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Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection

A Tense Relationship


Detail: “Hindoo devottees of the Gosannee & Jetty tribes”
Robert J. Del Bontà collection, E752

The British sought increasing control of India in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, first as East India Company officials, and then, after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, under the British crown, known as the Raj. This led to tense relationships with traveling ascetics, many of whom were armed mercenaries. While the British lauded them as potential spies for the Raj, the ascetics' military might and espionage skills led to skirmishes (the Sannyasi and Fakir Rebellion) and, later, to legislation that criminalized them.

The East India Company official Jonathan Duncan interviewed and had drawn "from … life" the "intelligent" ascetic Puran Puri, also pictured in Yoga, whose arms were frozen "in a fixed position above his head" (urdhvabahu). Duncan also was impressed by Puran Puri's role carrying dispatches between British and South Asian rulers as an informant. Another official, James Forbes, similarly spent time with such "travellers" to extract pertinent information, or "a little honey from every flower" seen in “Hindoo devottees of the Gosannee & Jetty tribes.” Though Forbes abstained from an opinion, he wrote that the majority of Europeans agreed with a "remark, made one hundred and fifty years ago, that 'most [ascetics] … are vagabonds, and the pest of the nation they live in.'"

Perhaps due to British colonial domination of India, by the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries Europeans and Americans seemed to lose their fascination with the fearful potency of austerities. They replaced it with romantic longing, as seen in the dreamy photogravure of a "Sadhu"; a more sterile, postural yoga practice for laypeople; and condescension toward ascetics as tricksters.

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