LONDON: An entry in the diary of Britain’s Queen Victoria, written when India was still technically controlled by the East India Company, declares: “There is a universal feeling that India should belong to me.” Her wish was fulfilled when India came under direct crown rule after the East India Company’s soldiers mutinied in 1857. Support for this was not quite universal: a sour Gladstone, who was not in office at that time, described her imperial ambition as “theatrical bombast and folly”. And more controversy followed when Victoria had herself declared Empress of India in 1876.
The Queen never visited her subjects, but that was not because she lacked interest in the jewel in her crown. She employed — and in fact befriended — an Indian munshi (teacher) to instruct her in Hindi and Urdu, and delighted in exercising her limited linguistic skills when greeting Indian visitors. She took a special interest in her Indian servants, and her affection for Duleep Singh, the deposed Maharaja of Punjab, survived a futile declaration of a holy war against her empire.
The Durbar Room, the most elaborate chamber in Osborne House, in the Isle of Wight, her summer residence, was decorated in Indian style by Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood. And she commissioned the Austrian artist Rudolph Swoboda to paint portraits of her Indian subjects. Usually these hang in the Durbar Room, but now a selection of them are coming to London for the first time, for an exhibition at the National Gallery.
Swoboda was first contracted by Queen Victoria to paint some of the Indian craftsmen who came to Britain for the Colonial and Indian exhibition of 1886. The craftsmen were not, as claimed by the organizers of the exhibition, representatives of Indian villages. They were prisoners brought from Agra jail where they had been taught crafts under an enlightened prison policy. Queen Victoria was so pleased with the artworks that she sent Swoboda off to India to paint more of her subjects.
India had no native tradition of the representative portraiture Swoboda had been commissioned to paint. In the classical Indian tradition, art does not represent what the eye sees, but rather, what the mind sees. The art historian Heinrich Zimmer described the Indian tradition as “not surrounding nature stubbornly, studied and slavishly copied from living models, but inner vision, divine apparitions, held within the concentrated mind”.
Swoboda was following in a tradition of British portrait painting that came to India with the East India Company. The Oriental Club, at that time a home from home for servants of the company marooned in London’s West End, has just published a collection of its remarkable portraits of Britons such as Warren Hastings, who were in India long before Swoboda arrived. But for the most part that early tradition was restricted to British officers and officials.
British landscape artists also flourished from the early days of the company. William Hodges visited India in 1778. He was followed by the renowned Thomas and William Daniell. Edward Lear came a few years before Swoboda. In spite of the trials of Indian travel he did not lose his sense of humour, writing of “heat intense and perspiration preterpluprofuse”.
There were ethnographers who filled albums with neat and accurate paintings, but Swoboda was unusual in bringing European skills of the highest order to the portrayal of villagers, artisans, soldiers, itinerant performers, and others who made up what Lear described as India’s “impossible picturesqueness”.
Victoria described Swoboda’s pictures as beautiful things, and that is the way orientalists would have us believe she thought of her subjects — exotic, barbarian, alien to the civilized world and in need of her benign rule. But that may not be fair to Victoria. Her munshi and her Duleep Singh were not remote but very close. And by learning Hindi and Urdu she was demonstrating a desire to come closer to her other Indian subjects. Lockwood Kipling, whom she chose to decorate the Durbar Room, had immersed himself in all branches of Indian art, and brought with him an Indian, not an English, assistant.
It is easy to write off Victoria’s interest as naive and patronizing; at best it was probably a blend of curiosity and materialism. But if there had not been some depth to her feelings for India, she would not have rejoiced in Swoboda’s very Indian portraits.
Swoboda had a deep respect for his subjects. His paintings could easily have been little more than cartoons or picture-postcard art, with the exotic so exaggerated that the viewer got no impression of the man under the elaborate turban, or behind the bushy beard. But Makkan Singh’s almost unbelievable beard, which seems to go every which way, is not allowed to detract from his dignity. Too much emphasis on heavy jewellery, elaborate embroidery and the mystery of half-shrouded faces might have distracted from the personalities of the women Swoboda painted. And yet it is the wide, innocent eyes of the Kashmiri girl Miran that catch the attention, not the ear ornaments she is wearing.
There have been different interpretations of one Swoboda painting, A Peep at the Train. In it villagers stare at some strange sight, with the only indication that it is a train being a bit of track at the bottom left. Some have argued that this should be called A Peep from the Train, that it is the view of a European traveller separated from the real India. But it seems more likely to be the real India staring in awe at the train, the most mighty symbol of the Raj.
Whatever Swoboda intended by the scene, his portraits bring us real Indians from an India that has almost disappeared. It is to be hoped that no oriental political correctness will keep viewers away.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.