Reflections: Indian Ink—Literary Insights into Colonialism and Identity

By Kabir Altaf

Flora: You are an Indian artist, aren’t you? Stick up for yourself. Why do you like everything English?

Das: I do not like everything English.

Flora: Yes, you do. You’re enthralled. Chelsea, Bloomsbury, Oliver Twist, Goldflake cigarettes, Winsor and Newton… even painting in oils, that’s not Indian. You’re trying to paint me from my point of view instead of yours—what you think is my point of view. You deserve the bloody Empire!

(Tom Stoppard, Indian Ink, pg. 43)

Great works of art often reveal insights about history in ways that are more accessible than academic historical accounts.  One work that was especially powerful in doing so for me is Tom Stoppard’s play Indian Ink. Ever since I first read this play some years ago, it has provoked me to think about the colonial experience in India as well as issues of identity and nationalism more generally.

In the tradition of Forster’s A Passage to India and Scott’s The Raj Quartet, Indian Ink examines the colonial experience through focusing on the relationship between one particular couple.   Set in two time periods (1930s India and 1980s England), the play tells the story of Flora Crewe, an English poet visiting India, and Nirad Das, an Indian artist who is painting her portrait.   Over the course of the play, Flora and Nirad’s relationship changes from a formal, distant one to a more intimate one. However, their relationship also reveals major points of tension and of culture clash.  Nirad constantly feels the need to impress Flora with his knowledge of England and of English culture, while Flora wants him to be himself. As the quote that I started this post with shows, she wants him to paint her from his own point of view.  He eventually does so, painting a nude portrait of her in the style of a Rajput miniature. Flora recognizes that he is working in his own tradition and has stopped trying to ape the English.  She tells him “This one is for yourself… I’m pleased. It has rasa” (74).

The play also makes interesting points about the reinterpretation of history, something that is a part of national and ethnic conflicts even today, both in South Asia and in other parts of the world. For example,  in the modern portion of the play, Anish (Nirad’s son) and Mrs. Swan (Flora’s sister) discuss the events of 1857, which Anish refers to as “the first War of Independence” and Mrs. Swan insists on calling the Mutiny (17). History is written by the victors and later reinterpreted by various political groups to suit their own agendas. For example, in modern India, the BJP reinterprets the Mughals as a foreign occupying force, religiously motivated by their negative feelings towards Hinduism. Other historians argue that this perspective is not an appropriate way to view the Mughals, many of whom assimilated and became “Indian.”  History remains a powerful force that can be used for various politically motivated ends. Stoppard’s play forces the audience to question the truth of any of these interpretations.

One of the most interesting aspects of the play is that Stoppard does not take sides. He is not arguing whether Empire was a positive or negative experience for India. Rather, he is using his play to stage a debate between conflicting points of view.  Stoppard himself lived in India for a few years as a child, after his family fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. In an interview with The Guardian in 2008, he stated that for him India was “a lost domain of uninterrupted happiness… what meant most to me was the physical India—chapatis cooking over a camel-dung fire. I haven’t ever stopped dreaming about it.” Returning to India in his 40s, Stoppard recalls meeting “elderly Indian people who had regret for the days of the Raj. So I’ve always been very divided about empire being a Bad Thing.”

The play eloquently presents both points of view. Anish argues that when the British came to India, it already boasted a highly developed culture and civilization. He says: “Even when you discovered India in the age of Shakespeare, we already had our Shakespeares. And our science—architecture—our literature and art, we had a culture older and more splendid, we were rich! After all, that’s why you came.”

Mrs. Swan presents the opposite point of view, arguing “We made you a proper country! And when we left you fell straight to pieces like Humpty Dumpty! Look at the map!” (17-18).  Yet even Mrs. Swan is a complicated, three-dimensional character. She tells Anish “In India we had pictures of coaching inns, and foxhunting, and now I’ve landed up in Shepperton I’ve got elephants and prayer wheels cluttering up the window ledges, and the tea-try is Nepalese brass” (25).

Stoppard similarly complicates the character of Nirad by revealing that he was imprisoned for anti-Raj actions but at the same time he loved English literature.  Thus, the play makes us see the complexities of the colonial experience and its effect on both colonizer and colonized. In this respect, it is different from the work of Forster and Scott, both of whose works seem to take a more negative view of the Raj era.

Overall, Indian Ink is a fascinating and thought-provoking play. It has provided me with a new sense of the complexities of the colonial experience and of our modern South Asian identities.

Kabir Altaf has a BA in Dramatic Literature and Music from George Washington University in Washington, DC.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 07:08h, 12 May Reply

    Between 1870 and 1900, 30 million Indians dies due to starvation from the El Nino famines that struck India and some areas even resorted to cannibalism, while the British raj justified it on the basis of social Darwinism theories. The solution to the famines lie in the sacks of rice and wheat at the harbours of India that were being exported to UK. This is a piece of history that is today not taught in the British history books or the Indian ones. To me, this particular piece is enough for a conclusive view about what the Raj was to India.

    Rudyad Kipling considered Indian independence as a ‘pretty idea.’
    Winston Churchill opined that Indians are not capable of governing themselves.

  • kabir
    Posted at 16:22h, 12 May Reply

    Vinod, I don’t think anyone denies that abuses occured under the British Raj. All I was trying to point out was that reading this play, along with Forster’s “A Passage to India” and Scott’s “The Raj Quartet” got me thinking about the complexities of the colonial experience, particularly in terms of the relationships between individuals. What is it like to rule over a large native population different from you simply because of the color of their skin? What if an individual, like Flora Crewe in this play, doesn’t completely believe in Empire and won’t play the role of the traditional “memsahib?” For me, these fictional depictions have helped to give insight into the psychological experience of colonialism, which honestly I’m more interested in than in forming macro-historical judgements.

    What I found most interesting about this play was that it doesn’t take sides. I also was suprised to know that Stoppard himself was a Jewish refugee who actually lived in India. I had always thought he was the quintessential British writer.

    Also, Stoppard is right when he states that he has met elderly Indian people who are nostalgic for the days of the Raj. Even in Pakistan, there are some elderly people who feel the same way. They point to things like recieving fair, impartial justice under English laws. Take that for what it’s worth. All I’m saying is I don’t think we can make reductionist judgements, like arguing that Empire was wholly a bad thing.

  • kabir
    Posted at 16:27h, 12 May Reply

    Also, Vinod you point to Kipling as an example. Have you read his novel “Kim?” That’s also really an interesting exploration of identity and colonialism in that the central character, Kim, though he is English, has been brought up as a native and feels himself to be Indian. I don’t have my copy of the book in front of me now but there are a lot of passages in there were Kim basically states his “Indianness.”

  • Vinod
    Posted at 17:01h, 12 May Reply

    Kabir, I know that my thoughts weren’t apposite to your article. It was tangential.

    Rudyard kipling’s ‘If’ remains my favourite poem till date.

  • kabir
    Posted at 18:58h, 12 May Reply

    Vinod, no problem with the tangent. I just wanted to clear up that my article (and I believe this play) weren’t trying to make excuses for British colonialism, just pointing out that it was a very complex experience that had psychological effects on both the British and the Indians.

    “If” is definitely an inspirational poem. It almost makes you want to forgive Kipling for coming up with the notion of the “white man’s burden” 🙂

  • Vikram
    Posted at 19:02h, 12 May Reply

    Well, correct me if I am wrong but I think one reason for the discontinuities and aberrations seen in Pakistan’s political system is the ‘detachment’ of the elite (and consequently people who have become the middle-class/elite in the last 60 years) from the non-violent struggle against British rule.

    Somehow the legacies of Ambedkar, Gandhi and to a lesser extent Nehru have found it easier to keep ‘living’ in India. This is one reason why although there were strong (and legitimate) separatist sentiments in Tamil Nadu and Assam, they have either down or havent been able to sustain themselves. In contrast, since Kashmir and other regions of the margins were never actively involved in the struggle, they still simmer (although now there are several other, more important reasons).

    I think most urban middle class Indians today just regard the British era as a period of their history. There really are no strong emotions involved and I personally feel thats a good thing. But I dont know what sub-altern groups like Muslims, Dalits and the people of the margins feel.

  • kabir
    Posted at 19:38h, 12 May Reply

    Vikram, you raise several interesting points. Unfortunately, I don’t think this post is the best place to answer them, or that I am qualified to do so. As I mentioned to Vinod, my intention in discussing this play was not to make excuses for colonialism but simply to examine the psychological complexities of the relationship between colonizer and colonized.

    I also thought the way the play addresses the reinterpretation of history is really interesting. The same event is seen from two different points of view and called either a war of independence or a mutiny, which mean two very different things. I tried to make an analogy between that reinterpretation of history and the way the BJP is trying to reinterpet the Mughal legacy. Any thoughts on that?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 00:04h, 13 May Reply

    Sorry, you are right, I thought you had raised the question of differing interpretations of British rule, so I was curious about what the Pakistani elite think.

    Coming to the BJP, the BJP is in the politics of projecting itself and its core votebank as victims and then using majoritarianism to victimize the marginalized today. As such, its interpretation of Mughal rule is not based on any rational thoughts and verifiable facts but by fear mongering and exaggerated claims of persecution, which its supporters (predominantly middle class/upper caste Hindu males) repeat ad nauseum to make it look like the truth.

    As such it is trying to rewrite history not reinterpret it, which is what the protagonists of your post are doing. As you say, they both accept a core set of facts, i.e. there was an armed rebellion, there was a foreign presence and then see things from their perspectives/backgrounds.

    One must note the BJP does not really stress on the foreign origin of the Mughals.

    The BJP puts a huge amount of emphasis on the destruction of temples by Islamic rulers and alleged forced conversions. Both reflect the insecurity of the Hindu male in relation to the masculinity of Muslim males and the oppressive history of their religion.

  • kabir
    Posted at 02:29h, 13 May Reply

    Thanks Vikram for the comments. They reflect my own experience of commenting on a prominent South-Asian American site. I’ve definitely come across posters who are obssessed with the issue of temple destruction and who also paint the Mughals on the whole as a foreign occupying force. There is much emphasis on Aurangzeb being the rule rather than the exception.

    I would slightly disagree with you though about whether this is rewriting or reinterpretation of history. It seems to me that there is some interpretation going on as well. Like in the play, where calling something a war of independence or a mutiny reflects the character’s ideological position, viewing the Mughals as a force of occupation or as a dynasty that largely assimilated and became “Indian” reflects one’s ideological views of who exactly is an Indian? It got me thinking about how history is never really objective (it’s a social science, it’s hard to be objective), but often reflects one’s ideology. It doesn’t make history invalid, it’s just important to recognize the ideological background of the writer.

  • Mahmood Gaddawi
    Posted at 20:40h, 07 March Reply

    good representation !!

  • sreeja
    Posted at 00:01h, 14 January Reply

    I think that Indian ink is a reworking of E M Forster’s A Passage to INdia

    • kabir
      Posted at 10:54h, 14 January


      What makes you think that “Indian Ink” is a reworking of “A Passage to India”?

      It’s true that both texts involve the relationship between an Indian man and a British woman. “Indian Ink” even references “Passage” directly. But, to my mind, one key difference is that the issue of “rape” doesn’t arise in “Indian Ink”. Flora and Das clearly have a consensual relationship while the alleged rape of Miss Quested is an important element in “Passage”.

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