Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The Thuggee and the Faqir: Capturing Criminality in Early Colonial India
by Viswanathan, Rashmi, Ph.D., New York University, 2015, 285; 3740912
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation examines methods of surveilling Indian individuals and groups targeted by British criminal legislation in India’s early colonial era (ca.1820-1880) that employ a range of visual media, including paintings, drawings, models and photographs. The chronological scope is limited to early negotiations of criminological representation, and pivots upon the changes wrought by the Uprising of 1857, when broad swathes of the Indian population rose up in rebellion against the British occupation. Tracing the historical arc of the relationship between discourses of criminality and visual representation across a range of media, the dissertation pays particular attention to modes of representation believed to be indexical, that is, believed to be causally related to their subjects; these include fingerprinting, body casting, and photography. The dissertation argues that the evidentiary and illustrative values of criminal representations were in flux during this period, dependent upon the shifting criminological imperatives of the pre- and post-Uprising regimes.

Organized chronologically in three sections, the dissertation begins with the “thuggee campaign” of the 1830s, the first administrative campaign to identify and pictorially document entire caste or professional groups. In this early period, I look at the role of representation in the process of criminalization and the range of visual media employed, including paintings, drawings, and clay models of thuggee types. These early criminal transcriptions, which targeted populations with fluid caste and professional identities, repeatedly focused on representing acts of criminality, rather than on static criminal typologies. The second chapter focuses on the era of the Uprising, and the production of more informal visual typologies in the forms of photographs of criminals arranged in the recently introduced genre of the photographic album. Made by officers in British service, and featuring carefully organized photographs of Uprising insurrectionaries, the albums are war-inflected, marginal narratives of criminality that demonstrate the imbrications of personal and public histories in the formation of criminological registers. Finally, the dissertation concludes with an examination of post-Uprising experiments in identifying criminal types. Including experiments in early fingerprinting and custodial photography, criminal transcription projects of the 1860s and 1870s reveal unsystematic negotiations of representation, and shed light on the idiosyncratic, marginal, even personal, origins of criminological indexing as a state-sponsored endeavor. They also reveal significant intersections between ethnology (later, ethnography), photography and practices of criminalization and incarceration.

Discussions on the significance of the arrival of photography have often been framed in terms of the indexicality of the medium, drawn from the theories of the nineteenth-century semiotician Charles Sanders Pierce. Pierce described the index as a sign bearing a causal connection to its object, differing from other types of representation in its physical contiguity and causal relation to that object. Because of the claims made for its indexical nature, the photograph has been historically privileged as a technology of representation that offers unmediated documentation, well represented by Henry Fox Talbot’s title for his treatise on the camera, The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846). However, although they were (and continue to be) widespread, claims for the indexicality of the photograph have been consistently met with skepticism. In fact, early uses of the photograph in the criminological context reveal a far more complex engagement with the photograph as a site of representation than that suggested by any simple embrace of its indexical potential.

The narrative of this dissertation intertwines two threads. Firstly, through a focus on indexing as performance—as transcriptions of encounters between the transcriber and transcribed— I re-insert the visual into a larger sensory regime. Such a re-location of the visual reveals shifts in the nature of criminological transcription before and after the Uprising. Secondly, I deliberately shift between the contiguous domains of the public and private spheres, moving away from traditional readings of colonial criminology as a systematic institutional project of empire. This conceptual departure has revealed the marginal, often highly localized origins of methods of criminal transcription—a marginality that, I contend, provided the latitude for varied experiments with indexing and visualizing criminality, some of which would later be deployed in the metropole.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Flood, Finbarr B.
Commitee: Brown, Rebecca, Khera, Dipti
School: New York University
Department: Institute of Fine Arts
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 77/05(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Art history, South Asian Studies
Keywords: Anthropology, Colonial india, Criminology, South asia
Publication Number: 3740912
ISBN: 978-1-339-33040-2
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