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Book Review


Partha Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013 (1977). Pp. xlvi + 390. New Introduction, 123 b/w photographs and two maps, Bibliography, Index. $55.00 (hardcover)


     Much Maligned Monsters was first published by Clarendon Press in 1977 and reprinted by the University of Chicago in 1992. The current edition, coming exactly a decade after the death of Edward Said, was released at virtually the same time that a scathing appraisal of Said's ethics and scholarship by Joshua Muravchik appeared in World Affairs, "Enough Said: The False Scholarship of Edward Said," This review builds to an interpretation of that coincidence.

     Most readers will not likely have the background in art history to be able to evaluate the true scope of Partha Mitter's meticulous inquiry into European reproductions, assessments, and interpretations of "monstrous" highly ornate Indian sculpture with its many-limbed gods and goddesses. Six densely written chapters (Indian Art in Travellers' Tales; Eighteenth Century Antiquarians and Erotic Gods; Orientalists, Picturesque Travellers, and Archaeologists; Historical and Philosophical Interpretations of Indian Art; The Victorian Interlude; Towards the Twentieth Century: A Reassessment of Present Attitudes) come to life for the non-specialist by way of profuse illustrations, each cross-referenced with text and endnotes. A variety of examples, such as Niebuhr's sketch of Shiva at Elephanta (Fig 53) in comparison to the original (Fig. 54) (shown below), reveal the extent of unintentional projection of meaning and symbolism in what were presented by explorers and scholars as accurate reproductions.

Figure 1

     In a lecture given to the University of Vienna School of Art History ( the year prior to the release of this revised edition, Mitter explained the spiritual impetus behind his book. As a student and lifelong friend of eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich, he wanted to apply Gombrich's theory of mental schema, correction, and the formation of stereotypes as key to appreciation and evaluation of art. I had the impression that Mitter had Gombrich specifically in mind as he wrote. Raised in India in a privileged environment, Mitter was nevertheless quite aware of races and multi-cultural realities in a way that the Austrian Gombrich was not. Gombrich's mother studied under Anton Bruckner and taught piano to Gustav Mahler's sister. Much Maligned Monsters is forceful while still gentlemanly. Mitter's treatment of misperceptions, exaggeration, carelessness, and underlying political and cultural tensions are incisive. At the same time, he is generous and leaves some questions open. He points out bad judgment but doesn't shame or denigrate.

     The book explores Gombrich's exceptionally useful notion of the stereotype as cultural reality, especially when a particular observation does not match that reality. The European explorers and travelers, whose accounts solidify into stereotypes, come across almost Indiana Jones-like in their quests, first bringing back fantastic tales, then awe-laden descriptions of ancient symbols and "hidden spiritual truths," and ultimately evidence held to be proof of ancient contact and the subsequent superior flourishing of the West.

     From ancient times, right up into the 20th century, Mitter documents the need of European visitors to syncretize their Christian beliefs with the sculpture and architecture of India. This is not unlike what is theorized today on network television history shows with regard to "ancient aliens," and examples from the book such as historical syncretisms of Dionysus, Bacchus, and Shiva could provide excellent object lessons at high school and college levels. Mitter's aim was not to criticize this tendency so much as to try to understand the core of its persistence. This core has included not only exotic and erotic projection, but also a long-held belief that structures such as the rock-carved caves at Ellora and Elephanta must have the work of an unknown ancient civilization when in fact most were later dated to around the 7th century CE. These ideas, which Mitter terms colonial representations, are softly analogous to Said's Orientalism.

     Although Much Maligned Monsters has been previously acknowledged as a classic, it is written in the style of academia in the early 1970s. This is not to say Mitter's agenda is a-political. He is challenging elements of his mentor's orthodoxy. He accepts Gombrich's assumption that art (visual, literary, theoretical) is cultural and not natural. He pushes even further the idea that language (the Whorf hypothesis) and early experiences (Hegel's lebenswelt) necessarily limit our perceptions, and he very effectively argues that the European lebenswelt embraces a style of art but no single style can be said to define Art. Mitter catalogs Europeans' appreciation of the elements, intent, craftsmanship, engineering, complexity, and meaning of Indian temples, sculpture, and painting. But, he says, throughout history, there has always been an identification of there being something missing, or something that diminishes, which keeps these works from being classified as Art. The convoluted, erudite European arguments he recounts are as astonishingly culture-bound as they are insidious.

     What I found most difficult in reading the book was that, lurking in the back of my mind, was Said's Orientalism. Edward Said has been a huge presence across scholarship in anthropology over my entire career. I had previously been aware that there had been "some discrediting" of his work, but his ideas had become so fundamental to how I think that I pretty much ignored the criticism. In point of fact, I only skimmed Orientalism after checking his credentials. Said's theory seemed obvious, matched my political leanings. I never checked his references. I was initially pleased to see that Mitter, an art historian, had mentioned Said in his new Introduction.

     I doubt Mitter's book will be very widely read. In comparison to Said's book, this one is dense and demands close reading. Its style is startlingly pre-Internet, but works well if read with a search engine at hand. I doubt there are very many people who have the time to read such a book, cover to cover, at a pace that will reveal the enormous subtlety of the scholarly arguments within.

     Mitter speaks about Gombrich having been highly influenced by Hegel. An echo of Hegel's sequence of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis can be detected in the way Mitter organizes the flow of his argument. At one point, he asks the reader whether Hegel's analysis of the history of art by way of a "Trinitarian superstructure" ultimately helped or hindered the European perception of Indian art. While acknowledging the power and depth of Hegel's intellectual synthesis and expansive range of knowledge, he decides in the negative.

. . . [Hegel] created a new myth about the essence of Indian art and like all myths it was a mixture of truths and untruths. Paradoxically, his dynamic principle of history, the dialectics of change, only helped to establish a fundamentally static image of Indian art, its immemorial immutability, its unchanging irrationality, and its poetic fantasy, all predetermined by the peculiar Indian national spirit. . . Hegel's characterization of the Indian 'spirit' was not based on empirical evidence but determined essentially by India's temporal position in Hegelian metaphysics. . . [B]oth India and China arrived on the scene before the spirit had embarked on its march of progress through history. . .China was all matter as India was all spirit. The resulting picture of China was insipid and puerile, a second-hand version of Jesuit accounts. Likewise, Indian art had to furnish the essential contrast to the progress of classical art. It was thus condemned to remain always outside history, static, immobile, and fixed for all eternity" (p. 228).

     Mitter's deconstruction of Hegel is oddly parallel to Said's assessment of the West in his book Orientalism, which stormed onto the academic scene in 1978, a year after Mitter's book. Interestingly, both Said and Mitter are people of color from wealthy, Western-oriented families. Said's father was enough in sympathy with Europeans to have named his son after King Edward VIII of England. Both men had upper class educations, and both have held extremely prominent professorships, residencies, and appointments. Said was accused over the years of falsification and fabrication, even of his own identity. When challenged on autobiographical falsehoods, he pointed the finger at definitional stereotypes created by "the West." Mitter is mannered, respectful, and meticulous. His sweep is broad and tediously documented. Said's fire and passion and, sadly, lies and distortions, caught the spirit of an age and captured it in a single word. While that is missing in Mitter's book, his work—unlike Said's--extends an olive branch.

Bethe Hagens is an anthropologist and member of the faculty for the Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration at Walden University (Minneapolis, Minnesota) and the Individualized Bachelor of Arts at Goddard College (Plainfield, VT). She can be reached at


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