'A reminder of the high points in Indian art': William Dalrymple on curating Company paintings exhibition in London

  • The collection of 110 paintings is astounding in its scope as it throws light on little known artists of the time.

  • The idea behind the show was to bring out of the wings the little-known artists of the time, and make the point that the best of them are also among the greatest Indian artists ever.

  • Dalrymple, who has been writing and collecting material about these artworks for 25 years now, published his first piece on the Company school of painting in 1995.

The Kampani qalam or the ‘Company school’ of painting refers to the artworks created for the officials of East India Company in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Documenting the flora, fauna, heritage and people of the Indian subcontinent, it consists of a wide-ranging repository of art which was commissioned by British officials in India.

A new show at the Wallace Collection in London, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, curated by historian William Dalrymple showcases the extraordinary oeuvre of Indian artists for the first time ever. The collection of 110 paintings is astounding in its scope as it throws light on little known artists of the time.

Dalrymple, who has been writing and collecting material about these artworks for 25 years now, published his first piece on the Company school of painting in 1995. He curated a show on the late Mughal art in New York in 2013, which had a few artworks from the current collection. However, this is the first showing of the collection in its entirety, on loan from private collections and institutions based in the United Kingdom and the United States.

 A reminder of the high points in Indian art: William Dalrymple on curating Company paintings exhibition in London

Bhawani Das, A Great Indian Fruit Bat, or Flying Fox (pteropus giganteus), Calcutta, c1778-1782 | Courtesy Private Collection

The sheer beauty of these paintings caught the historian’s eye who calls them ‘museum-quality pieces which turn up in auctions from time to time and are often misidentified’. The exhibition mainly consists of artwork from four prominent centres of Company art: Calcutta and Lucknow, home to provincial Mughal painters from Murshidabad, Patna and Faizabad; Madras and Tanjore, where artists used south Indian traditions; and Delhi, the last bastion of the Imperial Mughal artists.

The author says that most museums shied away from displaying these artworks due to ‘post-colonial angst’ and the fact that they were associated with the heyday of ‘British imperialism’ but when the curator of the Wallace collection sounded him out for ideas, he went all out to make it possible. “From commissioning to opening the exhibition, it took 18 months — which in art terms is an extremely short period. An exhibit of this size would usually take five years,” Dalrymple says and laughs.

(Artist) Attributed to the family of Ghulam Ali Khan; India; 1815-1816; Watercolor, ink and gold on Whatman paper (watermarked 1814); H x W: 25.3 x 39.4 cm (9 15/16 x 15 1/2 in); Purchase

Family of Ghulam Ali Khan, Six Recruits, Fraser Album, c.1815 | Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery [Smithsonian Institution]

The idea behind the show was to bring out of the wings the little-known artists of the time, and make the point that the best of them are also among the greatest Indian artists ever. Dalrymple says that just as they were not showcased in Britain due to post-colonial sensitivities, they were never fully recognised in India. Comprising the work by artists Shaikh Zain ud-Din of Patna, Bhawani Das, Ram Das, Govindoo, Rangiah, Yellapah of Vellore, Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah, Sita Ram and Ghulam Ali Khan, the collection celebrates the artists as much as the art they created.

Most of the pieces were commissioned for academic reasons or as personal mementos. There are diverse stories behind the art works. The first pictures were commissioned by Claude Martin (in the late 1770s) at a time when botany and zoology were the twin passions among intellectual Europeans. Martin imported no fewer than 17,000 sheets of European watercolour paper and employed a team to paint a series of natural history pictures.

Shaikh Zain al-Din_Brahminy Starling__© Minneapolis Institute of Art CROPPED

Shaikh Zainud-Din, Brahminy Starling with Two Anteraea Moths, Caterpillar and Cocoon in Indian Jujube Tree, Impey Album, Calcutta, 1780 | Gift of Elizabeth and Willard Clark, © Minneapolis Institute of Art home

The collection also consists of 30 works commissioned by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Sir Elijah Impey and his wife Mary, who employed artists Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das and Ramdas to paint their private zoo as well as the nurseries, fishes and insects of Bengal.

Other notable pieces include 16 images from the famed Fraser Album of early 19th century, commissioned by the Delhi-based brothers, James and William Fraser, from the imperial Mughal painter Ghulam Ali Khan. Dalrymple says that the lithographs are like ‘polaroids of today’ and were probably meant as souvenirs.

When the great Indian art historian BN Goswamy chose 101 of his favourite Indian art pictures, only one was a Company commission, and Company painting forms only a brief adjunct at the end of his seminal two-volume Masters of Indian Painting. Dalrymple remarks, “This is in a sense an appendix to Goswamy’s work and gives the artists their rightful place in history. The collection consists of some of the greatest animal paintings ever done and these artists should be celebrated like Michelangelo or Raphael.”

Shaikh Zain al-Din_Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch__© Minneapolis Institute of Art

Shaikh Zainud-Din, Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch, Impey Album, Calcutta, 1780 | Gift of Elizabeth and Willard Clark, © Minneapolis Institute of Art home

The artists were influenced by a heady mixture of styles. The Mughal style of portraiture was still strong in India and while painting these artworks, the artists were introduced to European models which resulted in a unique mixture. The artists in south India didn’t have Mughal art to draw inspiration from but were influenced by the prevailing styles of chintz and Kalamkari textile technique of Andhra Pradesh.

Dalrymple agrees that the artists represented a variety of different training schools and origins. “What’s interesting is that presumably in their youth, these artists were trained to paint the rajas, nawabs, courtesans and the musical mehfils. But they were also introduced to the lithographs of tulips from Holland,” he explains and adds, “Mansur’s paintings from Jehangir’s time show a variety of animals from Turkeys to Zebras so there is a repertoire of animal art in India. When one compares Mansur’s images in 1612 of a cheetah done for Jehangir to a cheetah done by Zain ud-Din in Calcutta of 1780, they are very much of the same tradition.”

(Artist) Sheikh Muhammad Amir; India; ca. 1840; Opaque watercolor on burnished paper; H x W: 25.3 x 38.2 cm (9 15/16 x 15 1/16 in); Purchase

Sheikh Mohammah Amir, English Gig, c.1840 | Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery [Smithsonian Institution]

This glorious era of company school came to a swift end. While the British, which backlash after 1857, began to view Mughal etiquette as anachronistic, the arrival of photography in the early 1850s put an end to a glorious painting tradition of India stretching back to almost two thousand years.

Dalrymple terms the exhibition as historic and a showcase of the syncretic art traditions of India. “Just like today, we revere Indian painters like Goverdhan and Manaku, I very much hope that 20 years from now, people know who Shaikh Mohammad and Sita Ram were. This exhibit is a reminder of the high points in Indian art.” he signs off.

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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2020 12:34:12 IST