Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 30-31 (Dec 1997) p. 115.

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The Politics of Display:

India 1886 and 1986

D Arindam Dutta

This paper is based on a serendipitous concurrence of time: a historical and fortuitous coincidence that marks out its polemical and rhetorical outline. The events I wish to describe just happen to be separated by the significant space of a hundred years: the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, and the various Festivals of India staged in different parts of the world in 1985-1986. Both events were singular logistical-achievements of their milieu; the former belongs to a particular era of imperial consolidation, and the latter to the temporal cusp of a nation entering a newly wrought global economy. However, between this symmetrical artifice, of an object assembly at the centre of a dispersed world of colonial knowledge, on the one hand, and of the dissemination of identity formations within a neo-national exhibitionary project, on the other hand, what is belied is the issue of intentionality. For it was not as if the propounders of the latter event seemed aware of this possible altercation, this interlocution with an apparition from the past, the haunting forebears of whose burden they willy-nilly acted out as carriers. It is from this illegitimate strata of argumentation that I will offer the lineaments of a comparative politics of display, and of a disciplinary practice that reveals colonial and postcolonial complicities through the significant armature of space.


The Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 marked a key point in a series of what were known as World Exhibitions in the late part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Inaugurated by the immense success of the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, which was itself a culmination of a whole number of smaller events of display and commercial ostentation in the preceding century, these exhibitions acted as ocular transport in the consolidation of what Eric Hobsbawm has described as the two definitive and inseparable historical entities that shaped the modem era in the direction

Numbers 30-31

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