A 17th century Mughal dagger, with its handle made from a single rock crystal, is part of the treasure trove at the Wallace Collection museum in London. The dagger is ornated with rubies and emeralds in the shapes of birds, flowers and tigers, and inscribed with the name of the East India Company official Claude Martin. When Scottish art historian and writer William Dalrymple’s eyes fell on this dagger in 2018, it urged him to delve deeper into the contributions of Martin, one of the biggest patrons of Indian art in the late 18th century.
Apart from collecting Mughal arms and armour, Martin commissioned scores of talented Indian artists to make artworks that depicted the flora, fauna and everyday life of India. His import of nearly 17,000 sheets of European watercolour paper in the 1770s was a testimony to his keen interest and sponsorship. A new show titled “Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company” at the Wallace Collection celebrates the works of Indian artists who painted for the East India Company between 1770 and 1840.
The show featuring 100 paintings opens on December 4, with Dalrymple as its guest curator. The works on display are by many little-known artists, lost in the pages of history, like Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das, Ram Das, Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya, Yellapah of Vellore and Ghulam Ali Khan. With the East India Company patrons commissioning Indian artists, a hybrid style emerged, with a marriage of Lucknavi-Mughal with European influence. When Martin instructed Lucknavi artists to paint natural history on European paper, many of them were trained in Mughal style and used Mughal stone-based pigments. As opposed to the enlarged figure of a bird and flower being placed at the centre of the paper against a white backdrop according to the European template, these hybrid paintings saw them being placed in the dreamy imagined landscapes of Mughal painters.
A Turkish mullah reminiscent of Rumi served as the protagonist for artist Bahadur Singh in his work, A Mufti Standing in a Landscape. Singh portrays him like Lemuel Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels (1726), standing tall against the minute landscape of a river and tiny trees. A 1825 painting zooms in on an unknown turbaned Mughal painter, sitting with his board and paper placed on his knees, with European watercolours, Mughal stone-based pigments and squirrel hair brushes circling him. Dalrymple says, “Many artists featured in the show are some of the greatest Mughal artists of all times, yet these names are not well-known. The point of the show is get some recognition for these artists.”
Between 1777 and 1783, painter Shaikh Zain ud-Din, assisted by Bhawani Das and Ram Das, contributed immensely to the 326 natural studies commissioned by English natural historian and patron of arts in Bengal, Mary Impey and her husband Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of Bengal. Scripts in Persian and English attribute the artists’ origins to Patna. Zain ud-Din, one of the best Indian painters of 18th century, painted the Shawl goat from Bhutan in 1779 with artistic finesse. The Impey Album also included his version of the cheetah, its black dots turning into a meditative pattern of sorts on its body, and Lady Impey’s pangolin. Another painting, titled Lady Impey Supervising her Household in Calcutta, shows a tailor offering her a view of a new turban, as a number of Indian stewards occupy her high-ceiling household, while ayahs and servants take care of her three children in The Impey Children in their Nursery. These paintings, bearing strong resemblance to Mughal court paintings, have been attributed to Zain ud-Din since he was believed to have observed the family closely during their stay in India.
Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya, an artist in Calcutta who painted colonial households, renders an interesting interpretation on a canvas where he painted a colonial officer’s little daughter, seated atop a pony and protected under the shade of a king-size umbrella. She lies hidden under her dress and a hat like cloth covers her entire face, while the full faces of her Indian domestic staff are visible. “Is that a sign of respect? Is that a Muslim artist not wanting to paint a woman or is it a sort of veiled resistance where you have given the Indians full character of humanity but the girl remains faceless, somewhat invisible without identity?” says Dalrymple.
Another artwork that celebrates the contribution of the many Indian artists is the self-portrait of Yellapah of Vellore (dating back to around 1832-1835) sitting with his legs folded and in the company of his drawing tools that have been spread out around him, ready to help him in his new creation, with his assistants guarding him on both sides.
Even though shows concentrating on East India Company paintings have been held in the past (“Room For Wonder”at Asia Society in New York in 1978, Indian Life and People in the 19th Century: Company Paintings in the Tapi Collection” at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya last year), Dalrymple feels there have been none highlighting British-commissioned art in India or in the UK. He says, “The reason is that because of the complicated post-colonial situation in India, some works are collaborative and colonial, and are not fully Indian. In Britain, there is always a fear of being seen as jingoistic and waving the flag of the empire, and most art institutions in the UK are Left-leaning and don’t want to be seen as jingoistic. As a result, these artists have not been showcased and given their due.”
The artworks have been borrowed from private collections and museums outside of India, including from Indians living outside and renowned institutions like Victoria and Albert Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and others. Dalrymple says, “We haven’t borrowed any item from India and not a single item is being shipped from here. Partly because it is difficult to borrow things from India and there is a huge matter of bureaucracy, and partly because this was always art intended for export, commissioned by the Company officials to send home, in terms of scientific explorations and botanical garden studies, or personal mementoes you send back to your family, like Polaroid pictures or Instagram feeds as records of life.”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline: Show and Tell