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The Importance of Being Empress: Race, Labor, and Ornamental Indians

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The Importance of Being Empress: Race, Labor, and Ornamental Indians


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Saturday, July 10
10:00 a.m.–noon p.m. PT
Speaker: Dr. Siddhartha Shah, Director of Education and Civic Engagement, and the Curator of South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts


At her home on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria constructed a miniaturized and domesticated India over which she reigned as Empress. She commissioned an elaborate Durbar Room inspired by the grand meeting halls of Mughal India, filled a corridor with nearly one hundred paintings of Indian heads, and further outfitted her home with a staff of Indian men who breathed life into her most outrageous imperial fantasies. Dr. Shah’s research centers on portraits and public spectacles preserved in Queen Victoria’s personal photo albums. The manner in which the Queen displayed her Indians exposes striking parallels with slave portraits of the 16th-18th centuries. As such, his study positions Victoria’s self-fashioning as Empress of India within a centuries-old convention of displaying black and brown servants and slaves to fulfill contrasting social and chromatic effects—Indian people as decorative props, arranged in a symbolic and picturesque power play of light and dark, domination, and subordination.


Please reserve your spot by clicking on this link. All participants will be sent the Zoom link and instructions via email once you secure your place. Space is limited.

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Sponsored by the South Asian Arts Council.


Featured: Queen Victoria (1819-1901) with her Indian attendants, Mustafa and Chidda (detail), 1896. Gelatin silver photographic print pasted onto card. Royal Collection Trust.

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July 10, 2021
10:00 am - 12:00 pm
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