BMCR 2014.01.12

The Classics and Colonial India. Classical Presences

, The Classics and Colonial India. Classical Presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xiv, 398. ISBN 9780199203239. $150.00.


This book offers a comprehensive study of the tangled relationship in the 18 th to 20 th centuries between the Greek and Roman classical tradition and British imperialism in colonial India. Eight chapters divided into three parts explore the literary, educational, political and cultural impact of the classical tradition on both the colonizer and the colonized. The book begins with an introduction and concludes with an epilogue that brings the issues highlighted in the introduction and the parts full circle to reinforce the conclusion that Indians succeeded in turning imperialism on its head by exploiting the dominant classical tradition nourished by the British to express their own nationalism and their way forward as an independent nation. The following is a summary of the main points in the chapters.

The Introduction summarizes cogently and comprehensively the complex, dichotomous, paradoxical, and shifting nature of the topic. Important in this regard is the emphasis on ‘imperialistic views’ rooted in the classical tradition such as the imperialist as an English gentleman imbued with a classical education, Indians as comparable to the ancient Greeks and Romans, how India can be understood only through a framework modeled on ancient Greece and Rome, the promotion of the language of imperial Britain at the expense of the oriental languages, and Britain as the answer to India’s current problems. Counterbalancing these is the emergence of a colonial perception of India comparable to the late 18 th century definition of the ‘classical’ in Europe and the teaching of Greek and Latin in Indian classrooms from the 19 th century onwards. Thus, even though the racist and imperial British colonials used the classical tradition “for authoritarian and hegemonic purposes in colonial India” (p.27), that same tradition showed the Indians themselves how to fashion a new identity: “the Greeks and the Romans allowed all those involved with colonial India to find their own way in an age of empire, to discern new connections in a world that changed frequently, and to give voice to conditions, experiences, and histories from which we have still not entirely recovered” (p.28).

Part I examines the reception of Alexander the Great among European and Indian writers, relating it to cultural geography, Orientalism, and nationalism. In Chapter 1 Vasunia analyzes the contribution of British historians of Greece to the fashioning of the late 18th and early 19th century British conception of imperialism in India in which they were the modern counterparts of Alexander. The example of Alexander is identifiable in spheres such as military strategy, commerce, and planning the government of the empire. Desire to convert the people of Kafiristan, the place associated with the descendants of Alexander, to Christianity, while adhering generally to the strict maintenance of racial difference between British whites and dark-skinned Indians, reveals the imperial stance both in general and in respect of religion and race in the colonies. Chapter 2 examines Indian reflections on Alexander. While ancient sources avoid mention of Alexander, modern writers influenced by nationalism discount the cultural, political and historical impact of his invasion of India. The Indian writers’ emphasis on Indian resistance to the invader and on their contribution to European learning do not, however, preclude their making political mileage out of Alexander. Influenced by nationalist views, Bengali and Gujarati literature evoke sentiments of patriotism by emphasizing the role of Chandragupta, Alexander’s Indian opponent. The book presents Indian expressions of patriotism and nationalism as natural reactions to colonial aggression, a phenomenon that is paralleled in other British colonies in South Asia.

Through comparative essays, material culture, and education policies relating to the colonial administration, Part II examines the fashioning of colonial power in relation to the British perception of their Empire as the modern Roman Empire. Chapter 3 explores the Victorian and Edwardian comparisons of Greater Rome with Greater Britain as the creations of authors who have invested academically, financially and politically in the study of antiquity. These views are analyzed in the background of 19th and 20th century “justifications and anxieties regarding British imperialism” (p.119). The contemporary Indian perspective that draws its knowledge of classical antiquity from translations expresses a view similar to and different from the British, but one that exploits western classical political thought. The prominence of the classical tradition in the architecture of colonial buildings in India is examined in Chapter 4. Even though “colonial rule, ethnography, and race are factors that need to be recalled in the study of colonial architecture in India, and these are directly and specifically evoked by many 19 th century architectural theorists themselves” (p. 158), some British voices questioned the choice on aesthetic, political and historical grounds. Arguing against the prevalent view that the classical style went out of favor after the Indian uprising of 1857, the book highlights that style’s transnational character: “this classical style flourishes not in isolation but alongside other styles such as the Gothic, which, in Bombay for instance, may find greater favour than the classical” (p. 159). Chapter 5 argues for the role of classics in the imperial government by emphasizing the dominance of classical subjects in the curriculum of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) to the exclusion of Indian ones. The discussion highlights attempts to prevent Indians from joining the Service and to maintain imperial power along race and class lines that would keep the “Indian Civil Service largely free of Indians themselves” (p. 231).

Part III traces the line of resistance, and reconciliation with the imperial power through the Indian embrace of classical literature (in translation). Chapter 6 examines the popularity of Homer, but not Virgil, among Indian writers. Homer appealed to the Indian (and some European) sensibilities because of his contribution to the discourse on Indo-European origins, “sources of language, religion, and culture” (p. 239). In Britain, the popularity of Virgil was intertwined with imperial interests: “he encouraged Britons to think about their own empire and the conception of a national epic” (p. 239). The nature of this epic included the mentality of the colonizer and the colonized and the aspirations of both dictated by that mentality: “the contrast in national situations meant that, in India, the treatment of epic was often assimilated to national recovery and the prestige of a subject people, while, in Britain, epic verse was associated with imperial status as well as national pride” (p. 239). In Chapter 7 Vasunia examines through a Gujarati translation of Aristophanes’ Plutus, co-translated by an Englishman, the significance of Greek literature in the translator’s effort to effect a moral reformation of the Gujarati people. This Indian ‘modernism’ that exploits the colonial culture to create anti-colonial sentiment is as ironic as it is natural and remarkable. Chapter 8 discusses a writer of European and Indian descent and a pioneer of liberal Indian modernity. Drawing on European Romanticism, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio addresses social, political, and aesthetic issues of his day, and Hellenism in his works becomes “a means for the exploration of freedom during an era of colonialism” (p.308). The role of the classical tradition in the emergence of an Indian renaissance in the attempts of such writers directed Indians “to the intellectual attainments of Europe” (p. 315). The book closes with an Epilogue examining the perceptions of the “fathers” of modern India, Gandhi and Nehru, who focused their attention on Plato and the Socratic impulse for truth, which they evoked in their struggle against imperialism. In the end, however, having played a dominant role in imperial times, classics falls by the wayside in post-independence (after 1946) India, but does not completely fall out of circulation.

By breaking down the parts into chapters Vasunia is able to analyze the relationship between the role of classics and British imperialism in India from angles that most reflected the colonial experience. The progression is logical and intertwines the subjects and the book’s main argument. The content of the chapters is presented through British and Indian voices, highlighting both the use and the abuse of the classical tradition in colonial India.

Enriched with detailed and copious footnotes, the volume offers a delightful reading experience both to the expert and the novice in an area where in-depth research on the role of classics in colonial India has been deficient.1 The only drawback is that at times the author seems to forget that the reader may be ignorant of historical and cultural details of India. The reference to the capture of Sindh (p.5) without at least a footnote is a case in point.

The sources utilized range from early British historians of Greece to literature on Alexander in India, accounts of colonial administrators of India and their policies, Indian writers on colonial India, and the founding fathers of modern India. The sheer extensiveness of the sources makes the arguments more convincing and highlights areas where further research is desirable (for instance, the colonial architecture of India with reference to buildings designed by Indians, p. 190). Argumentation aside, this book is also valuable for its use of sources and the sheer volume of detail relating to the different manifestations of the relationship between classics and empire in India.

This volume adds to the existing literature on the Indian perspective on British imperialism through its unbiased and broad understanding of the problem. In its thorough examination of the relationship between time past and present and classical antiquity, British imperialism and the Indian exploitation of its primary inspiration—classical antiquity—this volume remains unparalleled among modern studies of colonial India. As such, this book makes one curious about the relationship between the imperial British government and its policies with regard to its other colonies in South Asia such as Sri Lanka (Ceylon) where, as in India, the study of ancient Greece and Rome introduced by the British colonials flourishes even to this day. The author himself, a classicist of Indian origin in present day Britain, epitomizes the Indian victory over British imperialism that drew its inspiration, nourishment, and legitimacy from Greek and Roman antiquity.


1. Recent scholarship on imperial rule in India concentrates on other aspects of the social and cultural history of British India (see Cohen, Bernard, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India, Princeton University Press, 1996; Dirks, Nicholas B., Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press, 2011).