An exhibition of Company paintings in Mumbai remind us of the dual purpose they served for their British patrons: ‘memorialisation and surveillance’.
by Urmi Chanda-Vaz
A group of men, clad in dhotis and turbans, are gathered on the porch of a tavern, waving animatedly in their drunkenness. One man at the back appears lost in liquor-induced melancholia. A few are demanding that their earthen cups be refilled. And one tippler is being threatened with a shoe for “untying his turban and waving a bottle”.
This depiction is part of Indian Life and People in the 19th Century, an ongoing exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. On display at the museum are 120-odd Company paintings and sculptures from the collections of CSMVS and of Textiles and Art of the People of India.
Company painting is a collective term used for the hybrid art once produced by Indian artists in a European palette. Created in the late 18th and 19th century, these works offered a view of the everyday life in India, in a distinct departure from preceding art. Until then, local artists, patronised by rajas and nawabs, were almost always focused on the splendour of courts, royal portraits, historical scenes or illustrations of the poetic and the divine.
Prints from the British period have been exhibited at CSMVS in the past – including landscapes from 18th-century Calcutta and Bombay – but this is the first time original paintings and sculptures from the era are being showcased in the city. Unlike Company prints, which are reproductions of works of British artists, these paintings are the works of Indian hands. The commissions may be English, but the flavour is unmistakably desi.
The exhibition, inaugurated by writer William Dalrymple, was accompanied by the release of a catalogue, Indian Life and People in the 19th Century, authored by art historian JP Losty. Published by Roli Books, the catalogue features a comprehensive introduction to the subject of Company Paintings by John Keay, a contemporary Indic studies scholar.
Financial patronage, academic attention and public interest are the ingredients needed for the success of any art movement. When the Company school of art was born, all these elements came from the British. As Losty writes:
“The designation ‘Company Painting’ is normally used for all the various styles of Indian painting from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that show to a greater or lesser extent European artistic influence. The term ‘Company’ comes from the patronage of Indian artists in the colonial period by the officials of the East India Company.”
In the 1920s, an art-mad couple attached to the East India Company found their life’s passion in the discovery, study and cataloguing of these paintings. William Archer and his wife Mildred Agnes Bell developed a love for the art while he was posted as a civil servant in Patna. Barrister PC Manuk, who introduced the couple to the Patna school of paintings, was a connoisseur himself, and may have been the first person to use the term Company Paintings in his published monograph. However, in her later publications, Bell cites two names – Rai Krishna Das of Benaras and Ishwari Prasad – as the people who may have coined the name.
Whatever the source of the name, one thing was clear: from the moment European merchants landed in the country, they held a fascination (and, often, abhorrence) for India and her people. Not wanting to miss the spectacle, they commissioned artists of all manner to capture every moment.
– Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, till February 17.