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The Indian artists who painted the Empire

Blessy Augustine | Updated on February 28, 2020 Published on February 27, 2020

Time capsule: Shaikh Muhammad Amir’s English Child in a Bonnet on Horseback (1830-50), watercolour and body colour on paper   -  Image courtesy: Private Collection

A new book edited by William Dalrymple throws light on the Indian artists who painted primarily for their patrons in the British East India Company

Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya established himself as one of the most prolific and innovative painters working for East India Company officials in the Calcutta of the 1830s. Despite being well known in his time, there is little documentary evidence of his life, except for his ubiquitous signature that reads: Shaikh Muhammad Amir, mussavir stationed at Karraya.

Art historians speculate that since he mentions he is a mussavir — professional picture maker — he was probably an artist trained in the miniature painting tradition in Patna or Murshidabad, from where he migrated to Calcutta, perhaps because of the declining patronage from the nawabi courts. But you can know enough about an artist from his works.

One of his most intriguing compositions, titled English Child in a Bonnet on Horseback (1830-50, watercolour and body colour on paper, 26x39 cm), shows a European child in a white dress seated on a horse and surrounded by three Indian servants. Her face is obscured by a large bonnet and her hands covered by white gloves. She looks like a prop, making the servants and the horse the real subjects of the painting. Historian and journalist Lucian Harris, in his essay Bespoke: Painting to order in 1830s Calcutta and Vellore, writes that the omission of his British patrons in Amir’s work is a quiet expression of resistance. While Amir portrays his fellow Indians with great sensitivity, he represents the British only by their material possessions — their magnificent houses, horses, carriages and gold embroidered umbrellas.

Forgotten Masters Indian Painting for the East India Company; Edited by William Dalrymple; Bloomsbury; Non-fiction; ₹1,099

 

Harris’s essay, which is part of the recently released book Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, manages to create stimulating portraits of Amir and Yellapah of Vellore — Amir’s contemporary working in the south of India — by joining the dots between the little information available about their lives with their profuse and extraordinary works. The book, edited by historian William Dalrymple, has been published to coincide with an exhibition by the same name at The Wallace Collection in London (on view till April 19 this year). Dalrymple is also the curator of this exhibition, which showcases more than a hundred works — commonly referred to as Company School paintings — made between 1770s and 1840s by a diverse group of Indian artists for, primarily, East India Company officials.

The artists belonging to the Company School practised a hybrid style of painting — combining Mughal, Maratha, Punjabi, Pahari, Tamil and Telugu artistic traditions with a European ethnographic approach. They gave up their dense burnished stone-based pigments for the lightness of watercolours, and documented in vivid detail the flora, fauna and landscape of India for their new patrons, who were mostly British but also included a few Frenchmen who had deflected to the winning side.

The seven essays, by researchers and curators specialising in Indian art during the colonial period, use the writings of, and instructions given by the patrons to give us a historical sense of the production of these works. But most importantly, the book seeks to shine the spotlight on the artists who made the works. It considers the label ‘Company School’ problematic as it emphasises more on the patrons (Company officials), and clubs together a very diverse — geographically and stylistically — group of artists. Since there is little information available about these artists — in many cases, even their names are unknown — the essayists try to recreate their personae by looking for clues in the paintings, as Harris does with Shaikh Muhammad Amir. The other artists discussed are Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das, who created delicate natural history paintings for Lady Mary Impey; the late Mughal master Ghulam Ali Khan and his fine portraits; and Sita Ram, who captured the Indian landscape with loose brushstrokes and glorious splashes of colour.

Even though the book provides us with comprehensive and insightful essays, the recurring shifting of focus from patron to artist sometimes feels like a colonialist apology. The paramount concern for artists such as Amir, irrespective of style and personal genius, would be to capture the essence of the subject. A good artist leaves an imprint of himself in his work, but the primary intention, unlike that of his modern Western counterpart, is never to establish himself as an auteur with an original vision. The art is in service of the patron with ingenuity present but not wholly apparent. To call these works Company School paintings is in keeping with the nomenclature of Indian art history; the way Mughal miniatures and Chola bronzes are named after their patrons.

The highlight of the publication, however, is the high-quality reproductions of the paintings that are part of the exhibition. Most of the masterpieces now hang in institutions abroad, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, or are part of private collections. Presented with brief commentary, these images give us access to a spectacular part of our art history, even though they make us aware that much of the story of pre-Independence Indian art is for others to rewrite.

Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in Delhi

Published on February 27, 2020
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