As global travel boomed from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, Europeans and Americans became increasingly fascinated with Indian culture. Merchants, soldiers, and missionaries documented their visits to India and other foreign lands in illustrated accounts. Created using such techniques as engraving, aquatint, lithography, and photogravure, these subjects and designs were easily duplicated, and copies circulated widely. Publishers regularly edited, amended, or simply reprinted them in publications as varied as atlases, memoirs, and history books.
The spread of these images led to broader knowledge and interest in Indian culture—but also to the creation and proliferation of negative stereotypes. Ascetics, or religious figures who renounce material comforts, were depicted over the years as supernatural beings, devout penitents, militants, tricksters, and beggars. Religious ceremonies were interpreted within a Christian framework instead of a Hindu one, leading to misconceptions of devotees as sinners or fanatics. With the aid of Indian art, deities were catalogued as lovers, drug users, and creators of the cosmos, which fed generalizations of India as a sensual, spiritual land.
The fifty artworks in Strange and Wondrous, from the encyclopedic Robert J. Del Bontà collection, show how certain ascetics and Hindu practices became emblems for all that Europeans and Americans found exotic, repulsive, or remarkable in India. By tracing how these images were interpreted and reproduced over time, the exhibition also demonstrates how perceptions of Indian culture shifted through the centuries, from the Enlightenment to the colonial period and Christian missionary movement, and into modernity. Together these prints reveal structures of the European and American imagination as much as they encapsulate conceptions of India.