Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on Dawn.com.

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience

.

The first instalment of this article was published in Saturday’s Dawn

Rich and cultured as it was, Delhi, shorn of its provinces and most of its army, remained unprotected, a valuable jewel ready to be seized by the first adventurer bold enough to take it. That man proved to be Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia. In 1739, Nadir Shah defeated the Mughal army and advanced on the city. After several of his soldiers were killed in a bazaar brawl, he ordered a massacre. At the end of a single day’s slaughter, 150,000 of Delhi’s citizens lay dead and the accumulated wealth gathered by the Mughal emperors was taken away to Teheran in a caravan of several thousand carts and camels. Among the treasures looted were the Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan and the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Two further sackings of the city followed, this time by Afghans, until in 1803 the British arrived to fill the power vacuum.

During the 18th century, the East India Company had transformed itself from a coastal trading organisation into an aggressive proto-colonial government. Yet in Delhi, initial contact between these two powers was surprisingly positive. The first company “Residents”, or ambassadors to the Mughal court, immersed themselves in its culture, wore Mughal dress, took Mughal wives, and became important patrons of Mughal painting, reviving and transforming the art of the capital in the process.

The first British resident, the Boston-born Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) set the tone. A miniature in the exhibition shows him wearing turban and kurta pyjamas and smoking a hookah while watching a troupe of Delhi dancers perform. (Ochterlony’s outraged Scottish ancestors peer down disapprovingly from above.) When in the Indian capital, Ochterlony liked to be addressed by his full Moghul title, Nasir-ud-Daula (Defender of the state) and he had a jade Persian seal made to commemorate its conferral, which sits gleaming in the exhibition beside the miniature of its owner.

Though Ochterlony is reputed to have had 13 wives, each of whom had her own elephant, one of these, Mubarak Begum, took precedence over the others. She offended the British by calling herself “Lady Ochterlony” in one letter it is recorded that “Lady Ochterlony has applied for leave to make the Hadge (Haj) to Mecca” and also offended the Mughals by awarding herself the title “Qudsia Begum”, previously the title of the emperor’s mother.

It was for her that Ochterlony built the last of the great Mughal garden tombs, whose design, seen in another miniature, pleasingly mixes a domed church tower topped with a cross, hedged around with a forest of minarets and Timurid semi-domes and cupulas.

Ochterlony was, however, by no means alone in his Indianised tastes. When the wife of the British commander-in-chief in India visited Delhi in 1810, she was horrified by what she saw. It was not just Ochterlony, who had “gone native”, she reported; his two assistants “both wear immense whiskers, and neither will eat beef or pork, being as much Hindoos as Christians.”

One of these men, William Fraser (1784-1835) a Persian scholar from Scotland, lived in Delhi for three decades, making perhaps the most interesting journey of any British figure of the period, transforming himself into a white mughal with an Indian family and close relationships with the leading artistic, theological, and political figures of the day, notably the greatest of the city’s poets, Ghalib (1797-1869), of whom he became a prominent patron.

Fraser became a crucial figure in Delhi’s artistic development and the Fraser Album, which he commissioned, was the supreme masterpiece of the period.

Indeed, the best works produced in Delhi under Company patronage show a sympathy with the Mughal world quite at odds with the usual post-colonial stereotypes of colonial philistinism and insensitivity.

The Fraser Album with its detailed portraits of Delhi’s soldiers, noblemen, holy men, dancing girls, and villagers, as well as Fraser’s staff and his bodyguards, are unparalleled in Indian art, and in the New York show we have managed to gather the largest collection since the album was split and sold off at auction 30 years ago.

Traditionally, art historians have conceived of early colonial commissions of Indian artists as “Company School Painting”, which they see as something quite separate from the art of the late Mughal court. It is argued in this exhibition that such distinctions are meaningless, for in Delhi at this period the same artists were working in similar styles for very different patrons. Just as Delhi saw a remarkable intellectual renaissance as new scientific and theological ideas from the west impacted on the Mughal scholars of the town, so the Delhi court artists were experimenting at will with western styles and western materials, taking what they liked from both worlds, exerting their own agency to define character and style and experimenting with the different traditions with both confidence and grace.

As British arrogance increased towards the middle of the 19th century, this brief dialogue of civilisations drew to a close; mutual interest was replaced by mutual suspicion. On a May morning in 1857, 300 of the company’s Indian troops mutinied, rode to Delhi, massacred the British, and declared the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar to be their leader. During the four hottest months of the Indian summer, the capital was besieged and bombarded. Finally, on Sept 14, 1857, the British assaulted the city, massacring and looting as they went.

Anyone who survived was driven into the countryside. Delhi was left an empty ruin and the last Mughal exiled to Burma, where he died.

But as this show demonstrates, this is a period both of huge historical interest and great artistic value.

The late Mughals left much that was astonishingly beautiful; and there is far more to admire and love about their art than has previously been understood.

Concluded

By arrangement with Guardian

The first instalment of this article was published in Saturday’s Dawn

Rich and cultured as it was, Delhi, shorn of its provinces and most of its army, remained unprotected, a valuable jewel ready to be seized by the first adventurer bold enough to take it. That man proved to be Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia. In 1739, Nadir Shah defeated the Mughal army and advanced on the city. After several of his soldiers were killed in a bazaar brawl, he ordered a massacre. At the end of a single day’s slaughter, 150,000 of Delhi’s citizens lay dead and the accumulated wealth gathered by the Mughal emperors was taken away to Teheran in a caravan of several thousand carts and camels. Among the treasures looted were the Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan and the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Two further sackings of the city followed, this time by Afghans, until in 1803 the British arrived to fill the power vacuum. During the 18th century, the East India Company had transformed itself from a coastal trading organisation into an aggressive proto-colonial government. Yet in Delhi, initial contact between these two powers was surprisingly positive. The first company “Residents”, or ambassadors to the Mughal court, immersed themselves in its culture, wore Mughal dress, took Mughal wives, and became important patrons of Mughal painting, reviving and transforming the art of the capital in the process. The first British resident, the Boston-born Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) set the tone. A miniature in the exhibition shows him wearing turban and kurta pyjamas and smoking a hookah while watching a troupe of Delhi dancers perform. (Ochterlony’s outraged Scottish ancestors peer down disapprovingly from above.) When in the Indian capital, Ochterlony liked to be addressed by his full Moghul title, Nasir-ud-Daula (Defender of the state) and he had a jade Persian seal made to commemorate its conferral, which sits gleaming in the exhibition beside the miniature of its owner. Though Ochterlony is reputed to have had 13 wives, each of whom had her own elephant, one of these, Mubarak Begum, took precedence over the others. She offended the British by calling herself “Lady Ochterlony” in one letter it is recorded that “Lady Ochterlony has applied for leave to make the Hadge (Haj) to Mecca” and also offended the Mughals by awarding herself the title “Qudsia Begum”, previously the title of the emperor’s mother. It was for her that Ochterlony built the last of the great Mughal garden tombs, whose design, seen in another miniature, pleasingly mixes a domed church tower topped with a cross, hedged around with a forest of minarets and Timurid semi-domes and cupulas. Ochterlony was, however, by no means alone in his Indianised tastes. When the wife of the British commander-in-chief in India visited Delhi in 1810, she was horrified by what she saw. It was not just Ochterlony, who had “gone native”, she reported; his two assistants “both wear immense whiskers, and neither will eat beef or pork, being as much Hindoos as Christians.” One of these men, William Fraser (1784-1835) a Persian scholar from Scotland, lived in Delhi for three decades, making perhaps the most interesting journey of any British figure of the period, transforming himself into a white mughal with an Indian family and close relationships with the leading artistic, theological, and political figures of the day, notably the greatest of the city’s poets, Ghalib (1797-1869), of whom he became a prominent patron. Fraser became a crucial figure in Delhi’s artistic development and the Fraser Album, which he commissioned, was the supreme masterpiece of the period. Indeed, the best works produced in Delhi under Company patronage show a sympathy with the Mughal world quite at odds with the usual post-colonial stereotypes of colonial philistinism and insensitivity. The Fraser Album with its detailed portraits of Delhi’s soldiers, noblemen, holy men, dancing girls, and villagers, as well as Fraser’s staff and his bodyguards, are unparalleled in Indian art, and in the New York show we have managed to gather the largest collection since the album was split and sold off at auction 30 years ago. Traditionally, art historians have conceived of early colonial commissions of Indian artists as “Company School Painting”, which they see as something quite separate from the art of the late Mughal court. It is argued in this exhibition that such distinctions are meaningless, for in Delhi at this period the same artists were working in similar styles for very different patrons. Just as Delhi saw a remarkable intellectual renaissance as new scientific and theological ideas from the west impacted on the Mughal scholars of the town, so the Delhi court artists were experimenting at will with western styles and western materials, taking what they liked from both worlds, exerting their own agency to define character and style and experimenting with the different traditions with both confidence and grace. As British arrogance increased towards the middle of the 19th century, this brief dialogue of civilisations drew to a close; mutual interest was replaced by mutual suspicion. On a May morning in 1857, 300 of the company’s Indian troops mutinied, rode to Delhi, massacred the British, and declared the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar to be their leader. During the four hottest months of the Indian summer, the capital was besieged and bombarded. Finally, on Sept 14, 1857, the British assaulted the city, massacring and looting as they went. Anyone who survived was driven into the countryside. Delhi was left an empty ruin and the last Mughal exiled to Burma, where he died. But as this show demonstrates, this is a period both of huge historical interest and great artistic value. The late Mughals left much that was astonishingly beautiful; and there is far more to admire and love about their art than has previously been understood.

Concluded

By arrangement with Guardian