‘Under the Banyan Tree: Relocating the Picturesque in British India’ by Romita Ray

Under the Banyan Tree is the first comprehensive study of the evolution and flourishing of the picturesque during the British Raj. Romita Ray argues that this concept allowed British artists and writers travelling in India to aestheticize the Indian landscape, its people, and the biota (the banyan tree and the elephant, above all). These ideas not only shaped specific landscapes in India, but also fed the imagination of a global audience throughout the British empire.

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Preoccupying British aesthetes, tourists, garden designers, philosophers, writers, and artists from the 1790’s until the 1820’s, the picturesque shaped a powerful dialectic between artifice and nature, between land and landscape. Theorized, debated, and calibrated often in radically divergent ways by its multiple protagonists and practitioners, it gave rise to a hose of interpretations – from entire treatises devoted to how a garden could be made to appear picturesque  to have leisurely accounts penned by tourists wandering about England, Wales and Scotland with their sketchbooks, diaries and Claude glasses. There were those like William Galpin, Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and Humphrey Repton who formalized its concepts into applicable theories and implemented them in tour books and gardens, while formidable philosopher and politician Edmund Burke defined it as a third aesthetic category alongside the ‘Beautiful’ and the ‘Sublime’. The Calcutta-born English biographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin took readers on an imaginary ‘biographical, antiquarian and picturesque  tour’ of Scotland and England in 1838. Even the Prince Regent succumbed to the charms of the picturesque, commissioning the eminent architect John Nash to design the grounds of his whimsical oriental fantasy, the Pavilion at Brighton, along picturesque lines.

Such lively engagements with landscape could not have occurred at a more opportune moment, for the very notion of land was beginning to expand in the British imagination precisely around the time when aesthetes and artists were debating and clashing over their ideas about the picturesque. Overseas travel and exploration  fuelled by Britain’s trading enterprises and ambitions of empire building, were fostering a deep sense of curiosity about distant settings, exotic flora and fauna, foreign peoples and societies, even as Gilpin and Burke penned their thoughts. These points of interest would only intensify as Britons began to settle in places as far-flung as the Caribbean Sea and the Bay of Bengal. This is not to suggest that the picturesque accounts were unique sources of information about foreign geographies and portraiture. That said, they were outstanding in the freshness of their observations, with one principal factor enfolding them into the dynamics of colonial and imperial enterprise: a deep concern for land and the ways in which human occupants navigated certain terrains.

With so many different geographies and so many ardent followers at home and abroad articulating its methodologies in different ways, the picturesque was bound to resist any clear-cut definition. Even so, some fundamental elements of visual irregularity, most notably roughness, decay, wildness, and unexpected contrasts, cut across its heterogeneity, unifying its diverse topoi as unmistakeable endorsements of the picturesque.

Extract from Under the Banyan Tree by Romita Ray

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