Volume 22, Issue 1 | Spring 2023

Empires of Light: Vision, Visibility and Power in Colonial India by Niharika Dinkar

Reviewed by Deepali Dewan

Niharika Dinkar,
Empires of Light: Vision, Visibility and Power in Colonial India.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019.
304 pp.; 22 color and 38 b&w illus.; notes; bibliography; index.
£85 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781526139634

Niharika Dinkar’s Empires of Light: Vision, Visibility and Power in Colonial India is a dense, rich, surprising, creative, mostly non-linear journey across the long nineteenth century exploring Britain’s encounter with India and India’s reaction to that encounter. The book’s basic premise is that light functioned as a central modality enabling and mediating that interaction. The larger goal here is to place empire at the center of histories of vision. It is part of Manchester University Press’s “rethinking art’s histories” series edited by Amelia G. Jones and Marsha Meskimmon. The book contains six chapters divided into three sections, along with an introduction and postscript. The notes thankfully come at the end of each chapter rather than the end of the book, and there is also a robust bibliography and index. Importantly, there are thirty-eight black and white figures and twenty-two color plates that support most visual references in the text. Dinkar starts with Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke’s reflection on the French Revolution as pointing to a “new conquering empire of light” (1) and explores how light became a primary and continuing component in the aligned worlds of the Enlightenment and imperialism. The book explores a wide terrain: historically, from the early 1700s to the mid-twentieth century, and conceptually, from European satirical prints to Parsi theater. One of the strengths of the book is the many ways light becomes a motif in the analysis, from a symbol and metaphor to a material thing. Another strength is its methodology, which can serve as a map for how to take a visual subject and, as with light through a prism (pun intended), analyze its many trajectories. In this way the book is an example of a transdisciplinary approach drawing from art history, anthropology, geography, history, and literature, among others, that nicely fit under the term of visual culture studies. This is perhaps no surprise as the book started as a dissertation, and among Dinkar’s mentors are Nicholas Mirzoeff, whose own scholarship on visuality and the “Imperial complex” is well known, and Zainab Bahrani, whose work on the concept of the image has received broad recognition.‍[1]

The titles of the three sections of the book—“Technologies of illumination,” “‘Visibility is a trap’: battles of the veil,” and “Chiaroscuro, portraiture, and subjectivity”—indicate immediately that this book is hardly about light alone but in fact about its opposite as well, darkness, along with the related dialectics of veiling/unveiling, revealing/hiding, exterior/interior, even illusionism/fantasy. The first section focuses on the problem of representing India and is mostly about western European perceptions. Chapter 1 explores how the rock-cut shrines from the fifth to sixth centuries at Elephanta, an island off the coast of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), came to exemplify the idea of India. European art, theater, and literature represented them as a series of dark caves with mysterious carvings of indecipherable Hindu deities. In this way, Dinkar argues, the iconography of Romanticism was recruited to serve alongside Enlightenment reason to represent the unknowable. Even when Elephanta became more known in the late nineteenth century through various technologies of light (lantern slides, electric illumination), caves, and their association with a sense of darkness, mystery, and danger, continued to haunt perceptions of India. Chapter 2 focuses on the motif of the veil and how acts of unveiling functioned “as the visual equivalents of the trope of discovery” (68). Dinkar explores four manifestations of veil imagery that produced the European gaze toward India as a place that needed to be known for the purposes of commercial and military activity. These took visual form as, for example, references to the unveiling of the eastern bride or carvings on the pedestal of statues showing a curtain being lifted to reveal the Indian landscape.

The second section continues an exploration of the imagery of the veil, examining how indigenous practices encountered European discourses on light. Chapter 3 discusses the Parsi theater, which adapted the western proscenium stage to its purposes and introduced the curtain (purdah), illusionistic backdrops, and directional lighting. Staging technologies, Dinkar argues, were akin to journalistic aims in the growing Indian press to reveal truth sometimes through hidden narratives. Plays disguised anti-colonial messages within fictional stories, indicating how the colonizer’s regime of light was used against them. Chapter 4 examines the “collision of two orders of representation upon the site of the female body” (152) in the form of the western European association of the naked female body as original and pure and the pre-colonial Indian conception of it as inauspicious and the ornamented body “as an aesthetic and ethical ideal” (161). Dinkar argues that the clashing views shaped evolving perceptions of the erotic potential of the female body in the colonial space, as seen in debates around plaster copies of Greek statues in art schools, images of the nautch, and depictions of the variously draped female body in mass-produced prints.

The third section is strikingly different. If the first two sections are characterized by sweeping gestures covering many examples over a wide chronological and geographic terrain, the final two chapters take deeper dives and have a narrower scope. They focus on two paintings of men reading produced between 1900 and 1905 by artist Raja Ravi Varma. Rather than being paradigmatic of larger practices, these two paintings, even within Varma’s own oeuvre, are exceptions for their subject matter and style. This raises the question of what exactly they index. The central concern for the author is Varma’s use of chiaroscuro. For Dinkar, this is another manifestation of the regime of light produced in the space of colonial India. It incorporates Varma’s, and by extension, the elite Indian subject’s, grappling with imperialism, industrialization, and local contexts that contributed to an emerging sense of self, here manifest as the creative male figure cast in directional, electric light. Chapter 5 explores the interior space depicted in the paintings as a product of a particular Kerala context familiar to Varma and makes connections to late nineteenth-century western Europe and its increased emphasis on domestic interiors, the recognition of the interior life of an individual, and advancements in lighting technology that literally and metaphorically illuminated both. Chapter 6 examines the limits of illuminating certain subjectivities by focusing not on the man reading but instead on the attendant who lurks just beyond the light. Dinkar connects this laboring body with others in representational histories of colonial India, from terracotta figurines of occupational types to images of the Indian craftsman at work. Dinkar shows how the regime of light and its contingent darkness didn’t quite reach the subaltern subject, or rather that an emerging elite male subjectivity took place against a backdrop of anonymous subaltern laboring bodies, as in other parts of the world.

This book is part of a larger effort among scholars to put empire—and its anatomy of exploitation and violence—front and center in the history of the nineteenth century, not merely as a backdrop but as the very thing that enabled the many changes often looked upon as advancements in the western world. Scholars such as Ariella Azoulay, Walter Mignolo, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and others have demonstrated how imperialism and coloniality are inextricable from a consideration of global modernities.‍[2] The book is also a testimonial to how any art history of the long nineteenth century cannot be done without putting the larger colonial context in the foreground. That is, even a microstudy of a specific topic outside of the colonial world must consider how imperialism played a central role in its material, conceptual, and discursive histories of art and visual culture. Light is not necessarily a new subject of analysis, and in this regard the book covers some familiar terrain, albeit with fresh examples and some nuanced twists and turns. And yet, there are plenty of new takes in the book as well. Dinkar’s discussion of how darkness plays an equal role in the regime of light is compelling; the book would have benefitted from referencing that aspect in the title. The last section was quite different than the first two, and thus broke the flow of the book, but also contained a fresh interpretation of a widely discussed artist, Raja Ravi Varma, and suggested new possibilities for understanding his lesser-studied works and by extension the co-emergence of visuality and subjectivity within India’s colonial modernity.

Particularly clever is Dinkar’s evocation of the “photo-graphic” in its literal sense as “writing with light” as an analogy for this study on the regime of light in colonial India. The various examples throughout the book, Dinkar explains, are like the sensitized surface of a photographic print, preserving the effect of light’s workings on it (16–17). This is why it is so surprising that a consideration of photography itself is largely missing from the book. While there are brief mentions of the commercial camera industry and some discussion of adjacent technologies such as the camera obscura, kaleidoscope, and lantern slides, there is no discussion of what some would consider the ultimate tool of vision and visibility in the nineteenth century. This would have only strengthened the author’s arguments about the pervasive nature of the regime of light—some examples that could have been included within the chapter themes are Major Gill’s early stereographic views of Elephanta, the relationship between the photo studio and Parsi theater, and Umrao Shergil’s introspective self-portraits from the turn of the century, to name a few. It also might have enhanced the argument—for example, considering the painterly use of chiaroscuro in the context of a growing transnational photo-illustrated press. In a few places it might have added slight corrections: Raja Deen Dayal’s interior views, for instance, were oriented around not only “Indian royalty . . . adopting European tastes in decorating” (196) but also a culture of hospitality where interiors were adjustable according to the visiting VIP and purposely set up for the photographic event, as I have written about elsewhere.‍[3] While an adequate discussion of photography is missing, it is also understandable insofar as it would have been difficult to master and weave into this already dense and robust narrative that stands on its own. It is noteworthy then that Dinkar has published on photography within the empires of light more recently, examining especially the materials used for artificial light, like saltpeter, which was a colonial commodity used in industry, military, and photography alike.‍[4]

In a study with as vast a scope as this one, omissions are to be expected. In the postscript, Dinkar references philosopher Hans Blumenberg, who “refers to light as an absolute metaphor that lends itself to infinite transcultural translations” and admits that this study concerns itself with “only a sliver of its potential histories” (252). This reference to the challenges in studying the regime of light would have been helpful in the introduction, allowing the reader to situate themselves in relation to the discussion to come. There are parts in the book that feel like light and its many contingencies can go on forever, one line of analysis leading to another and to another until one is situated far afield from the starting point. This is at times confusing and at other times thrilling. The book strikes a good balance, presenting a layered and textured take on visibility and visuality in colonial India, and in a broader sense on the intersection of vision and empire. It should be required reading for those studying colonial India and recommended for those studying empire, histories of vision or visual culture, or the nineteenth century more generally. Indeed, anyone who has taken “the visual turn” in the humanities and social sciences, including art historians, would benefit from the methodological possibilities it suggests for the study of images and their related structures.


[1] Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011); Zainab Bahrani, The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003); and Zainab Bahrani, Rituals of War: The Body and Violence in Mesopotamia (New York: Zone Books, 2008) was awarded the James Henry Breasted Book Prize by the American Historical Association.

[2] Ariella Azoulay, Potential History—Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso, 2019); Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Nicholas Mirzoeff (see above).

[3] Deepali Dewan, “Interiors and Interiority,” in Raja Deen Dayal: Artist-Photographer in 19th-Century India, Deepali Dewan and Deborah Hutton (Ahmedabad and Delhi: Mapin and The Alkazi Collection of Photography, 2013): 192–217.

[4] Niharika Dinkar, “Pyrotechnics and photography: saltpeter and the colonial history of photographic lighting,” photographies 14, no. 3 (2021): 395–420 and Niharika Dinkar, “‘Our Best Machines Are Made of Sunlight’: Photography and Technologies of Light,” in Ubiquity: Photography’s Multitudes, ed. Jacob W. Lewis and Kyle Perry (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2021): 93–111.