Landscaping India: From Colony to Postcolony

A review of Landscaping India: From Colony to Postcolony, by Sandeep Banjeree.

How did colonialism create and sustain its spatial hegemony in British India? How did the indigenous population contest and thereby reimagine the very spatiality and materiality of the nation-state? Sandeep Banerjee’s dissertation Landscaping India: From Colony to Postcolony is a sustained investigation of how the nation “as a space, and a scale, [was] produced by the global processes of [colonialism and] capitalisms” (p. 223). As such, this dissertation illuminates how both the idea and the built form of the nation-state of India was produced through imperial hegemony and anti-colonial, Hindu-elite appropriation of the colonial tropes and imaginings of a nation, thereby shedding light on the contemporary “neo-colonial Indian present” (p. 13). Intervening in the literature on the uneven processes of capitalist production of space (Henri Lefebvre, Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991; Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, Athens: Georgia University Press, 1990) Banerjee offers a non-metropolitan account of the historico-geographical techniques that produced the coherent space of British India (Manu Goswami, Producing India: From colonial economy of national space, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004). He argues that while critical historiography uses spatial terminology, it has failed to investigate the representational and materialist production of space and landscape of British India and trace those lineaments into the independent Indian nation-state.

Chapter 1, “The Nation-Space of India,” first outlines the historical processes that went into the consolidation of Britain’s eastern colony under a unified geographical entity. Banerjee meticulously delineates the various colonial administrative measures, including political, geographical, legal, linguistic, metric, and economic forms of standardizations through the nineteenth century, that went into the production of a “unified and bounded financial space” of India (p. 26, italics original). Second, he shows how imperial production of India became a site of elite-anticolonial appropriation of the space. Banerjee concludes the first chapter by arguing that this bounded production was integral to the imperial capitalist extraction (pp. 34-36).

The hegemonic production of a colonized and coherent British India, which was marked as backward and in need of progress, was deeply contested by the Indian elites. Banerjee turns to this theme in Chapter 2, “‘Inventing’ Colonial Calcutta.” He juxtaposes the changing British depictions of Calcutta from the second capital of British Empire in the early nineteenth century to a place of filth and disgust by the end of the nineteenth century, with indigenous reclamation of the city as an “Indian” city. Against colonial descriptions of a city flowing with filth and corpses, Banerjee highlights the vernacular production of the city as a nodal point within capitalist circuits and flowing with money. Building upon both literary and visual archives ranging from memoirs, poems, photographs, maps, paintings, and Bengali satire, Banerjee calls into question existing scholarship on Calcutta that argues against the White town and Black town segregation (Swati Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny. London: Routledge, 2005). Banerjee shows that such a claim was based on an archive of architectural maps and blueprints of masonry houses, at a time when majority of the population lived in mud huts and temporary tenements (pp. 79-82). He then shows how such a claim only muddies the class segregation that marked the most intimately lived and shared spaces between the colonizer and the colonized.

If the previous chapter showed how Bengali literature produced Calcutta as a distinctly Indian City, in Chapter 3, “Landscaping the Himalaya,” Banjeree turns to the multiple representations of the Himalayan mountain range. First, he turns to colonial photographic representations of the mountains by Samuel Bourne to show how the picturesque is deployed to harmonize the space and evacuate it of the human labor, as well as erase indigenous relations to the mountain that predate and supersede colonial taming through mountaineering and the establishment of hill stations throughout the ranges. He deploys his “contrapuntal” reading of the archive by turning to Devendranath Tagore’s production of the mountain and its inhabitants as one with nature, or almost as “noble savages” in his Autobiography (1914). He shows how Tagore infused this space with Upanishadic and Indo-Persian sensibilities to create it as a sacred Hindu space. Differentiating the myriad ways in which the Indians responded to imperial productions of space, he turns to Jaladhar Sen’s specifically secular projection of the mountain, which is always already Hindu as Banerjee convincingly argues (Jaladhar Sen, Himalay. Calcutta: Mitra and Ghosh, 1990). Although Sen is tracing well-known pilgrim routes in his travels, he stresses the secular nature of his journey (p. 132). Banerjee points out that this religio-secularization of the space ultimately produces a nation space where the Hindu comes to stand in for the nation (pp. 137-149).

Chapter 4, “Imagining the Nation,” moves from the spatial to the scalar production of the nation. Banerjee turns to the Hindu nationalist literary conceptualization of an Indian landscape in the song Vande Mataram by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay that went onto become the national song of post-colonial nation. He shows how the indigenous middle-class imagined a landscape of India which connected the local, the regional, and the national. Yet, Banerjee rightly points out that the spatial imaginary of the song partakes of Hindu cosmography, thereby completely excluding the laboring classes and the Muslim from this space.

After showing the erasures that were symptomatic of the production of the Indian nation, Banjeree raises “The Question of Belonging” in Chapter 5. He focuses on an inside/outside figure within the literary landscape to raise the question of who belongs to the space of India. Banerjee begins his exploration with the famous novel, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), which is about the orphaned Irish protagonist who is constantly getting lost in the Indian landscape to the great imperial anxiety of interracial mixing. Contrary to Ian Baucom and Don Randall’s depiction of Kim as a hybrid figure (Ian Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999; Don Randall, Kipling’s Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity. Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001), Banerjee argues that he should be read as the “logical correlate of the project of hegemonic control” (p. 203). Moving from Kim to Gora (1907), by Rabindranath Tagore, Banerjee focuses on the depiction of an Irish as the main protagonist in a Bengali novel. He argues that the protagonist’s Irish origin “allows him to extend the logic of community-as-family to include people who do not belong to the Indian sub-continent” (p. 211). While Kim remains an outsider to India, Gora, the protagonist of the novel by the same name, is an outsider to the space of India, in spite of the fact that “there is no reality outside of India” for him (p. 212). Banerjee argues that in this manner, Tagore turns the space of India into a universal space and simultaneously renders it meaningless and redundant.

Banerjee’s study foregrounds the importance of being alert to the processes of spatial formation of the nation-state in discourses about nationalism, citizenship, and decolonization. Being attentive to the “scalar-spatial” production of the Indian nation-state is important to understand questions of belonging and exclusion that are attendant to the processes of nation-making. The urgency of Banerjee’s arguments is highlighted by the real “landscaping” or bloody partition that accompanied India and Pakistan’s independence (p. 221). This meticulously researched and convincingly argued dissertation makes a strong case for turning to the geographical and material processes that are central to any project of nation-making.

Debjani Bhattacharyya
Department of History
Drexel University

Primary Sources

Atkinson, J. (1824) The City of Palaces: A Fragment and Other Poems. Calcutta: Government Gazette Press.
Hamilton, A. (1746) A New account of the East Indies, Vol. 11. London: C. Hitch.
Bourne, S. (2004) Photographic journeys in the Himalayas. Bath: Pagoda Trees Press.

Dissertation Information

Syracuse University, 2013. 256pp. Primary Advisors: Crystal Bartolovich and Don Mitchell.

Image: Dennis Jarvis (Flickr: India-5213). Wikimedia Commons.

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