Lithographic printing fast-tracked images of hell to new broader publics in late 19th century India. These printed Karni Bharni or Karma ke Phal (“reap as you sow” and “fruits of karma”) images reproduced a pre-existing manuscript iconography but intensified their scale through their proliferation and repetition. Printed impressions thus came to impress their viewers in new ways. These images offer an iconic replication of (mis)deeds through the form that punishments take, demonstrating one of the ‘concrete’ dimensions of mimesis, and in the process ally themselves to very specific practices of power (whose late 20th century incarnation in the Emergency is also discussed). This recalls Joseph Koerner’s comment on the manner in which Hieronymus Bosch “engineers his own figurations to seem potentially like the idols they vilify”. An additional danger lies in the impossibility of returning to the off-stage what has been brought on-stage, as J.M. Coetzee observes in “The Problem of Evil”. Coetzee also locates a danger and positivity in our demand to see (those things as he puts it that “we want to see because we are human”). We might think of this as the signature of the visible: its ratchet effect, the permanent effect of the positivity of mimesis which can never be deleted. This is the power and the danger of these images.
Christopher Pinney is an anthropologist and art historian. He is currently Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College London. His research interests cover the art and visual culture of South Asia, with a particular focus on the history of photography and chromolithography in India. Melbourne. He is currently interested in cultural spaces which conventional social theory has tended to neglect: “more than local and less than global”, and spaces of cultural flow that elude the west.