Exhibiting the Imperial Image

Christopher Bayly, organiser of a major new exhibition on the British and India at the National Portrait Gallery, discusses its making and the complexities of presenting the myths and realities behind the Raj.

Anyone who has been involved in the organisation of a large art-historical exhibition will sympathise with the problems of Professor Jonathan Alexander who wrote some years ago in this journal about 'The Age of Chivalry' exhibition at the Royal Academy, the very title of which stirred considerable scholarly controversy. In what sense, some people asked, could the period between 1200 and 1450 meaningfully be considered an 'age of chivalry?' Yet the word 'chivalry' was essential to the popular appeal of the show.

In the case of 'The Raj; India and the British, 1600-1947', problems of scholarly accuracy and the dangers of anachronism were compounded by the political sensitivities that continue to afflict the historical memory in Great Britain, India and Pakistan. For instance, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were understandably concerned that the origins of their national traditions should be fully represented despite the privileged position of the word 'India' (the alternative, the deadly 'South Asia', was rejected early on). Interestingly, though, it was institutions and individuals in this country, not in southern Asia, whose political antennae seemed most sensitive. There was some questioning as to whether the exhibition might show the Raj in an unfavourable light – evidence that the Indian Empire still remains important in the composition of British national identity nearly half a century after the last Tommy marched away through the Gateway of India.

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