Photographs of Ceylon and the American Circus: The Oriental India Poster

Benita Stambler, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, USA,

ORIENTAL INDIAOriental India, 1896, Strobridge Lithographing Company, Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Ringling Museum, Tibbals Collection, ht2004820.

My research on the photographs of Sri Lanka has taken an interesting turn lately that has provided new information about the American circus. For the last several years I have been trying to learn about the photographic record of Ceylon in the late nineteenth century. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, where I work has, besides a growing collection of Asian art and its famous European Baroque art, a fabulous collection of posters, photographs and ephemera on the circus, important to the museum because of the Ringling family’s connection with the American circus.

While glancing through the database of circus posters in the possession of the museum, I came across the one included above. Most of you will immediately recognize the Lankatilaka Temple, prominent on the hilltop near the center of the poster. How and why is this here? The depiction of this temple inspired a search for connections between Ceylon and the American circus that has continued for several years. Of course, the Hagenbeck family was central to the collection of animals in Ceylon, important for circuses all over the world. But that still doesn’t explain what the temple is doing in this poster.

While the question is still not fully answered, additional research has determined that, although the poster freely mixes images of Ceylon and India, much of the imagery on the left-hand side of the poster is based on Ceylon photographs, particularly photographs by the famous Scowen & Company and Skeen & Company. Fortunately, many people have contributed historical images to provide documentation of the photographic sources for this poster. Here are a few that can be found on the Images of Ceylon website:

Mat weavers: occupations 010,

Barber at work: occupations, 010,

Tamil woman and child: P383,

Native children: P350,

Silversmiths/Jewelers at work: occupations, 05,

Tamil girl (jug on head): P386,

I’m still working on trying to match other images in the poster with old photographs. The hunt goes on!

Again, I am very grateful for everyone’s assistance in helping me conduct this research. The full study so far has been published in the first 2015 issue of the journal Early Popular Visual Culture as “The Oriental India Poster: Transnational Imagery and Ethnographic Representation in the American Circus,” co-authored with a colleague at the museum, Jennifer Lemmer-Posey. end

                  ALSO SEE

* Benita Stambler: “Photographs of Ceylon: A Treasure Trove Straddling the Globe,”

·         Richard Boyle:IMAGES OF BRITISH CEYLON and REGENERATION reviewed by Richard Boyle,” 9 January 2013,

·         Unknown Author: “Mansions of Kollupitiya, Colombo in the early twentieth century,” 7 January 2013,

·         Benita Stambler: “Free Full-Text eBooks on British Ceylon,” 29 July 2012,

·         Benita Stambler: “Photographs of Ceylon 1850-1915: Collections in Sri Lanka,” 24 October 2012,

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Filed under British colonialism, cultural transmission, performance, photography, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, world affairs

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