Airborne Colony: Culture and Politics of Aviation in India, 1910-1939

Airborne Colony: Culture and Politics of Aviation in India, 1910-1939
Joppan George


Airborne Colony: Culture and Politics of Aviation in India, 1910-1939 traces the transformations in the colonial society inaugurated by the advent of airplanes. If the beginnings of aviation in India had the appearance of a public spectacle, what was merely a sideshow in 1910 soon became the centrepiece of the tableau of late colonial politics. My dissertation forges a history of aviation away from the genius of aeronautical innovations in the West, and the factories and foundries, to situate its introduction and evolution in the field of the everyday experiences in modern India. Studying the techno-scientific transformations of the colonial society allows me to investigate the structure of power that propelled the aviatic practices, as well as the resistance, evasion, and challenges to authority that the colonial subjects offered in their encounter with aviation. Airplanes in India, I argue, were constitutive of the governing logic of the late colonial state and they produced a material reality quite different from that which it shaped elsewhere. The history of colonial aviation in the subcontinent deserves attention not only because of the vastness of its circulation, but also because of the extent of its reach and the particularities of its use in the practice of aerial policing and surveillance of the frontier tribesmen. My dissertation focuses not on the technology of the airplane itself, but instead on the new ways of moving, seeing, and knowing engendered through a series of specific deployments of aviation; deployments primarily undertaken by the colonizers in order to further claim and control the colony. If the British sought to singularly propel the airplanes, in my dissertation, a cast of frontier tribesmen, legislators, writers, princes, an airhost, a meteorologist, and peasants animate the colonial aviatic politics.

To write this history, I engage with two historical views. One view decenters the conventional British representations of the aviatic sense of the colonial ‘natives’ and their assumed inadequacy in the reception of technological modernity. The colonial subjects, on their part, challenged this colonialist perspective to deliberately remodel it through their discursive, experiential, and material practices. The British Empire’s interest in the kinetics of the view from above — evident in numerous photographs and cinematographs recorded by the colonial agents — and their uses and abuses form the core of my investigation. The colonial state’s reliance on aerial vision, however, went beyond the instrumental, rational, modern perspective that James Scott calls seeing like a state. Reliant on the objectivity of the aerial vision — in synoptically gathering together everything into the same space and in panoptically viewing everything at the same time — the colonial state, I contend, employed this critical vantage point from an elevated perspective to reconceive its relationship with both the objects and the subjects on the ground. The privileged intimacy of the vertical perspective, I argue, enabled the spatialization of punitive, extractive, and epistemic powers of the colonial state. While it promised to accelerate modernity into a gravity-less and mobile realm, aviation, often improvised for political expediency, exerted its powers to dominate both the colonial territories and the colonial subjects. The nature of these improvisations of the British and Indian Governments, the uncertainties they provoked, and the manner in which aviation as a technology of rule compounded the manifold consequences of colonial power form the core of my dissertation.


Joppan George

PhD defended at

Princeton University, Department of History




South Asia


War / Peace