Indian Ink: Literary Insights into Colonialism and Identity

I am excerpting an article from my personal blog.

I originally wrote this essay in May 2009 and it was published on The South Asian Idea. It’s interesting to me how long I have been thinking about some of the same issues.  I have always been fascinated by the Raj.  In fact, in my Directing class as part of my Dramatic Literature major, I directed a scene from “Indian Ink”. This play has been with me throughout much of my life.

Flora: You are an Indian artist, aren’t you? Stick up for yourself. Why do you like everything English?

Das: I do not like everything English.

Flora: Yes, you do. You’re enthralled. Chelsea, Bloomsbury, Oliver Twist, Goldflake cigarettes, Winsor and Newton… even painting in oils, that’s not Indian. You’re trying to paint me from my point of view instead of yours—what you think is my point of view. You deserve the bloody Empire!

(Tom Stoppard, Indian Ink, pg. 43)

Great works of art often reveal insights about history in ways that are more accessible than academic historical accounts.  One work that was especially powerful in doing so for me is Tom Stoppard’s play Indian Ink. Ever since I first read this play some years ago, it has provoked me to think about the colonial experience in India as well as issues of identity and nationalism more generally.

In the tradition of Forster’s A Passage to India and Scott’s The Raj Quartet, Indian Ink examines the colonial experience through focusing on the relationship between one particular couple.   Set in two time periods (1930s India and 1980s England), the play tells the story of Flora Crewe, an English poet visiting India, and Nirad Das, an Indian artist who is painting her portrait.   Over the course of the play, Flora and Nirad’s relationship changes from a formal, distant one to a more intimate one. However, their relationship also reveals major points of tension and of culture clash.  Nirad constantly feels the need to impress Flora with his knowledge of England and of English culture, while Flora wants him to be himself. As the quote that I started this post with shows, she wants him to paint her from his own point of view.  He eventually does so, painting a nude portrait of her in the style of a Rajput miniature. Flora recognizes that he is working in his own tradition and has stopped trying to ape the English.  She tells him “This one is for yourself… I’m pleased. It has rasa” (74).

The play also makes interesting points about the reinterpretation of history, something that is a part of national and ethnic conflicts even today, both in South Asia and in other parts of the world. For example, in the modern portion of the play, Anish (Nirad’s son) and Mrs. Swan (Flora’s sister) discuss the events of 1857, which Anish refers to as “the first War of Independence” and Mrs. Swan insists on calling the Mutiny (17). History is written by the victors and later reinterpreted by various political groups to suit their own agendas. For example, in modern India, the BJP reinterprets the Mughals as a foreign occupying force, religiously motivated by their negative feelings towards Hinduism. Other historians argue that this perspective is not an appropriate way to view the Mughals, many of whom assimilated and became “Indian.” History remains a powerful force that can be used for various politically motivated ends. Stoppard’s play forces the audience to question the truth of any of these interpretations….

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I am Pakistani-American. I hold a B.A. degree from George Washington University, where I majored in Dramatic Literature and minored in Western Classical Music. During my undergraduate education, I spent two years at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) where I studied Social Sciences, including Anthropology, Sociology and Political Philosophy. I have studied Hindustani Classical Vocal from a young age. Currently I am teaching an undergraduate course on the history of music in South Asia at LUMS. At BP, I intend to write on art, music and literature.

9 thoughts on “Indian Ink: Literary Insights into Colonialism and Identity”

  1. Colonialism good and bad has happened and the clock cant be turned back.
    Now we the colonized are left with a legacy of colonialism the good and bad.

    My opinion, instead of trying to completely erase the colonial legacy, we take the good and bad, and build upon that legacy (make lemonade out of lemons) . Of course now the question, what are the good legacies and will differ from person to person.

    Stoppard recalls meeting “elderly Indian people who had regret for the days of the Raj.

    You get that in Sri Lanka. For the middle and upper classes it was a assured future with servants and nice pension for the middle class. For the poorer also it was safe. Not informed/educated enough to aspire and be competitive, a blissful ignorance.

    Free education for the masses (after independence), mass communication (radio) changed society and its aspiration. Colonial society was a relatively fixed stratified society i.e. everyone knew their place. Now with more information, aspirations are “greater” accompanied by stress and angst.

    Christianity makes a virtue out of poverty, i.e. blessed are the poor etc. Buddhism implies its easier for the rich (knowledgeable/wise) to renounce desire and attain Nirvana. Once one has lots of “stuff”, it may make you happy but also brings much fear to maintain and protect the stuff. So possible at that point to walk away from the desire for “stuff”.

    Also see

    1. Thanks for your comment. I am endlessly fascinated by the Raj (after the Mughals it’s my favorite period of “Indian” history). My particular interest in this play came from the fact that in some ways it is a reworking of “A Passage to India”, where instead of the Englishwoman accusing the “native” of rape, she ends up falling in love with him (even seducing him). That is the whole point of him painting her as Radha.

      If you are familiar with “The Raj Quartet” (there was a TV adaptation of it made in the 1980s I think), it also begins with the rape of Miss Manners in the Bibighar Gardens and the accusation of her lover, Hari Kumar (Harry Coomer as he prefers to be called since he grew up in England).

      I am interested in the psychological effects of colonialism on the colonizer as well as the colonized. What was it like for white people to come out to India and suddenly lord it over all the “natives”? What happened if a relationship developed outside of the normal “master servant one”? These are all issues that these novels and plays examine. As you say, it was a society in which everyone knew their place. So what if someone stepped out of line?

      Also, as highlighted in this post, the desire of a certain kind of Indian to ape the master and try to act English is also interesting. It reminds me of Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (not that I knew that back in 2009 when I wrote this short essay).

  2. Kabir,
    I saw at least a few episodes of the Jewel in the Crown (TV adaptation) of the Raj Quartet. Maybe it was on PBS in the US. Definitely saw the Miss Manners episodes., and has stuck in my mind.

    I stopped watching TV I think around 2007. Stopped reading novels around 1995.

    Stepping out of line is still here. The boundaries are wider but changes with location. What OK in NY would be out of line in the mid-west. Bounadries are narrower in Sri Lanka, and whats OK in Colombo is not OK in a village.

    Teenagers like to ape the whats in fashion, and fashion is dictated by the West. On and off the fashion in the west, include ethnic styles. I wore bell bottoms, long hair in the late 70’s early 80’s (not appropriate for a short guy when I see photos). Now the rage seems tattoos, and spread even among urban Sri Lankan women.

    The whole “aping” business is about acceptance, moving up the social ladder (preppie look) and not being seen as an country hick. How often do you see South Asians eating rice and curry with their fingers, in the US and upper end restaurants in South Asia.

    In the US, in ethnic neighborhoods people wear their native dress. In that case I would think they are “aping” and looking for acceptance by their compatriots. When they move out of that neighborhood most often adapt.

    It is hard work to be different. When in Rome do as the Romans makes life more easier.

    1. Yes, it was “The Jewel in the Crown” I was talking about. I love that series.

      I don’t think wearing mainstream American clothes in the US counts as “aping” the master. That is part of assimilation. I was talking about “aping the master” in a very specific colonial context: Mr. Das trying to act “white” to impress Miss Crewe.

      Jeans and shirts are pretty much mainstream everywhere now. Many Pakistani guys of my age and social class wear shalwar kameez only for jumma prayers or for weddings or Eid. Even I wear shalwar kameez only for weddings, funerals, Eid or when I am performing Hindustani music. Jeans and shirts are much easier in daily life.

      1. Kabir
        I did not imply it was wrong to “ape”.

        A hundred or more years ago some individuals, including the last kings in SL started “aping” the west (see links to images below). Pre European invasion Kings are shown, bare bodied and sarong. Even in the mid 70’s in a village it was rare to see men in trousers/pants. When working the fields, farmers wore the Amude, essentially a thong with cloth in front.

        Fast forward and it was not upper class “cultur” to wear a sarong. My father (born 1917) would only wear a sarong just before he went sleep in the night. A few decades later, politicians started wearing sarong again, the upper body kurta like shirt is Indian (as is the saree). Now (some) upper class have reverted to wearing sarong for parties and weddings.

        In grad school Apts (in the US) I wore a sarong. Not the South Indian, white and blue variety. These were multi colored batik. During summer bare bodied too and walk around and laundry runs. One summer did a barbecue (I was a RHD) and managed to burn the sarong. Sarongs were hard to come by in early 90’s, so no more wearing sarongs to barbecues.

        When I started working for a Wall Street startup (weather derivatives) one of the partners was going to be married in Riverside Cafe, Brooklyn NY (extremely posh). I (and wife) were asked not to wear traditional dress, as it would take away attention from the bride. My wife and I were both fat middle aged people!!.

        When traveling to and fro from US, would carry a sarong and flip flops in carry on luggage. In the long leg mid-east/once from delhi to/from US after take off, get into sarong and flip flops. Comfort for a long flight.

        Used to get asked questions like what is that skirt called. Do you wear any thing underneath (I dont, thats the whole purpose). My answer, you can check it out if you wish, no one did.

        Parakrama Bahu, King around 10 century

        Rajasinghe II , 16th Century


        1. Thanks for sharing sbarrkum.

          The sarong is awfully immodest since males can show off 😉
          If Islamists had conquered Sri Lanka would they have banned to sarong?

          Most Iranian, South Asian and South East Asian conceptions of modesty were heavily influenced by muslims. Before Islam my understanding is that Hindustani Bharatiya woman didn’t wear blouses. Modesty was in the mind and heart versus external–as I think it should be. If anyone else has an issue they can choose not to stare.

          Can you describe woman’s apparal in ancient pre English Vannimai Sri Lanka?

          Can you also describe what Sri Lanka was like during Dutch Ceylon? Did Sri Lanka have 5 kingdoms allied to the Dutch with some parts of Sir Lanka ruled directly by the Dutch? How did the arrangement work?

          1. The ghoongat is very much a Hindu thing. Covering your head with your sari pallu is very much a Hindu thing. I’ve seen enough Bollywood movies and Indian soaps to know that.

            Not everything can be blamed on Islam.

            Not wearing underwear is just gross (in my opinion). I wear it even with shalwar kameez. Some (most) guys don’t. I think that is really unhygienic.

  3. what is a ghoongat.

    Underwear: we are 5 degrees from the equator. If we wear underwear all the time then fertility decreases (probably a good thing).

    Environment (in the past) decided what was modest/appropriate dress code.

    Hygiene: When its custom to bathe 2 to times a day. Even in villages where there is no running water (almost none) there is a river or reservoir nearby (1 km max).

    1. Ghoongat is a veil type thing that Hindu women use to cover their heads/ faces when in the presence of men they are not related to.

      Maybe it’s a North Indian thing.

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