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Oriental and India Office Collection

The British Library
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Reviewed by:
Robert DeCaroli
George Mason University
September 2004

Svadesh videsh: home from home features print and photographic images collected by the British Oriental and India Office during the peak years of the British empire. The East India Company began collecting in 1801, and built the collection until the beginning of the 20th century. The collection is predominantly comprised of images depicting areas in modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Burma (Myanmar). British Library curator of photographs John Falconer oversees the impressive collection, both real and virtual.

Currently the site presents more than 800 historically significant prints and photographs. New images are added to the site occasionally, and the online offerings will eventually reach 22,500 images. The collection is overwhelmingly comprised of prints, but what the photographs lack in numbers they more than make up in quality. Some of the earliest and most noteworthy photographs of the subcontinent are included on the site.

The images cover a wide range of topics, but studies of architecture, landscape, people, and nature dominate the collection. Each image is accompanied by a helpful text description. Some of these short passages provide more information than others, but at a minimum they are more than sufficient to situate the image in both time and place. Often these write-ups will also convey a bit about the image’s importance and usually provide clear information about both the artist and the subject of the work.

This site seamlessly blends high-quality historical content with the best in user-friendly technology. The collection’s impressive number of images is easily navigated thanks to a search engine that is effective and easy to use. There is an advanced search function that allows users to limit their search by title, creator, object type, or location. A basic keyword search is also provided.

The site also includes a wonderful interface that allows for a detailed study of individual images. Not only is each image available in a large or small format, but there is an ingenious zoom feature that allows for impressively close study of details within each work. This function allows users to focus in on the tiniest details of the image and almost none of the image’s clarity seems to suffer under this scrutiny. It is a wonderful way for students to explore the sites of 18th- and 19th-century India.

This site has appropriate material for any discussion of Indian architecture and art. It can serve as an ideal backdrop to a discussion of the Colonial Era in India and would even have good images for a look at early scientific studies of the natural world. Also, many of the subjects are either romanticized or sensationalized and would, therefore, work well in a discussion of Orientalism.

For example, the preponderance of images depicting elegantly decayed ruins was eagerly received by Imperialists who sought to tell Indian history as a decline from a past golden age and, thereby, to justify the colonial presence as a “civilizing” force. Likewise, one could do a comparison between the prints and modern photographs of a particular location to see if the artists took any liberties with their representations of the site. It also would be interesting to question if the artists ever altered images in subtle ways in order to appeal to a sense of romanticism or to make a locale appear more “exotic.” Finally, one could take this conversation further to ask how these prints may have been instrumental in ensuring that the British public remained supportive of the colonial activities in India.

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