Monday, March 4, 2019 at 12:15pm to 1:30pm
Uris Hall, G08
By the late 1800s, swathes of jungle in eastern India were cleared to create tea estates or plantations. But these commercial landscapes were never quite splintered from the wilderness, their porous boundaries remaining open to a spectacular array of wildlife that wandered over in search of food. My talk focuses on the tiger, the most ferocious of predators to cross over into tea plantations. Specifically, I look at how big cats transformed tea planters into hunters and plantations into hunting grounds, their human-animal encounters ushering in new imaginaries of status, class, and wealth that were bolstered by the technologies of hunting and the arts of photography and taxidermy. Quite simply, the tiger inserted a unique aesthetic grafted from the wilderness into the manmade confines of the plantation where its conquest came to represent the indisputable authority of the white sahib planter. Reconstructed as animal trophies, the most fearsome of Indian wild animals was now drawn into the domestic spaces of plantation life. It was also photographed with planters, its freshly killed corpse shored up as a prized acquisition. As such, the tiger swiftly crystallized into an iconic emblem of the tea planter’s territorial sovereignty over the wild while also romanticizing the Indian wilderness as terra incognita. By examining photographs, taxidermy specimens, memoirs, and hunting journals, I assert that big cats both reconstituted the wilderness within plantations and shaped new masculine identities and spaces of performance that drew upon the optics of power traditionally reserved for Indian royals and British aristocrats.
Romita Ray teaches art and architectural history at Syracuse University where she also chairs the department of Art and Music Histories. She specializes in the art and architecture of the British empire in India and is currently working on a book manuscript on the visual cultures of tea cultivation and consumption in colonial and modern India. Ray received her Ph.D in the history of art from Yale University and her B.A. in art history from Smith College. She is the author of Under the Banyan Tree: Relocating the Picturesque in British India (Yale University Press 2013) and has also published numerous articles, book chapters and exhibition catalogue essays. Guest curator of the India section of Between Worlds: Voyagers to Britain 1700-1850 at the National Portrait Gallery in London (2007), Ray has curated several exhibitions at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia and the SUArt Galleries at Syracuse University.