Inscribing asymmetry: Johann Zoffany's banyan and 'the extension of knowledge'

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This article focuses on the banyan tree in Johann Zoffany's conversation piece painted in Lucknow around 1786-87. One of the most striking motifs in the composition, it has rarely been analyzed, especially within the context of whatWarren Hastings called, 'the extension of knowledge' in colonial India. Specifically, I examine how its conflation with the artist's self-portrait spatialized the primeval within the orbit of collecting for the 'gentleman Orientalist'. Such an interpolation, I suggest, links key members of Lucknow's colonial elite portrayed in the painting with the newly instituted Asiatic Society in nearby Calcutta. To this end, I look at how the banyan encodes asymmetrical patterns of knowledge within new European loci of history and geography in India. Not only does it situate the performance of colonial gentlemanliness in a sensibility for the protean, it also conveys Zoffany's own agency in producing and affixing colonial knowledge. Thus, I discuss how the banyan metonymically stands for an emergent network of colonial cosmopolitanism in two very different centres of collecting and knowledge-formation. Furthermore, I posit that Zoffany anchors colonial knowledge in asymmetrical nodes through which 'native' cultural spaces and paradigms were rearranged into an uneven grid of information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)185-198
Number of pages14
JournalSouth Asian Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 2011


  • Asiatic Society
  • Banyan
  • Bengal
  • Jones
  • Lucknow
  • Martin
  • Polier
  • Zoffany

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • History


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