the British that fall under Pinney’s categories of “transculturation” and “purification”. Glaringly ignored in any colonial historical discourse of the Subcontinent are the intrinsic values of local patrons, rulers and populace that persisted under the shadow of change and dislocation.
After opening the talk with a critique of this art historical oversight, the paper will present one form of “autonomous” art making as an example of the continuity of indigenous systems of cultural production: images of Muslim saints from northern India from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century as an instance of continuity of function and iconography in the face of modern upheaval. I will argue that the function of these artworks was intrinsically linked with Islamic spirituality in India, which by and large remained autonomous. This association has allowed the genre to persist through the colonial period right down to our own times.