Centre and Periphery

Panoramic Visuality in Kim and The Impressionist

Charlotte Joergensen (Royal Holloway)


This paper seeks to show how a Victorian popular medium of entertainment is a fundamental part of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim from 1901. Kim is considered a definitive work of fiction about the British Empire, because it gives imaginative form to quintessential British ideas about India. Kipling makes India exhilaratingly exotic yet reassuringly familiar at the same time, and it is my argument that part of this feat is achieved through the use of a mode of representation well-known to a Victorian readership: the panorama. This popular pictorial phenomenon was a major cultural presence in nineteenth-century Europe, Russia, America, and the British colonies and showed views of both English and Oriental towns and landscapes as well as forming a part of theatrical performances, fictional writings, scientific documentation, fairground and home-entertainment. However, the most interesting thing about the panorama is not its subject-matter, but how it conditioned the gaze of not just its immediate audience but of Victorian society, a gaze which is closely linked to notions central to imperialism. The panoramic gaze is recognisable throughout Kim, and it is thus not only a story which narrates the Empire, but is very much a fiction springing from Victorian culture.
What significance did Kipling’s use of the panorama have to his narrative? After all, when he wrote Kim, new pictorial entertainments had surpassed the panorama, so why did he use a declining medium? Part of this explanation will take me to a brief exposition of The Impressionist, Hari Kunzru’s postmodern rewriting of Kim, which will highlight the significance of Kipling’s use of the panoramic.


What is a panorama? This may seem obvious to everyone and without any need for further explication, but the way we use the term today does not reflect its origin, so we should have a look at the thing itself. In 1787 after having solved the problem of reproducing a correct perspective on a curved surface Robert Barker patented what since 1791 became known as a ‘panorama’ (Richard D. Altick, The Shows of London, 132). This was a cylindrical building on whose outer inside walls a gigantic painting on canvas was hung. The audience would enter the building from below, walk to the centre and then either walk up or later take a lift to the viewing platform. This platform would be constructed in such a way that the top and the bottom of the canvas would be hidden from the spectator’s view, adding to the illusion of reality the panorama tried to create. The panoramas were painted with minute attention to detail as part of the realistic movement and growing interest in history. Semantically the word ‘panorama’ would come to denote a cornucopia of metonymically listed information and details while retaining the appeal to the visual imagination.
The first permanent panorama building opened in Leicester Square in 1794 and had its heyday together with other panoramas in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, yet continued until it finally closed in 1863. The size of this panorama was ninety feet, or approximately thirty meters in diameter. An even bigger panorama which compels attention was the painting in the London Colosseum which showed London as it could be seen from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1821. This was 134 feet, or approximately 45 meters in diameter. It opened in 1829 but was only popular for a few years. However, the building, still showing the panorama in an increasingly derelict condition, was used for other entertainment purposes until this also closed down in 1868.

The panoramas were the newsreel of the day, illustrating what the papers wrote about. Therefore the topics included battle scenes from France, the Crimea, Egypt, and India, all showing a victorious British army carving out the emerging British Empire, which was thus given visual expression by the panoramas.
The panorama generated other ‘-oramas’, which however lost the circumferential form. Its two main descendants were the moving panorama and the diorama. The moving panorama was a long canvas which would be rolled from one side to the other in a show which could last for up to two hours. This would be ideal for imitating travel. A lecturer would be guiding the audience through the trip. The diorama was one or two canvases which were illuminated to create a dynamic effect. Later Daguerre would paint on both sides of a canvas with a combination of opaque and transparent colours. Depending on from which side the canvas was lit, two different scenes of the same place could be created.
It would only be the original panorama which enwrapped the spectator completely in a total pictorial experience. Since the panorama was painted with the audience’s point-of-view in mind, a significant characteristic of the panorama was its ability to centre the spectator. This centring emphasised the dominant position held by the British, their successful culture, its conquests and achievements. In nineteenth-century Britain the Euro-centripetal force was increased by the existence of the panorama which set up exotic places as a passive object for a British audience’ gaze, a gaze which was confirmed by the centrality of Britain’s own successful agency. Additionally, the hugeness of the panorama gave the spectator the impression that the world stretched out unchangeably, and that it was a fixed, static landscape with unmoving people on a continuous horizon, exposed to the ever-present curiosity of the West.
This horizon structure of the world has been theorised by Merleau-Ponty who bases himself on Husserl, but places greater emphasis on the body, as his basic tenet is that our awareness of our body influences the way we perceive the world. He describes the horizon of the world which is ever present in our visual field thus: “The world, which I distinguish from myself as the totality of things or of processes linked by causal relationships, I rediscover ‘in me’ as the permanent horizon of all my cogitations and as a dimension in relation to which I am constantly situating myself.” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, xiv)

However, we must also notice that due to the dissolution of the normal vanishing point a panorama in Jonathan Crary’s words “stood for a permanent activation of the optical periphery at the expense of a stable centre of focused attentiveness.” (Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, 3) Such “a permanent activation of the optical periphery” is akin to an activation of the geographical periphery of an expanding British power, a boundary we could call the ‘colonial periphery’. This activation of the periphery turns out to provide an interesting perspective on Kipling’s use of the panoramic as we shall see.


The panorama had from its early days a considerable influence on the British cognition of the world, a cognition which was ideal for supporting imperial ideas. So how are the panoramic and the imperial linked in Kim? How does Kipling use these panoramic elements and to what ends? First of all the narrative is structured by Kim’s tours round the northern half of India in the company of the lama and Mahbub Ali, with whom he even sails across the Arabian sea. And Kim and the reader’s consciousness is further protended when travelling on the railways with the telegraph poles flashing by; when viewing the broad and wide vistas of the plains with the foothills of the Himalayas in the background – a motif which is frequently repeated – and when travelling on the Grand Trunk Road,
“[t]his broad smiling river of life” (Rudyard Kipling, Kim, 109) which is also a “seeing all Indian spread out to left and right” (Kim, 111). All these lines and horizons embrace the wish-fantasy which is Kim.
However, these longs lines across India would not constitute a panoramic experience without the repeated extensive detailed descriptions, the archaeology, of scenes and people of these scenes. Kipling provides the reader with several catalogues of people whom he sees and meets: in the bazar and the Serai after Kim has met the lama. Sweepingly , we are told that here are “all the races of Upper India” (Kim, 65). We also meet a small contingency of Indian cultures in the railway carriage, where people “sit side by side with all castes and people” (Kim, 76), and among the pupils of St. Xavier’s (Kim, 171-2), but it is on the Grand Trunk Road that the big catalogue unfolds. In this very abbreviated extract we have the strong-scented Sansis, fair-traders calling; a “marriage-procession… with music and shoutings, and a smell of marigold and jasmine stronger than even the reek of the dust.” (Kim, 110)
Yet despite all the efforts by the narrator the persons do not quite come to life; it is all too nice and good to be real. Although we are provided with smells and sounds, we are only given details about the good and exotic smells: how the Sansis’ scent, and what the dust reeks from, we are not told, we only told of the flower smells of jasmine and marigold. Likewise with the sounds: these may be loud, but they are overall jolly; there is no infernal, intimidating noise here on the Grand Trunk Road, and it does not quite ring true. Going back briefly to the London panoramas, the subject-matter in these was odourless and silent, any intended sound would come from accompanying music and a description by a lecturer. The ones providing the reek were the audience, who could be quite pungent, and they would no doubt have made quite a lot of noise too. However, this lack of unpleasant smells and noises is what makes the catalogues in Kim truly panoramic: These scenes and people are primarily for visual consumption; the smell of sweat from people’s daily toil remains unregistered.

We find Kim in another panorama situation when he wakes up on the Grand Trunk Road as part of the Kulu woman’s retinue:

The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks. Kim sat up and yawned, shook himself, and thrilled with delight. This was seeing the world in real truth; this was life as he would have it – bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl [~whirl] of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within ear-shot went to work. Indian was awake, and Kim was in the middle of it.
(Rudyard Kipling, Kim, p. 121)

In this passage we have strong panoramic elements. We have the declared veracity of panorama paintings: “This was seeing the world in real truth”; we have the method for visual consumption of a panorama: “[N]ew sights at every turn of the approving eye”; and we have the spectator and his reception of the spectacle in the panorama building: “Kim was in the middle of it”, “thrilled with delight”. Kim, of course, is no ordinary panorama spectator; he is one of the colonisers, he is part of the imperial enterprise. He is in fact “[t]his one boy in all India” (Kim, 138) around whose controlling eyes and ears his father’s regiment moves.
When Kim is discovered by the Mavericks, his self-chosen identity comes under pressure. Already we read how his perception of India begins to change when he considers escaping into the “great, grey, formless India, beyond tents and padres and colonels.” (Kim, 143) Gone are all the people from the Indian canvas, gone is the canvas with the horizon which provides the structure for Kim’s placing in India. Gone in fact is the idea which Kim has of India, which is “beautiful to behold” and “beautiful to watch”, a “country full of good folk” (Kim, 111). And he has his first serious identity crisis when he is alone in a train compartment on his way to St. Xavier’s. Invariably he compares this to his joyful first train ride with the lama and now discovers loneliness for the first time in his life:

’I go from one place to another as it might be a kick-ball. It is my kismet. …I am a Sahib…No; I am Kim. This is the great world and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?’ He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam. He was one insignificant person in all this roaring whirl of India, going southward to he knew not what fate.
Kipling, Kim, 166.

The world is beginning to turn at a speed Kim is unfamiliar with; it is no longer a beautiful, slow-paced, even inert spectacle of benevolent indifference or dumbstruck admiration for Kim. Instead, it is a lonely world of indifference, a world which with Kim only realigns himself at the end of the story.
There are more representations-in-the-round. The motif of the wheel reverberates throughout the narrative in horoscopes, well-wheels, cog-wheels and the lama’s Great Wheel of Life. The panorama is furthermore uncannily present in the idea of the Intelligence Survey where the players of the Great Game watch India, but they themselves are watched by the leader of the Intelligence Service, Colonel Creighton. This is a reminder of Jeremy Bentham’s idea for a prison, the Penitentiary Panopticon where all prisoners could be watched by guards who themselves would be watched by the prison director.
The panorama show-form is recognisable in other scenes in Kim, and there is one last scene in particular which normally we would not think of as panoramic, but which I would like to consider as a spectre of a pictorial experience. This is when Kim is almost hypnotised by Lurgan Sahib into believing that a smashed water jug regains its form. In Kim the scene after Kim has smashed the jar is described thus with Lurgan Sahib as lecturer:

’Look! It shall come to life again, piece by piece. First the big piece shall join itself to two others on the right and the left – on the right and the left. Look!’
‘To save his life, Kim could not have turned his head. The light touch held him as in a vice, and his blood tingled pleasantly through him. There was one large piece of the jar where there had been three, and above them the shadowy outline of the entire vessel. He could see the veranda through it, but it was thickening and darkening with each beat of his pulse. Yet the jar – how slowly the thoughts came! – the jar had been smashed before his eyes.’
Kipling, Kim, 202

This spectral experience could have been produced by a magic lantern, but it would also resemble a diorama experience, where, as described earlier, switching the direction of the illumination could change the situation in a scene. The jar could thus be broken in one diorama scene and be made whole in the next. What links this scene in Kim to the imperial positive is Kim’s resistance to succumb to the subconscious and other such mumbo-jumbo: A diorama is merely the manipulation of light and colour, and he, Kim, is in control of it all as is the Victorian reader familiar with such a visual experience.

The Impressionist

The Impressionist is a postmodern rewriting of several colonial and postcolonial texts, but foremost of Kim. Kunzru’s novel is still a story about an orphan, but now narrated from the subaltern, very unromantic, angle. Like Kim, Kunzru’s protagonist Pran is self-centred, but his self-centeredness is not charming, it is predatory. He is the centre of the family around whose every wish the household revolves. He looks down on the world from the top of his roof, where, in his sense of proprietorship, he tries to rape the servant-girl, believing himself immune to and exempt from any retaliations, because he feels completely secure in his perception of the order of things. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a little too English, and he is turned out of his father’s house. He is now an orphan, a person without any centre or nexus, and his vulnerability is exploited immediately by other predatory creatures, who dress him up in women’s clothing, drug him down and sell his body.

Pran’s new world is a sordid place. This is not the spectacular scented throng of people Kim meets on the Grand Trunk Road. Here, in the railway station in Agra, it stinks of urine and the noise is almost unbearable. Kunzru here mocks the controlled exoticism in Kim and the exhibition panoramas. The Impressionist is worse than a nightmare, it is a story of the horrors of conscious waking life. Kim is a wish-fantasy, but only functions as a fantastic relief from reality, because Kipling occasionally lets the reader witness Kim’s expressions of existential angst and loneliness in the “roaring whirl of India” in the passage quoted earlier. Like Kim, Pran travels over vast parts of India from Agra, to Lahore, to Amritsar, to Mumbai, but Pran no longer has any centre towards which he gravitates, unlike Kim who has his lama and a usually benign India, its landscape and its peoples surrounding him. Kim feels that the world encompasses him, moves around him, even towards him in a greeting movement. Kunzru inverses this circular motion, because reality to an uprooted individual is centrifugal, not centripetal: “Pran moving outwards from the centre, gathering momentum. Whoever might be in charge, it is certainly not him. ‘Him’, in fact, is fast becoming an issue.” (Hari Kunzru, The Impressionist, 65)

At the end of the story among the Fotse people Jonathan has lost any sense of meaning or destination. He has been completely slung off the imperial wheel into space: “[N]ow the journey is everything. He has no thoughts of arriving anywhere.” (The Impressionist, 481) This is the extreme expression of modern individualism, the horror of constant transformation. Kipling saw this, but suppressed this angst; Kunzru lays it bare for modern readers to swallow.


Is it significant that Kipling uses all these panoramic elements? Well, in the sense that he merely uses a lot of visual metaphors for his descriptions of India, then, no, this is no more significant than the use of any other era’s cluster of favourite tropes; the language at the end of the nineteenth century simply contained references to the plethora of machinery for visual entertainment, which thus makes Kim reassuringly and comfortingly familiar: the story is in this respect home scenes from abroad. But the question is: Is his deployment of this pictorial and subsequently cognitive device of the panorama just one more narratorial instance and expression of the panorama? After all, Dickens and Hardy also used the idea of panoramas and dioramas (Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England, 64, and Susan Dean, Hardy’s Poetic Vision in the Dynasts: The Diorama of a Dream). No, I claim that Kipling has a very particular reason for using the panorama, though he probably did not use it consciously. Returning to my previous remark that the panorama was the newsreel of its day, the panorama is thus an old, outdated mode of mass communication at the turn of the nineteenth century, in other words, and to a Victorian especially round this time, this kind of entertainment would be associated with a familiar world of yesterday. Therefore the panorama was ideally suited for Kipling’s purposes, namely creating a wish-dream of the future of the British Raj, a fantasy which would be ambiguously strained between nostalgia for a past which never was and a bid for future which was not to be either. So it seems from this that the use of the panoramic was ideal for Kipling when he created his dream of British India.
The panorama perhaps became so popular because it visualised the growing sense of fragmentation, which emerging modernity heralded, as well as visualising the centrifugal force of the colonial periphery. This force is even more abstract to grapple with than modernity, since the colonies to a panorama spectator are ‘out there’ and modernity is ‘back here’. However, the subject matter of the panoramas brought the colonial into Victorian consciousness, so the perception of these events on the geographical periphery would, through the panorama experience, be relegated to the visual and through this to the cognitive periphery. The panorama experience would therefore support an impression of the colonial as not only belonging to the boundaries but as seeking those boundaries due to the protension of the horizon structure.
Kim finds himself on the colonial periphery in Shamlegh from where he looks into the abyss into which anything useless to the Empire can be thrown without leaving any sign of where it ends. The Empire is based on capitalism and utility, and the bottomless pit at the back of the Shamlegh woman’s house is the big void outside the imperial sphere which threatens to swallow you up, if you do not adhere to its rules. Kim has by now been reduced to a player in the Great Game and is fully aware that he can be disposed of as his superiors see fit. So if you do not accept the proposed synthesis of imperial unity and ideas, you are in danger of being slung off the imperial wheel or the colonial periphery. However, Kipling’s use of the panoramic for his delineation of the nostalgia for a pre-modern subjectivity is in itself problematic, because the vanishing point in an entertainment panorama has been reversed: It is the spectator who is the vanishing point, him in whom all the lines of perspective meet, so instead of seeing the world moving in one direction as the traditional vanishing point does, the panorama spectator sees the world moving from many fragmented directions. Therefore, the feeling of synthesis which Kipling creates is based on an imperialist vision which was already a manifestation of modernity.



Primary texts
Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. Edited and with an introduction and notes by Edward Said. 1901. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989.
Kunzru, Hari, The Impressionist. 2002. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Secondary material
Altick, Richard D. The Shows of London. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, UK: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978.
Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge,
Massachusetts, and London, England: The MIT Press, 2001.
Dean, Susan. Hardy’s Poetic Vision in the Dynasts: The Diorama of a Dream. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. First published in French 1945. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983.