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Staging India at Chicago’s World's Fair


Complicating the orientalist gaze
By Ishan Ashutosh |
JULY 15, 2021
Birds-eye view of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.
The India Pavilion at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 inaugurated some of the most enduring images of South Asia that would be staged repeatedly, including up to a century later with the Festival of India.1 At the center of the Fair stood the “white city”, a building bathed in light and surrounded by exhibits celebrating industrial progress and an outer ring of buildings and gardens that represented other parts of the world, including India. From the nearby Sweden Building, the 4800-square foot India Pavilion (also called the East India Building) could be readily identified by its minarets and its striking contrast to the neoclassical architectural style of most of the Fair’s buildings. Designed by Henry Ives Cobb, whose Newberry Library located ten miles north of the Exposition also opened in 1893, the India Pavilion mimicked Mughal architecture in miniature, evoking Fatehpur Sikri’s Buland Darwaza and Delhi’s Jama Masjid, though removing entirely their cultural significance. The structure was “painted in a most fantastic Oriental style” intended to “render the structure a striking object among the cosmopolitan specimens of architecture” that filled Jackson Park.2 Upon venturing inside the structure, visitors could expect to be greeted by “Indian waiters in Indian costumes.” The Indian Tea Association used the fair to promote the tea trade, and as visitors looked onto the collection of carpets, utensils, and weapons used in warfare, they were served tea from “Indian manufactured crockery, hand-painted by native Indians and served by native servants in native garb.”3

The India exhibit emerged through a largely uncoordinated effort by British and American interests. The colonial government established a royal commission composed of British industrialists, entrepreneurs, and former colonial officials, with the founder of the Indian National Congress, Dadabhai Naoroji, as the sole Indian member.4 Disconcerted with the ineffectiveness of the Royal Committee, members of the native elite in Bombay formed a committee composed of British and American merchants to ensure that India would be well represented at the Exposition.5 The India exhibit attempted to simulate what colonial knowledge had ordained to be the quotidian experiences of India with cultural performances that marked it as a site of distance and difference from the West. Plans were hatched for transporting twelve elephants from India replete with a howdah and mahout for rides alongside performances of “suttee, cremation, jugglery, nautch, wrestling, etc.”6

Indian rulers of the princely states who would ultimately make their way to the exposition loaned their personal items to Henry Ballantine, an American born in India to missionary parents and a successful merchant in Bombay prior to becoming the American Consul to India in 1890.7 Like other aspects of the exhibition that conveyed the shift from American nation-building to empire-building, the India exhibit contributed to these efforts by attempting to display Anglo-American mastery over India.8 The Indians and their loaned items made their way to Chicago as representatives of entire groups, characters in a colonial novel, or as ethnological specimens. Charlotte Elizabeth Ballantine, the consul’s wife, appointed as special commissioner of the Woman’s Department for the exhibit, boasted that their unique experiences in India granted them with the power of representation.

Thus far no one has been so bold as to contemplate the bringing of the high caste Mahometan and Hindoo women out of India… Owing to my husband’s influence with the East Indians and my knowledge of the language, and of medicine, which has enabled me to enter the harems and zenanas of all castes… nothing now prevents the complete representation of every class of India at the Exposition.9

Ballantine’s statement reveals the construction of community that pervaded American Orientalist conceptions of Indian society as manifest at the fair: namely, the conception of a fundamental division between Hindus and Muslims that would be consummated in the subcontinent’s partition half a century later.
The "India Block" at the Panama Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.
Recreating India through the essentialized site of the Indian village offered visitors glimpses into the previously unknown and hidden spaces of the “mohammedan zenana, and the Hindu woman’s home.”10 The India exhibit would display this land of contrasts by highlighting “the spectacle of the wealth and luxury as well as the poverty of that distant country.”11

The exposition’s promotional materials and press’s repeated reference to “Indians’ and ‘native’” participation reveals the aura of authenticity that they provided to the Indian Pavilion. Estimates indicated that between two and 500 Indians would, thanks to the Ballantines, participate in the exhibit, including, as news reports typically mentioned, “a number of high-caste Brahmins.”12 With their presence, the Pavilion re-sited Indian culture, a transplantation rather than its production by translation. Like characters in well circulated tales of Oriental despots, Jagajit Singh, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, arrived to a “crowd of spectators”, and a Raja Gopal of Madras “proved too much of an attraction.”13 Gobind Burshad, a Brahman “high priest”, found a captive audience for his insights on the range of articles in the exhibit building.14 Not only did the American gaze transform these people into objects, but traveling to the fair, the press reported, supposedly modernized the Indian participants. The very journey to Chicago was “affecting the oldest established religions in the East,” eradicating caste divides and enabling the Indian to “forget his religion.”15 America, with Chicago’s White City positioned as the city of the future, seemingly brought Indians into the realm of modernity. The Exposition also proved to be the grounds for countering representations of India and Indians erasing the barriers that colonial knowledge used to render them legible.

For Swami Vivekananda, a devotee of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, however, the propagation of Hinduism served as the very purpose of his trip. After securing the status of delegate with the help of elite Americans in Boston and Chicago, Vivekananda used the stage at the exposition’s World’s Parliament of Religions to argue that religious conflict elided their fundamental unity. Preaching what would become one of the foundations of the Vedanta Society, established in New York by his followers in 1894, Vivekananda called for spiritualism’s non-subordination to materialism. His message of religious harmony was replete with citations from the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and Christian hymns.16 At the Parliament, Vivekananda famously roused the seven thousand attendees to an extensive applause after referring to them as “sisters and brothers of America” in his welcome address. He hoped, he said, that the World’s Parliament of Religions “may be the death knell of all fanaticism.”17
In foreground, from left: Virchand Gandhi, Anagarika Dharmapala, and Swami Vivekananda at the World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893
Vivekananda’s presence at the Parliament is memorialized today with the honorary street name “Swami Vivekananda Way” that runs along Michigan Avenue at the entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago, where the Parliament was held in mid-September 1893. Inside the Institute, a plaque commemorating Vivekananda’s speech greets visitors at Fullerton Hall. In 2010, artist Jitish Kallat inscribed Vivekananda’s speech in LED lights on the stairwell of the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase as a testament to Vivekananda’s enduring message, which was made all the more salient given the date of its delivery, September 11th.

Vivekananda was not alone, as parliament participants from South Asia represented “the most numerous and impressive of all foreign delegations.”18 In addition to Vivekananda, speakers included the theosophist Gyanandra Nath Chakravarty (1861-1936); the Zoroastrian priest Jivanji Jamshodji Modi (1854-1933); Protap Chandra Mazoomdar (1840-1905) and Balwant Bhau Nagarkar (1858-1926) of the Brahmo Samaj movement; Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933); Jain scholar Virchand Gandhi (1864-1901); and Jane (also spelled Jeanne) Sorabji, who not only presented eminent Zoroastrian priest Jivanji Jamshodji Modi’s paper, but delivered a speech of her own about the status of women in India. Their collective voice countered popular representations of India circulating in Britain and the United States, revealing the lines of connection and division that dominated the Parliament of World’s Religions and the World’s Columbian Exposition.

The Parliament strove to offer a counterpoint to the Western triumphalism on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Indeed, rather than celebration, Parliament Chairman John Barrows expressed that the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing at the Bahamas that commenced the European conquest of the Americas “carried the mind back to an era of persecution and of abysmal separations between the Christian and non-Christian peoples.”19 In the United States, the search for a common humanity through the incorporation of multiple religious teachings guided mid-19th century transcendentalists and later, in the Theosophical teachings that Chakravarty emphasized in his opening remarks:

As I travel from place to place, from New York to Cincinnati, and from Cincinnati to Chicago, I have observed an ever-increasing readiness of people to assimilate spiritual ideas, regardless of the source from which they emanate… through the mists of prejudice that still hand on the horizon, will be consummated the great event of the future, the union of the East and West.20

Dharmapala likewise found that the Parliament stood to bring about the “dawning of universal peace,” particularly as it faintly echoed the Buddhist councils established under Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. The Parliament was an “American Asoka” that stood to consolidate the diversity of the world’s faiths.21

Despite the stated desire of the Parliament to bridge religious divides, the representation of the world’s religions was rather uneven. 152 papers and speeches focused on Christianity, 12 on Buddhism, 8 on Hinduism, 2 papers each on Islam, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, and 1 each on Jainism and Taoism.22 The conflict between human unity, on the one hand, and the championing of a particular religion over another, animated the sessions. The American diplomat Mohammed Alfred Russell Webb, the sole speaker representing Islam, was heckled at the start of his paper, “The Spirit of Islam”, for his apparent defense of polygamy, though the edited text of his speech omits the section that caused such offense.23 The Reverends George F. Pentacost and L.E. Slater both argued that Christianity represented the only universal religion, a position that they supported by showing its growing popularity in India.24 In his paper, “The Invincible Gospel”, Pentecost departed from the written text to state that “some of the Brahmins of India have been here and have dared make an attack on Christianity. They take the slums of New York and Chicago and ask us why we do not cure ourselves. They take what is outside Christianity and judge us by it25. Pentacost then proceeded to affirm Christianity’s superiority by suggesting that one need to look no further than Hindu temples for signs of the religion’s immorality, where, as Barrows paraphrased, Pentacost claimed that “priestesses were prostitutes and prostitutes priestesses.”26 Pentacost then concluded with “and these people come here to criticize us. There have been several little Brahminical bubbles floating around Chicago for the last week and they need to be pricked.”27

This representation of India was challenged in other sessions. Vivekananda pointed to the material inequalities unaddressed by proselytization by posing the following challenge to his Christian counterparts: “you Christians who are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the soul of the heathen, why do you not try to save their bodies from starvation?”28 Gandhi began his paper, “The History and Tenets of the Jains in India,” with a sharp rebuke of the evaluations of Indian religions that were derived from “third-hand, fourth-hand sources, percolating through layers of superstition and bigotry.”29 He ended by insisting that Christians adopt a more open view towards religion by recounting the story of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s refusal to desecrate the Bible. The Portuguese had seized copies of the Quran from Muslim pilgrims travelling to Mecca and hung these texts from the necks of dogs and paraded them through the streets of Ormuz. Unlike the Portuguese, Akbar explained to his mother as she pleaded for retribution, he knew well the beauty of both the Bible and the Quran.

Jane Sorabji’s presence and voice in Chicago were critical. She questioned the way she, and India more broadly, had been stereotyped in the press, by fairgoers, and in the Parliament. Variously cast as an embodiment of Oriental royalty, as a representative of Indian women, and as a Parsee, Sorabji confounded each of the categories assigned to her. The Chicago Daily Tribune incorrectly identified the appearance of “Sarabji, an Indian princess” who accompanied the Ballantines to Chicago from Bombay.30 Jane Sorabji, however, was also a speaker at the Parliament, the only woman among the speakers from India. At the Parliament, she was initially introduced incorrectly again, as a Parsee; in fact, she had converted to Christianity. The daughter of Francina Ford Sorabji, who founded the Victoria Hall School for Girls in Poona, Jane, along with her sisters, Cornelia, Susan, and Lena, was the director of one of the family-run schools in Poona. As the philosopher Richard Sorabji writes in his biography of his great-aunt, Cornelia Sorabji, Jane left the family and went to Bombay, where she worked at a hospital while pursuing a medical degree, before being asked to participate in the World’s Parliament of Religions.31
Image from: ‘Jeanne Sorabji in San Francisco: The Indian Princess Proposes to Lecture before the Women of California’. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Feb 3, 1894, p. 16.
In the paper Sorabji presented at the Parliament, “The Women of India,” she challenged representations of India at not only the World’s Fair, but across empire’s wide expanse. Sorabji began with a certain weariness of how Indian women had been represented: “It has been said to me more than once in America that the women of my country prefer to be ignorant and in seclusion.”32 To underscore the knowledge and agency of Indian women otherwise marginalized in popular representations, Sorabji pointed to their global influence.

Let me mention the Pundita Rambai, and in companionship with her Cornelia Sorabji, B.A., L.L.D. These are women for a nation to be proud of. There are others worthy of your notice—the poet, Sumibai Goray; the physician, Dr. Anandibai Joshi, whom death removed from our midst just as she was about starting her grand work, and the artist of song, Mme. Thereze Langrana, whose God-given voice thrills the hearts of men and women in London.33

Sorabji also took the opportunity to challenge the objectification of Indians at the exposition. Speaking to a local reporter, Sorabji remarked, “[T]he manner in which the people here gaze at a person is very embarrassing. I don’t like it.”34 To convey that she was “no savage,” Sorabji devised a strategy that returned the colonial gaze; it became a pivotal component of anti-colonial nationalism. She would meet these stares and then, turning to her observers, would address them in fluent English. While the use of English may be seen as a product of colonial education policy, infamously presented in Thomas Macaulay’s Minute of 1835, Sorabji’s use of English challenged representations of Indian women with a voice that resisted how India had been put on display.

The staging of India in Chicago reflected the broader representational politics of expositions held across cities in Europe and the United States since the mid-nineteenth century. At World’s Fairs from London to Chicago, India was made to symbolize a contrast from the West: religion versus reason, savagery versus civilization, materialism versus spirituality.35 As celebrations of progress, these events rendered the non-West as fixed in time and space, an immobile picture ripped from the pages of colonial science and materialized for Western eyes and consumption.36 But as the archives confirm, there were always those whose words complicated the picture, whose voices cut through the myths, and who dared to return the objectifying stare.


1. Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, “Rogue Hanuman on the Metro”, Tides Magazine (April 17, 2019). Available from: https://www.saada.org/tides/article/rogue-hanuman-on-the-metro
2. William E. Cameron, The World’s Fair: Being a Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition (Grand Rapids: P.D. Farrell & Co., 1893).
3. Cameron, The World’s Fair. P. 544.
4. Royal Commission for the Chicago Exhibition and World’s Columbian Exposition. Official Catalogue of the British Section. (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1893).
5. ‘India is making Preparations’, Chicago Daily Tribune, (September 10,1892), p. 13.
6. ‘Elephants from India’. World’s Columbian Exposition Illustrated (Chicago: J.B. Campbell, 1892), p. 200.
7. Following the Exposition, Ballantine did not return these loaned items, their lenders pleaded to the State Department for their items’ return for years to come. M. V. Kamath, The United States And India (1776-1976) (Washington, D.C.: Embassy of India, 1976), p. 366.
8. Mona Domosh, ‘A “civilized” commerce: gender, “race”, and empire at the 1893 Chicago Exposition’, Cultural Geographies, 9(2), 2002, 181–201.
9. ‘To Exhibit an East Indian Village’, New York Tribune, (September 1, 1891), p. 2.
10. ‘Among the most interesting exhibits at the world’s fair’, Independent, 1891, 222.
11. ‘To have a village from India’, Chicago Daily Tribune, (July 28, 1891), p. 7.
12. ‘To have a village from India’
13. ‘Pleases the Raja’, Chicago Daily Tribune, (August 4, 1893), p. 1.
14. World’s Columbian Exposition, The Chicago Record’s History of the World’s Fair (Chicago: Chicago Daily News Co., 1893).
15. ‘To a new era in India’, Chicago Daily Tribune, (April 9, 1893), p. 11.
16. Peter van der Veer, ‘Spirituality in Modern Society’, Social Research: An International Quarterly, 76(4), 2009, pp. 1097–1120; S. Vivekananda, Chicago Addresses (Champawat: Advaita Ashrama, 2015).
17. John Henry Barrows, ed. The World's Parliament of Religions: An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World's First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Vol. 1. (Chicago, Parliament Publishing Company, 1893), p. 102. There is debate as to whether Vivekananda actually uttered these words in his welcome address. John Barrows recorded Vivekananda as saying these words, as well as the response from the audience (Barrows, World’s Parliament of Religions v. 1, p. 101).
18. J.V. Nash, “India at the World's Parliament of Religions.” The Open Court, 1933, 47(4), p.218.
19. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 1, p. 5.
20. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 1, p. 100.
21. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 1, p. 123.
22. Michaud, Derek. “World Parliament of Religions.” Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy. Available from: http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/worldparliamentofreligions1893.html
23. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 2, p. 989.
24. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 2. 1166-1178.
25. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 1, p. 145
26. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 1, p. 144.
27. ‘Attacks on the Religions of India: Dr. Pentecost’s severe arraignment, the feature of the Evening Session’. Chicago Daily Tribune, September 25, 1893.
28. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 1, p. 128-129.
29. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 1, p. 145
30. ‘Princess of India at the fair’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 1893, p. 2.
31. Sorabji, Richard. Opening Doors: The Untold Story of Cornelia Sorabji, Reformer, Lawyer and Champion of Women's Rights in India. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010).
32. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 2, p. 1037.
33. Barrows, World Parliament of Religions, v. 2, p. 1037-38.
34. ‘Princess of India at the fair’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 1893, p. 2.
35. Carol A. Breckenridge, ‘The aesthetics and politics of colonial collecting: India at world fairs’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 31(2), 1989, 195–216.
36. Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

Ishan Ashutosh is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Indiana University - Bloomington. His work encompasses the study of migration, the politics of race and ethnicity from an international and comparative perspective, and urban studies. He has published in Progress in Human Geography, South Asian Diaspora, Citizenship Studies, Diaspora, and Ethnic and Racial Studies.