In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section English Colonial Discourse and India

  • Introduction
  • The English “Writing” of India
  • Indian Commodities/Consuming India

Literary and Critical Theory English Colonial Discourse and India
Pramod K. Nayar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0114


English protocolonial and colonial discourses constructed India across multiple fields in the 1600–1947 period. These discourses determined and were determined by various concerns, necessities, and anxieties, and documented extensively by English administrators, statesmen, traders, wives of the officials, soldiers, reform workers, scientists, physicians—in short, a diverse variety of English men and women who spent several years in India, or sometimes merely passed through it. The imperial archive on India—supposedly one of the largest in the world—has been examined by postcolonial scholars for its discursive constitutions of exploration and discovery, administrative control and authority, the civilizational mission, militarism, and the everyday-ness of (English) life in India, among others. The archive, which begins with letters written by factors (as the representatives of the East India Company were called), traders, and officers of the English East India Company, and which also includes a number of literary and cultural texts that emerge from the late 18th century, has provided the foundations for the extensive postcolonial scrutiny of English representations of India, inspired in part by Said 1994 (cited under English “Writing” of India). The unpacking of the imperial archive—the English representations of India—takes the form of specific studies, such as the botanical-zoological surveys of India by collectors and scientists, colonial ethnography-anthropology texts on the Indian peoples, translations and analysis of Indian languages and literary texts by translators and linguistics, the biomedical tracts that mapped a landscape of disease, or the reformer’s altruistic-authoritarian commentary on India’s perceived barbarism, to name a few domains in English colonial writings on India. Colonial discourse studies, to which this bibliography provides a short entry point, is as diverse as the representations it scrutinizes, and the texts inventoried here demonstrate how colonial discourse not only described the “object” (India), but actively, materially, constructed it in significant ways that enabled multiple imperial purposes and functions: exploration, documentation, “improvement,” and control.

The English “Writing” of India

The works in this section focus on the language of the proto- and colonial encounter and the imperial texts. Teltscher 1995 and Raman 2001 map the colonial discourses in English texts dating back to the Early Modern period. Said 1994 is the field-defining book that demonstrated how multiple disciplines constructed the East/Orient. The colonial memoir is the subject of Dyson 1978, while Inden 1990 examines how caste, Hinduism, and rural India, among other subjects, were portrayed in English writings. Parry 1972 deals with imperial fiction, from Steel to Forster and others. Suleri 1992 demonstrates how aesthetic categories of the sublime and the picturesque enabled imperial discourse, while Ghose 1998 studies aesthetic and other strategies in British women travelers in India. Nayar 2012 surveys the multiple discourses—from exoticism to the civilizing mission—of the empire.

  • Dyson, Ketaki Kushari. A Various Universe: A Study of the Journals and Memoirs of British Men and Women in the Indian Subcontinent, 1765–1856. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978.

    India became the site of a cultural encounter between East and West: a Western “discovery” of Indian culture and the response of Indians to Western ideas. The memoirs of Jemima Kindersley, Marianne Young, James Forbes, Reginald Heber, and others—and Dyson provides a chronological survey of these authors in later chapters—are at once explorations of India, and reflections about themselves. There was curiosity, but also nostalgia for England, and aesthetic and moral responses to India.

  • Ghose, Indira. Women Travellers in Colonial India: The Power of the Female Gaze. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Ghose examines the writings of Emily Eden, Fanny Parkes, Maria Graham, and other British women travelers of the 19th century. Noting how they were different in their attitudes from the imperialist memsahib, Ghose shows how the women travelers were embedded in colonial structures of power and seeing, and yet sought to free themselves of these, resulting in texts that are ambivalent in their approaches to India, and imperialism.

  • Inden, Ronald. Imagining India. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

    Ranging from scientific societies in India through to the Orientalist constructions through commentative, explanatory, and hegemonic accounts to the English analysis of Indian castes, communities, villages, and religions, colonial discourses depicted an India incapable of adequate self-knowledge. Such European studies (Indology) then became the standard mode of imagining and understanding India, argues Inden.

  • Nayar, Pramod K. Colonial Voices: The Discourses of Empire. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118279007

    Offering a survey of the principal discourses of colonialism, Nayar moves from the discovery/exploration theme in English texts through the construction of exotic difference—colonial, sentimental, and scientific—of/in India. Then Nayar turns to the management of this difference and colonial spaces via the imperial spectacle, the moral imperialism of the civilizing mission, and finally the attempted self-fashioning of the aesthetic and cosmopolitan colonial.

  • Parry, Benita. Delusions and Discoveries: Studies on India in the British Imagination, 1880–1930. London: Allen Lane, 1972.

    Examining a variety of authors and texts of the imperial (and post-“Mutiny”) period, from Flora Annie Steel to Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster, Parry shows how key colonial tropes and attitudes, such as the “white man’s burden” and liberalism in the later years, influenced British fiction. Anticipating Said’s work by a few years, Parry demonstrated how English authors constructed a certain image of India for their own consumption.

  • Raman, Shankar. Framing “India”: The Colonial Imaginary in Early Modern Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

    Beginning with Luis Camões’ poem on Vasco da Gama, Raman argues that the discovery of an expanding globe induced anxieties among the Europeans. India when “discovered” becomes a means of alleviating this anxiety and Europe’s self-discovery, as manifest in Early Modern plays, from John Fletcher and Shakespeare to John Dryden.

  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1994.

    This groundbreaking work demonstrates through a close reading of numerous texts how the Europeans constructed the Orient. Said’s often monolithic interpretation argued that translations, memoirs, political writings, cartography, ethnography, and philology served the purpose of “orientalizing” the Orient (including India), presenting it as static, passive, and ready to be both studied and dominated. The discursive construction of the Orient as Europe’s racial-cultural “Other” enabled the creation of a certain image of Europe itself as modern and advanced.

  • Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226050980.001.0001

    Through a close reading of diverse documents, such as the Edmund Burke impeachment speech of Warren Hastings and travelogues, Suleri demonstrates how European aesthetics, such as of the sublime and the picturesque, served the purpose of constructing and othering India, its people, and the English colonials in certain ways, even as she discerns an ambivalence in the colonial discourse. The latter chapters study fiction, from the colonials, Forster and Kipling, to the postcolonials, Rushdie and Naipaul.

  • Teltscher, Kate. India Inscribed: European and English Writing on India, 1600–1800. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Covering a wide range of genres, from letters to fiction, Teltscher observes that English representations of India were diverse and not monolithic when speaking of Indian religion, its rulers, its social order, and its ancient civilization. From Thomas Coryate to Thomas Roe to parliamentary debates, Teltscher studies representations of suttee, and the veiled (purdah) Indian women, and English perceptions of Indian feminine agency.

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