Visual Culture of Opium in British India


A review of The Visual Culture of Opium in British India, by Hope Marie Childers.

Hope Marie Childers’ dissertation traces evolving attitudes regarding opium in British India during the 19th century as revealed in artwork of the period.   Attitudes regarding the use of drugs such as opium and cannabis have evolved considerably since the mid 19th century.  Images of men involved in the drug trade within the British Empire who once merited praise as captains of industry are now often seen as “drug dealers” by contemporary commentators (p. 1).  This Western perspective on drug use, ascendant for more than a century, is fundamentally Eurocentric and leaves little room for non-Western views on drug use.  Hope Marie Childers’ dissertation eschews this approach in favor of one that emphasizes the importance of local perspectives in the formation of larger discourses.  Following Dipesh Chakrabarty, her study decenters Europe, revealing image culture surrounding opium use in British India as an evolving product of dialogue between a multitude of competing voices, both Indian and British.

The introduction makes the case for the heterogenous nature of the discourse surrounding drugs, marked by diversity of opinion and contestation.  She is careful to contrast the views of local Indians against Western constructions of the decadent and abject “Orient” (Edward Said, Orientalism,  New York:  Vintage, 1979).   These constructions continue to influence scholars who view its use in India as a consequence of its violent interpolation by the colonial state (p. 7).  Childers notes that although scholars of China like Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabyashi  have reexamined the 19th century opium trade in ways that emphasize the role of Chinese agency, this approach has not yet been applied to India.  By examining the artistic contributions of Indians, Childers avoids the simple categorization of drugs as colonial intrusions or as accepted and timeless “oriental” vices.

Chapter 1 examines the use of opium and cannabis before British rule, establishing a baseline for comparison through the 19th century.   Contemporary frameworks for understanding the history of drug use persist in bipolar distinctions of social acceptability versus social taboo.  Childers uses images painted for the royal courts to question this simple dichotomy.  Usage patterns for opium and cannabis in India differed dramatically from those found elsewhere.  Key to this new framework is Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s concept of social encounter.  Childers argues that intoxication in pre-colonial India was perceived neither as “good” nor “bad” but “somewhere in between” (p. 34).  Ascetics from diverse religious backgrounds who used intoxication as a site for sociability were marginal yet ubiquitous in North India.  Although the antinomian approach to drug use among ascetics generated criticism, it also benefited from a measure of social endorsement, ranging from mere toleration to the patronage of kings, revealing the ambiguity of intoxication in pre-colonial India.

Chapter 2 moves on to a discussion of labor in the production of opium from the 1840’s through the 1860’s by examining the Company School works by Indian and British artists.  Childers applies Bernard Cohn’s notion that empire can only be understood if both metropole and colony are treated as unitary.  Childers argues that despite the influence of British patrons on the work of Indian artists, Company School images are reflective of their syncretic context (p. 59).  Examining two sets of images from the Patna school, home to the largest opium factory in India, Childers describes and explains anxieties regarding industrialization and the loss of skilled labor.  British values of “progress,”  “modernity,” and control conflicted with romanticized notions of Indian craftsmanship and the relative autonomy it implied (p. 112).

Chapter 3 chronicles the growing moral argument against opium resulting from the combined efforts of progressive reformers and druggists seeking to increase their professional cachet as gatekeepers between opium and would-be users.  Exhibitionary spaces within museums and fairs played key roles in framing opiate use.  These spaces contributed to the “othering” of opium which endorsed opium use only via professional arbiters such as physicians and pharmacists who deemed recreational use as an “oriental” habit (p. 122).  This “professionalizing process” resulted in some curatorial displays being viewable only by the initiated (pp. 129-136).  These pharmacists who fought reformists, urging government to outlaw opium altogether, placed themselves as arbiters of medicine and depravity.  By 1860, exhibitions concerning opium fell into two categories, those that displayed opium in a medical context and those that featured the recreational or ritual use of opium and an “increasingly judgmental curatorial framing of…the users themselves” (p. 153).

Chapter 4 examines photography to show that the polarization of views on opium in 1860’s to 1880’s Britain grew increasingly out of sync from views in India where “blurred boundaries” between medical, ritual, and recreational uses of the drug were far more nuanced (p. 170).  Emblematic of this tension is the well-known photographic image of Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal emperor who was deposed, exiled, and imprisoned by the British following the 1857-58 Uprising.  Childers suggests that the prominently-displayed hookah that partially obscures the emperor’s face in the image, when placed in its original context which included myriad photographs of abject, dissolute opium users, made the image a poor fit in “Mutiny discourse.”  The hookah actually made the emperor into a sympathetic figure, a victim of opium rather than the decadent despot of “mutiny” literature.  It was for this very reason that when the photograph appeared in Sufi scholar, Khwaja Hasan Nizami’s chronicle of the 1857 uprising, he removed the hookah from the image altogether for his Indian audience.  As Childers writes, “an ‘oriental’ habit became an oriental problem” (p. 211).

Chapter 5 examines Indian contributions to visual aspects of the Indian public sphere.  In keeping with the larger theme of transnational analysis, Indians are influenced by both local traditions and by British appreciation of the “truth-telling qualities of the photograph” (p. 221).  Propagandists in favor of the opium trade participated in a lively debate against moral reformers, using the very medium most favored by those reformers—images of opium users, only now robust rather than abject.

Childers’ dissertation successfully merges postcolonial and Art History theories in her analysis of changing attitudes regarding opium in the 19th century and will be of interest to a wide scholarly audience.

Robert E. Colvard
Department of History
University of Iowa

Primary Sources

British Library, London
West Bengal State Archives, Kolkata
J.D. Petit Library, Mumbai
Alkazi Collection of Photography, Delhi
Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2011. 337 pp. Primary Advisor: Saloni Mathur.

  1. This sounds like an interesting disseration. My own interest in opium comes through Chinese and potscolonial studies. In my book Chinas Unlimited there is a chapter on the British reinventing opium-taking as an “oriental” practice.

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