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Book Review
‘Word, Image, Text: Studies in Literary and Visual Culture’
The idea of vision to go with that as intuition or imagination probably has a long history if one rewinds the clock. Idea is derived from the Greek term of verb, meaning ‘to see’. A sort of deep etymology, it suggests that the way an individual thinks is essentially guided by a visual paradigm. In this scheme of things in Western culture, the acts of looking, seeing and knowing often get intertwined hence the manner in which we come to follow the core concept of an ‘idea’ is bound up with issues of a picture or of an image, and its ‘appearance’.

As the early Wittgenstein had pointed out, a picture is a fact; whereas a logical picture of facts denotes an idea. The ‘visual culture’, in fact, has emerged as a history of images instead of that of art. The visual though is never pure and is invariably contaminated by the influence of other senses, touched by certain texts and discourses. For hypostasizing the visual risks of reinstalling the ‘noble’ sense’s hegemony, the visual, it can be argued, is ‘languaged’ just the way language itself tends to carry a visual dimension. In this context, ‘Word, Image, Text: Studies in Literary and Visual Culture’ (Edited by Shormishtha Panja, Shirshendu Chakrabarti, and Christel Devadawson; Publishers: Orient Blackswan, Price: Rs 445; Pages: 212) goes on to approach the Western intellectual history’s content and form in terms of how they ‘look’.

A clear pattern is palpable in the essays whereby we start from visual forms and theorize to attain understanding of those forms via mental constructs. A Professor of English from University of Delhi, Shormishtha Panja has served as Head, Department of English and has been Dean, Faculty of Arts at the university. The President of the Shakespeare Society of India, the literary expert has been a faculty at Stanford University. Shirshendu Chakrabarti, a Professor of English also at the University of Delhi, was an Inlaks Scholar at Oxford’s Trinity College. A D.Phil. from the University of Oxford underscores the expert’s credentials. Last but not the least, Christel Devadawson attached with the Delhi University’s Department of English, was a Cambridge Nehru Scholar for her Ph. D. She has taught at St Stephen’s College and had headed the English Department there. She has given lectures at the universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, Leicester and Warwick as Westcott Memorial Lecturer.

Thanks to their inextricable and intricate intertwining of representation and discourse with images, the book succinctly imbricates visual and verbal experience. It argues that there is nothing like pure visual and verbal media, words without pictures and vice versa. The scholarly editors have adopted a classically deconstructive methodology to deconstruct the binary opposition between text and image, or the discursive and the visual, highlighting that neither image nor text can be seen as a pure entity in isolation from one another.

This collection of eclectic essays on the conceptualization as well as representation of fine elements of nature and time plus their intricate interrelationship in streams of the visual arts and literature offers a precious insight into the subject. Penned by scholars both from India and western academia, experts who are established authorities in their domain as well as critics making a foray in the realm of scholarly research make for an interesting combination. There is also an essay by a practising artist skillfully meditating on both nature and time through meticulous self-portraits.

The contributors to the thoroughly researched document boast writers from a wide section of skills, professions and locations, including India, Australia, the US Norway and Spain. The scope of the volume is vast: it encompasses not just the literature and art of European continent from the 15th through the 19th centuries; it includes a careful examination of the Indian sub-continent’s art and literature as well. The visual and verbal genres examined are indeed manifold: painting, sculpture, frontispiece, engraving, miniature, book illustration, cartoon and photograph juxtaposed with epyllion, comedy, epic, satire, children’s fiction, travelogue etc.

Giving an idea of the rationale and scope of the exercise, an introductory note elaborates: “The book is an attempt to break down the isolation of the two disciplines, literature and the visual arts, and to make parallelism an exploratory method aimed at a mutually enriching synthesis. Since ideas and tendencies acquire an irreducibly concrete life in artistic representation, examination of the same life in two different art forms deepens our understanding of it as well as of the larger issues and contexts in which the literary and visual texts are embedded. While this is a collection of scholarly essays, there is enough here to interest the lay reader.”

The editors have made a conscious effort to cut down on jargon so as to make the book reader friendly, clear and easily accessible sans diluting the content. The addition of many full-color plates drawn from renowned museums across the world such as the Vatican Pinacotheca; the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels add value from reader’s perspective.

‘Word, Image, Text’ is a laudable attempt to restore the balance in traditional literary scholarship of often veering towards the verbal. To borrow from Tiepolo’s Hound, a poem by Derek Walcott, talking of ‘Apelles Painting the Portrait of Campaspe’, an 18th century artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s artwork, the editors have done their best to ‘watch from the painting’s side’ the realm of the unfolding text.