Sandipan Mitra: Human Models: Colonialism, Anthropology and the Global Circulation of the Clay Works of Krishnanagar

The clay art of Krishnanagar in Nadia is an integral component of Bengal’s vibrant cultural heritage. It has thrived under royal patronage since the mid eighteenth century. During the second half of the nineteenth century, it attained global prominence, as life-size and miniature human models made by the artists of Krishnanagar became a major point of attraction at transnational exhibition spaces, from where they often found their way into museums. Unlike the mechanically prepared shoddy plaster casts of human skulls and fossils that were then used by phrenologists and paleontologists as legitimate means of reproducing knowledge, the scientific authority of these manually made clay models and their replicas was derived from their precision and realistic appeal. It was their life-like appearance which made them popular among the colonial anthropologists who were obsessed with using such techniques of study that offered an objective guarantee of certainty. The ‘science of man’ therefore realised itself by appropriating an indigenous art form that could potentially bridge the gap between reality and representation. This article intends to explore the relationship between anthropology and the clay art of Krishnanagar by closely probing the lives of the human models within the anthropological galleries of the Calcutta International Exhibition (1883–1884) and the Indian Museum and their travels across the imperial world. Simultaneously, it also aims to think of the connection between science and art, objectivity and aesthetics in general. In doing so, it argues that the colonial encounter with this art form acted as a formative site for anthropology in India. The larger objective of Mitra’s work is to comprehend the epistemological status of these human models within the emerging knowledge practices of the nineteenth century.

 

Sandipan Mitra is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata. He has previously obtained a BA and an MA in sociology from Presidency University and an MPhil from the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. His MPhil dissertation examined the ways in which anthropology as a discipline developed out of an intersection of multiple scholarly fields and institutional sites in colonial Bengal. Mitra’s current research explores the connections between anthropology and governance in India by focusing on the intersections of anthropological imagination, pedagogic practices and governmental techniques. His PhD thesis assimilates metropolitan debates across anthropology, political economy and economics, colonial and post-colonial governmental practices, works of Indian anthropologists, and the politics of empire and nation-states in non-Western countries. He is interested in the history of Bengal, history of anthropology, anthropology of state and the political economy of the Indian society. He is a recipient of the Sahapedia-UNESCO Fellowship (2018) and was a part of the research team which prepared the dossier for the nomination of the Durga Pujas of Kolkata for possible inscription on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity (2019).


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