British Raj Photo Essay

At the time of the British Raj, corrupt British officials from the Dutch East India Company profited greatly from the exploitation of India’s lands and people. By sending Indian goods back to England and selling them for higher prices, Britons who moved to India would earn major profits. Although British imperialism greatly benefited the colonizers, many Indians continued to live in abject poverty, not seeing returns from this one-sided trading relationship. The British citizens who moved to India were not necessarily the wealthiest from their country (they were “Upper Middle Class”), but they lived lavish lives in India due to a much-decreased cost of living. This photo essay analyzes the stark contrasts between the lives of British officials and typical Indian citizens within Indian society under the British Raj. It depicts the physical and socioeconomic spaces that British colonizers occupied, and showcases the difference between then luxury of the English and the poverty of the Indians under their English colonizers.


1) This photo shows a group of British officials (both men and women) dressed up in nice clothes, and sitting in a shaded pavilion. The opulent, luxurious lifestyle of British colonizers under the British Raj shows in their expensive-looking outfits, as well as their various accompanying possessions. Some are holding tennis racquets, gear for a sport that is not indigenous to India. There is also a serving cart with wine and water glasses, indicating that this group of British people are likely being waited upon by one (or more) Indian butlers.


2) This Indian family appears to be lower-middle class for the time of the British Raj. For this picture, they are standing outside of their dwelling dressed in their best clothes. However, the picture looks fairly forced: the expressions on the Indian family’s faces are stern, especially for the children (who seem to be making less of an effort to pose for the photo). Strangely, there seem to be no women in this family who are photographed (other than the little girl standing on the left side of the photo). This makes me question where the women in the family are (and who is or is not allowed into the space of this photograph). A British photographer (likely a man) must have taken this picture. In taking this picture, the British photographer entered a distinctly Indian space, yet the facial expressions worn by the Indian family seem to suggest they view the photographer as an outsider.


3) This photo shows the Bengal Club lit up for a British royal visit. The club represents a space that is supposed to be a fusion of British and Indian high societies, yet a space like this would never be accessible to the average Indian citizen. The photo seems to be taken by an excellent photographer: it shows the reflection of the Bengal Club on the Kolkata waterfront, and in doing so highlights the opulence of the club’s setting.


4) This photo shows a man who appears to be a domestic servant for a British family in India. He is smiling, suggesting that he is happy with his job. The house seems to be a British residence because it is well-constructed (made up of solid bricks), and there is shrubbery planted in front of it. However, he cannot ever fully fit into the British space within which he is operating. His face is not clean-shaven, and his outfit has some dirt on it. Moreover, the condition of his teeth and facial features (including the wrinkles on his face) suggest that he could have been living under poverty before the time of the British Raj (there were several famines in India at that time, and widespread poverty, making this possibility likely). Lastly, he is likely of low caste (a Shudra), which I would assume from his profession.


5) This photo shows a mother and young daughter being carried around in a palki (Source: Anushka Pathak, one of my Indian friends). The people carrying the palki are likely Shudra. This mother-daughter pair could likely afford nothing like this type of luxury in England, yet they can live extravagantly in India. The average Indian person could probably not even imagine living in this type of space.


6) British individuals were permitted access into Indian spaces, however, and in these spaces, they tended to take charge. This picture show a British man flanked by four Indian men, two on each side. Because they are dressed in military garb, I would assume that they are soldiers; they are also Kshatriya, and therefore occupying a higher caste than the Indians in the other photos I have chosen. All are dressed in similar outfits, the British man sits at the center (and seems more relaxed). He seems to be the commander. Three of the four Indian soldiers have tense facial expressions, suggesting that they may not feel at ease around their commander.


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