10 May 2020


Bhawani Das, ‘A Great Indian Fruit Bat or Flying Fox’, Impey album, Calcutta, 1778-82 (Private Collection)
Bhawani Das, ‘A Great Indian Fruit Bat or Flying Fox’, Impey album, Calcutta, 1778-82 (Private Collection)

The British did not colonise the Indian Subcontinent only for spices and land. In fact, they were quite deeply enamoured of the indigenous flora and fauna of this diversely populated part of South Asia. In the late 1700s, British patrons of the East India Company hired many local Indian artists to create albums and folios with intricately detailed and polished paintings and drawings of India’s native bounty — the natural world of plants, animals and birds. These works were collectively termed ‘Company Painting’. However, the degradation of traditional Indian painting, because of the arrival of colonial forms of education and the dawn of photography, overshadowed these original works, driving them well into obscurity.

The book Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company accompanies the art exhibition of the same name at The Wallace Collection, a museum in London. As the exhibit jolts our fascination by bringing these obscure Indian masterpieces to public view, the catalogue is refreshingly complete with an introduction by the exhibition’s guest curator and historian William Dalrymple.

As the book reveals historical South Asian paintings, it may seem that its research-driven contribution in the form of its essays is likely to follow an art historical-methodological approach. That is not the case. The contributors are a pleasant mix of art and world historians, curators, a researcher and a journalist, thus offering nuanced perspectives and research to the subject of Indian painting contracted by the East India Company.

Manu Lall, ‘A Wild Ginger’, c. 1810 (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) | Photos from the book
Manu Lall, ‘A Wild Ginger’, c. 1810 (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) | Photos from the book

Dalrymple positions “East meets West” as the central narrative in his introduction. He discusses “hybridity”, that is, the fusion of Indian traditions of art with Western art techniques and materials to create fabulous pieces of art in the 18th century. He writes, “The medieval arts of the different Indian sultanates drew on Persian models; those of the Mughals were tinct Timurid, Safavid, Chinese and Portuguese influences. ‘Company School Painting’, caught in the crosswinds of East and West, was merely the latest phase of India’s artistic interaction with the world.” Dalrymple also touches upon breathtaking works by many Indian artists and the culture of painting in cosmopolitan Lucknow — a paradise for art and literature connoisseurs. This is also an area expanded on by historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones in her essay ‘The Master Artists of Lucknow’.

William Dalrymple’s curated book accompanying the first large exhibition of ‘Company Painting’ reveals the obscured greatness of colonial era artists

The real treat, however, is the astoundingly clear images of artworks that inundate the catalogue’s pages. Paintings by Indian masters — including Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Ram Das, Bhawani Das, Manu Lall, Ghulam Ali Khan and the Bengali artist Haludar — and artists from Lucknow, Agra, Delhi and Calcutta, have been given special focus. Several other paintings of British colonial rulers by European neo-classical painters, such as Johann Zoffany and the British artist Tilley Kettle, are also included.

The descriptions of many paintings are comprehensive; however, the greater focus is on the circumstances in which they were conceived, influenced by the lives and social circles of key British figures of the time, including Major Claude Martin, and the Impey and Hastings families.

Lallji or Hulas Lal, ‘The Dancing Girl Malaguire in her Nautch Dress’, Fraser album, Delhi, 1815 (Collection of Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan)
Lallji or Hulas Lal, ‘The Dancing Girl Malaguire in her Nautch Dress’, Fraser album, Delhi, 1815 (Collection of Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan)

The essays discuss phenomenal Indian artworks while detailing historical accounts that show how these figures or families came to patronise local Indian artists. In ‘The Natural History Paintings of Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das’, Andrew Topsfield — former Keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford — writes about artworks from the “Impey album”, which had been created for Sir Elijah and Mary, Lady Impey, between 1777 to 1783.

The album reveals animals and birds indigenous to Indian land. ‘A Great Indian Fruit Bat or Flying Fox’ by Bhawani Das meticulously shows the anatomical details of a bat. Signed and labelled by the artist in Urdu and English, the painting is a classic record of this specie. Bhawani Das’s other works, including ‘Hanging Fruit Bat’ and various drawings of many fish, such as ‘Puffer Fish’ and ‘Mango Fish’, are among the 326 paintings in the Impey album.

Fine botanical paintings, complete with annotations by Bhawani Das, Vishnupersaud, Manu Lall, Govindoo and Rungiah, assert the works as multi-functional; they can be viewed as art or scientific record. For instance, ‘A Wild Ginger’ by Manu Lall identifies the group of the plant while acting as a marvellous painting with clear details that identify the leaf, roots and the stem of the vegetable. In his essay ‘Indian Export Art? The Botanical Drawings’, H.J. Noltie — a specialist of Indian botanical drawings — identifies several artists and their patrons. Manu Lall’s drawings were created for civil servant Richard Perry while Dr James Hare commissioned many of Calcutta’s monochrome artists.

In addition to the depiction of the natural world, several works showcasing portraits of the local Indian peoples, the British families and architectural drawings of notable buildings are also included in the book. Academic Yuthika Sharma focuses on the Delhi School of Painting and its quintessential artist, Ghulam Ali Khan. Delhi’s revival as an artistic ground was essential in shaping Khan’s career and fame among the British.

Between 1803 and 1840, many artists — whose names are still unbeknownst to us — fashioned fantastic renditions of great Mughal buildings and tombs. Civil servant William Fraser commissioned Khan, Lallji and many other artists from Delhi to paint the city’s holy men and women in traditional clothing. For the painting ‘The Mendicant Lakshman Das’, created by an artist from Ghulam Ali Khan’s circle, Sharma writes, “The magnificent portrait of a wizened, dreadlocked sadhu hints strongly at the wisdom of this ‘half-naked’ mendicant shown whirling his prayer beads, covered only by a lungi and Brahmin’s thread, with the distinctive ash mark of a Shaivite Sadhu.”

Despite numerous gems of Indian art housed in the United Kingdom, Forgotten Masters at The Wallace Collection is the first exhibition in the region that revives these works from days of colonial yore. The focus from European patronage to the essential contribution of Indian artists is evident in the book’s images of artworks and scholarly essays, which are a rewarding experience for readers.

The reviewer is an art historian and critic of modern and contemporary South Asian art and was previously a Fulbright Scholar at SUNY Stony Brook

Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company
Edited by William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, UK
ISBN: 978-1781301012

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 10th, 2020