The Allure of India: Historian Seema Bhalla resurrects the Company style miniatures that once flourished under the European patrons
Historian Seema Bhalla commissioned 25 miniature paintings in the Company style that was started and spread by European patrons.
That Indian history is inextricably linked with Indian art is still an unrecognised fact to most. Largely, because most history textbooks in school hardly even touch upon the crucial role artisans have played in recording and shaping our prominent narratives. In the said context, nothing perhaps speaks more of this underappreciated role than the one played by India’s miniature paintings. Immaculately detailed documents like the Baburnama, for example, are essential to understanding periods in the country’s history, increasingly being put through fresh scrutiny. Therefore, to revive interest and perhaps resurrect some of the skill and the technique that made the work possible in 17th century India, historian Seema Bhalla commissioned 25 artworks in the Company style that was started and spread by European patrons. The collection is called The Allure of India: 300 Years of Shared Heritage of Art and Trade — Dutch, French and British East India Companis.
The works commissioned by Bhalla have been made by some of the last surviving artists of the form. “The works have taken three years to finish. There has been proper research associated with each piece, the context assigned to each. A lot of these works speak of local histories and local cultures, often the way company schools had them made back in the day,” she says. The company school that Bhalla refers to was a school of painting set up by the East India Company in the 18th century where Indian artisans were directed by European patrons to make artworks for them. “Naturally there was an influence both ways. There was no realism in miniatures before the company school began, but then it slowly crept in. Similarly, miniatures exerted an influence in Europe as well,” she says.
Each work in the exhibition corresponds to one of the six schools set up by the British and expresses a particularly local element. Miniatures ascribed to the Delhi school, for example, showcase the dancing girls and its Mughal landmarks. “Most of the works belong to the era when design textiles were being manufactured and shipped across the world. In a way, most of these designs and traditions in the company style left India and so did a slice of history that never came back. The decline of the style began after the camera was invented leading to people losing interest in the art of documenting all together,” Bhalla says. Each work, she explains, has different layers to it. “The inner main painting is in the company style. The inner and outer borders are taken from textiles painted during the 18th century like those made in coromandel. There is a spice in each frame that refers to the spice trade back then, and then supporting paintings outside the border that narrate a particular history,” she adds.
Three paintings, that each display a Christian, a Hindu and a Muharram procession are intriguingly deft takes on the culture of life and death and its treatments in different faiths. Another work centralises Shiva and Parvati, the kind of spiritual space that most Pahari miniatures were made in. Most works commissioned by Bhalla have been made by masters she contacted over years of research and documentation. The deftness of each of these works is stunning, the attention to detail and narrative incredibly close. But what makes these pieces unique, is their ability to helm context, a time or totem of history. A work that shows portraits of royalty (presumed kings and patrons), for example, ironically also shows a camera along its borders, the instrument of the form’s own decline. Such irony can only be captured when art is incentivised by both research and context.
Much of what these 25 works do is elevate intrigue more than anything else. Monuments like the Safdarjung tomb and the Taj Mahal also find a place in Bhalla’s commissioned works. “A majority of company style paintings are now in European museums and galleries. And though they differ from the traditional miniatures, they are linked to Indian history. This is a way, perhaps, of bringing that part of history back. A lot of these works escaped. I wanted to bring some back,” she says. That said, the pieces are imitations of the style that flourished in places like Patna and the courts of Thanjavur under the British, and not the actual thing. Considering the relatively lean access Indians have to works in the possession of European patrons still, Bhalla’s intervention is as rewarding as it feels necessary.
A number of contemporary artists have taken up the task of modernising miniatures in recent years. “A number of artists, who have themselves learned from the masters, are playing with subjects in miniatures, but they largely avoid traditional methods like the use of textiles. To me tradition is tradition, it cannot be surpassed by anything,” Bhalla says. To that effect, the group of paintings she has brought together have the agency of both history and storytelling. They may be imitations but are infallible for the intent and the soul invested in them. More than anything they espouse tradition, in the face of modern makeovers. “If you take away the roots of a tree, a flower from it cannot sprout. Tradition is like those roots,” Bhalla says.
The exhibition is on display at Bikaner House, Delhi
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