Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquests is about the institution, practice, and ideology of English studies introduced in India under British colonial rule. It does not seek to be a comprehensive record of the history of English, nor does it even attempt to record, in minute historical fashion, the various educational decisions, acts, and resolutions that led to the institutionalization of English. The work draws upon the illuminating insight of Antonio Gramsci, writing on the relations of culture and power, that cultural domination works by consent and can (and often does) precede conquest by force. Power operated concurrently at two clearly distinguishable levels where, according to Gramsci, the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways: firstly as ‘domination and secondly as ‘intellectual and moral leadership.’
This book sets out to demonstrate in part that the discipline of English came into its own in an age of colonialism, as well as to argue that no serious account of its growth and development can afford to ignore the imperial mission of educating and civilizing colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England, a mission that in the long run served to strengthen Western cultural hegemony in enormously complex ways.
The author has two general aims in writing this book. Firstly she studies the adaptation of the content of English literary education to the administrative and political imperatives of British rule; and secondly she examines the ways in which these imperatives in turn charged that content with a thoroughly changed significance, enabling the humanistic ideals of enlightenment to coexist with and indeed even support education for social and political control.
Among the several broad areas of emphases in this book the first and perhaps most important is that the history of English and that of Indian developments in the same areas are related but at the same time quite separate. The word separate indicates the gap between functions and uses of literary education in England and in India, despite the comparability of content at various points. One of the great contradictions in early nineteenth-century developments is uncovered at the level of comparison of the educational histories of England and India. With the educational context, one runs head on into the central paradox of British deliberations on the curriculum as prescribed for both England and India. While Englishmen of all ages could enjoy and appreciate exotic tales, romantic narrative, adventure stories, and mythological literature for their charm and even derive instruction from them, their colonial subjects were believed incapable of doing so because they lacked the prior mental and moral cultivation required for literature-especially their own-to have any instructive value for them.
The argument of this book leans toward the second proposition, specifically, that the introduction of English represented an tormented response to historical and political pressures: to tensions between the East India Company and the English Parliament, between Parliament and missionaries, between the East India Company and the Indian elite classes.
The book does not attempt to be a “definitive” study of English studies in India. It leaves aside many questions apart from those concerning the effects of literary instruction on individual Indians and the readings that educated Indians gave to the English texts they were taught