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Beyond Binding: Reconceptualizing Watson and Kaye’s 'The People of India' (1868-1875)


Published in eight volumes between the years 1868-1875, and comprising 480 pasted-in albumen prints accompanied by descriptive letterpress, The People of India (henceforth POI) is a publication more (in)famous now in the twenty-first century than it was ever well-known at any point during the nineteenth. It stands in our historiographic imagination as a seminal text through which colonial authorities established the technical and conceptual practices that would shape the photographic activity on the subcontinent for over a century. And while there is no doubt that the bigoted attitudes and cultural misconceptions manifest in the volumes do exemplify a very real and persistent phenomenon, the publication itself was not a substantial factor in the formation and establishment of the notions intimated in its text. However, to dismiss the POI as a work of great historical significance on the grounds that it was not a direct agent in the codification of the legacy would be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Once the project is approached in terms of individual images with the potential for multiple manifestations and modes of textualization, scholarly enquiry is no longer limited by the dearth of historical evidence regarding the application and reception of the volumes.

In reframing the POI as a photographic project and explicating it in terms of images circulating in a broader public sphere, this dissertation endeavors to identify commercial media in a popular Western arena as an extremely significant yet largely unarticulated mechanism in the formation and establishment of colonial knowledge. Centered firmly in the metropole, the popular sphere was unregulated, with a mass audience, and characterized by a diffuse and long-lasting circulation and repurposing of images. Upon charting the dissemination and circulation of POI images in a variety of display contexts and modes of reproduction, it becomes clear that the prolific repurposing of individual POI portraits in contexts of popular mass circulation—rather than the formal publication— is primarily responsible for the transformation of the arbitrarily constructed “native types” contained in the volumes into recognizable and functioning categories.

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