Narrating Modern Comfort: Images of Middle-Class Homes in Colonial India

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 12:30 PM
Suffolk Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Abigail McGowan , University of Vermont, Burlington, VT
‘Home’ was a contested site in late colonial India, subject to the reformist imperatives of the colonial state, religious revivalists, and Indian nationalists, all of which struggled to remake domestic spaces into suitable training grounds for the next generation of India’s leaders.  Homes were, at the same time, open to new material influences thanks to widening industrial production, specialized marketing, and the professionalization of architecture.  In this paper I explore the changes wrought in Indian middle class homes in the late colonial period, as those who could afford new furnishings tried out novel narratives of modern identity by making domestic space inviting, comforting, and supportive.  Specifically, I focus on visual evidence of change, arguing that this transformation cannot be successfully narrated through textual means alone.  Scholars to date have explored the emotional and social reworking of the home resulting from reformist efforts to transform ideas of family, women’s work, and companionate marriage; to do so, they have successfully mined women’s memoirs, fiction, advice manuals, and women’s magazines.  But there has been little attention to how new ideas of family, work and marriage affected the material space of the home; nor has there been much interest in using visual evidence like popular posters, advertisements, architectural magazines, and film to explore the modernization of the Indian home in the late colonial era.  I argue that the contest over the home took visual forms that connected directly to competing narratives of the modern Indian, and that it is through visual materials that we can begin to make sense of it.  Specifically, I explore visions of comfort and modernity in the new Indian home, analyzing how visual depictions of middle class space helped imagine a new model of family life and what that contributed to the emerging nation.
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