Six Recruits (1815), Ghulam Ali Khan, courtesy the Wallace Collection
Six Recruits (1815), Ghulam Ali Khan, courtesy the Wallace Collection

Artistic brilliance triumphed over colonial patronage when the Wallace Collection showcased Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, in London recently. Guest-curated by renowned writer and historian William Dalrymple, this is the first UK exhibition of works by Indian master artists commissioned by a cross-section of East India Company (EIC) officials, ranging from botanists, surgeons, diplomats and intellectuals, between 1770 -1840. “Some of the 109 paintings are widely recognised as among the very greatest glories of Indian painting and will at last receive recognition in Forgotten Masters,” writes Dalrymple for BBC News.

The exhibition is wide-ranging in both its geographic span and the subjects it presents, from miniatures by imperial Mughal painters, such as Ghulam Ali Khan, to equine paintings by Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah, along with exceptional botanical and zoological studies by Sheikh Zainuddin, Ram Das, Bhawani Das, Chuni Lal, Rungiah and several others. The works also reflect a wide variety of subcontinental traditions such as Marathi, Punjabi, Pahari and Tamil stylisations, which shift the emphasis from the Company commissioners on to the artistic genius of the Mughal painters.

‘The Impey Album’ is an important example of Company-style painting. Mary Impey, the wife of Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of Calcutta Supreme Court, brought three eminent artists — Zainuddin, Ram Das and Bhawani Das — from Patna to make realist sketches of rare birds in her menagerie and exotic animals such as pangolins, squirrels and cheetahs in her private zoo. Zainuddin was the foremost among the three but all were conversant with Mughal Patna qalam (pen) or style. During interactions with British patrons and artists, they imbibed European styles and techniques in order to bolster their dwindling, unpatronised livelihood.

The resultant artworks were fascinating fusions of Mughal Patna qalam and Western watercolour techniques. From 1777 to 1782, Zainuddin worked on English Whatman art paper for his transparent watercolour sketches. For his tinted drawings and sketches, he employed meticulous calligraphic strokes reminiscent of the works of Mughal court artist Ustad Mansur. The personality imbued into many of these works also elevates them beyond strictly scientific portrayals. Zainuddin’s Western mannerism is at least the equal of his English contemporary George Stubbs. His depiction of a cheetah for ‘The Impey Album’ is a tender gold cloud of fur with spots that seem to float in its lithe mist. This intimate portrayal makes Stubbs’s painting of the first cheetah brought to Britain look cold and hard.

An exhibition in London celebrates the unsung East India Company School painters behind the works of fl ora, fauna and daily Indian scenes

These artists represent the last phase of Indian artistic genius, before dying at the twin hands of colonial art schools and photography, which rendered drawings for botanical studies obsolete. Dating from the time before photography, these paintings are among the first pictures to record costume types, traditional forms of labour, art and craft. They show ways of living and dressing which had been forgotten. To relook with a fresh perspective, the show focuses attention away from the EIC patrons to the indigenous artist, cataloguing them with names and biographies and treating them as individuals rather than nameless artisans belonging to local schools.

Indian Roller on Sandalwood, Sheikh Zainuddin
Indian Roller on Sandalwood, Sheikh Zainuddin

But, can this belated honour situate these company painters in the art hierarchy of their times? Where do they belong — in the history of subcontinental art or do they merit a place in the history of colonialism?

“No one knows what to do with the stuff,” remarks Dalrymple. “Western institutions are wary to touch it; they’re terrified of the ‘C’ word.” Not only does the tricky legacy of colonialism leave Company painting unappreciated in the UK, British patronage is also viewed unfavourably in the subcontinent where the nationalistic canon favours art from the Mughal and Modernist periods.

Wallace Collection Director Xavier Bray, while talking to The Art Newspaper, says, “Although we find it difficult to discuss our colonial past, it is necessary in order to move forward.” However, the show will stop short of making explicitly political points regarding the barbaric nature of the EIC and its actions in the subcontinent. Despite being spared no detail in Dalrymple’s recent book, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, Bray says that UK institutions are “still in the early stages of figuring this stuff out.”

Dalrymple is much more pragmatic in his interview to the ArtReview. He says, “Let’s not romanticise this. The East India Company was an executive multinational business that was there to make money and it didn’t see botanic gardens primarily for the edification of botanists and lovers of nature, Indian or British. It was made so that it could find things to sell. Whether it was ginger, coffee, cocoa or opium. That’s why they were involved in this project in the first place.”

Political context aside, Company Art remains a collector’s delight and has always been commercially viable whether it is presented at auctions or private sales. Historically, though, its onset marks the beginning of the destruction of indigenous subcontinental traditions. The EIC patrons were the first to commission something Western and European-looking rather than something local and traditional. Today, in the contemporary artscape where fusion is de rigueur, this hybrid art will garner greater understanding and apperception.

“Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company” is being displayed at Wallace Collection in London from December 4, 2019 to April 19, 2020

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 19th, 2020

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