Darshan and Disenchantment: Painting Worship in India, 1861-1947

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University Club, Room 212
@ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Painting of the vestibule of an ancient Buddhist temple with extensive carvings and several human figures engaged in ritual activities. In the bottom left corner a partially dressed man stands next to a stupa or lingam and paints red pigment onto a large pillar. Painted in blue, purple and ochre hues with small areas of bright red pigment.
Marianne North, “Entrance to the Cave of Karlee (Karli), Maharashtra, India,” 1878. Oil on paper. Collection of the Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Aisha Motlani

ACLS Resident Fellow (2022-2023)

Lecturer in Art History, Theory, Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago


During the second half of the nineteenth century, Hindu rites, practices, and places of worship were subject to increasing regulation attempts by the British colonial administration. At the same time, religious and cultural nationalists often cast these practices as true expressions of Indian identity and valuable links to the nation’s pre-colonial past. “Darshan and Disenchantment: Painting Worship in India, 1861-1947” asks how Indian, European, and American artists contributed to the cultural and political discourse surrounding Hindu worship, focusing on the period between the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India (1861) and the date of Indian Independence (1947). It explores the ways in which visual representations of Hindu worshippers and practices such as sati, cremation, and religious pilgrimages, helped to support, challenge, or provide potent expression for religious nationalism and the Indian struggle for self-rule. It also looks at how paintings of historic sites of lived worship reveal convergences as well as conflicts between two modes of vision, one predicated on the pictorial demands of western modernity and the other on the Hindu concept of divine reciprocity of sight, or darshan.


Aisha Motlani is a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and senior researcher at the state arts advocacy organization Arts Alliance Illinois. Her research and teaching focus on the visual culture of colonialism, with an emphasis on British India. Her PhD dissertation examined visual representations of the 1857 Indian Rebellion across a variety of media, including painting, print, and photography. An article based on her research was recently published in the Oxford Art Journal. Her current research examines the entwined histories of architectural preservation, colonial aesthetics, and religious experience in India circa 1860-1947 and is supported by the American Council of Learned Societies.

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