It was in the ’80s that Mumbai-based art and textile connoisseurs Praful and Shilpa Shah began to develop keen interest in Company paintings. “Our interest arose from wanting to know the story of our own past, of the people we were. We felt that our history told through the exploits of kings, queens and courtiers but missed the narrative of the mainstream, common folk — what we did for a living, what we wore, what festivals we celebrated, in short the quotidian life of the ordinary Indian in the 18th and 19th century. It is Company paintings that brought this account alive before the advent of photography. What were souvenirs for the British officials, merchants and travellers are authentic records of our Indian way of life of that time,” says Shilpa, recalling the couple’s initial interest in the genre.
Still to catch the eye of most connoisseurs, the Company paintings were far from blue chip and the Shahs would scour for them in flea markets and antiquarian book shops during their travels abroad, over the years becoming owners of arguably the largest collection of Company paintings. The collection is now being shared with the larger audience through the book Indian Life and People in the 19th Century: Company Paintings in the Tapi Collection (Roli Books, Rs 2,500) . “We felt that the young generation would never know that our ancestors once had occupations like silver-stick bearers, munshis and hookah bardars. Nostalgia had a lot to do with our decision,” says Shilpa.
Through the paintings from their TAPI (Textiles & Art of the People of India) Collection, the readers are familiarised with the origins and nuances of the genre, its evolution and regional variations. While the term “Company painting” began to be, perhaps, widely used after the publication of Mildred Archer’s catalogue Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period in 1992, the Archers had been perseverant in bringing it attention since the ’30s, when William Archer was posted as a civil servant in Patna. In an essay, historian John Keay notes that they were introduced to the Patna school of paintings by Barrister PC Manuk, who may have been the first person to use the term ‘Company paintings’ in his published monograph.
“Whereas miniature paintings depicted mostly courtly and formal subjects, not common folk, artisans or craftspeople, Company paintings illuminated these aspects with accuracy and charm,” write the Shahs. Author JP Losty, on the other hand, questions the accepted belief that “the term Company comes from the patronage of Indian artists in the colonial period by the officials of the East India Company.” He writes how there was presence of both self-motivated artists and Indian patrons. “A diminution in the imperial interest in painting after the middle of the 17th century resulted in increasingly stiff figures set within codified and formal environments… It was to free themselves from this increasing stiffness of expression that in the late 18th century Indian artists found new inspiration in European art — in figural studies and picturesque painting in particular — which gave them new ways of visualising the Indian world and its inhabitants all around them,” writes Losty. While professional European artists such as Thomas and William Daniell, Tilly Kettle and Robert Home were travelling across India, the indigenous artists, too, were adapting new techniques and subjects. The patrons included governors and their wives to Indian rulers and the elite.
The story is told through the works. Losty carefully catalogues the paintings in the collection geographically, telling us that the height always preceded the width, and these were made on paper and drawn with a brush. Distinct from “the much harder, brighter and linear” Calcutta style, Losty notes how the artists in Murshidabad had “loose watercolour style”. The Shahs own 24 paintings from The Louisa Parlby Album, who, Losty says, was either the wife or daughter of James Templer Parlby, an officer in the Bengal Engineers stationed at Berhampore in the early 19th century. The works show “Indians going about their daily occupations”, from a tavern scene to carpenters, fishmongers, a potter, sweet meat seller and cobbler. Sevak Ram, among the best known artists of the Patna style, “concentrated on smaller-scale albums of trades and occupations”.
The TAPI Collection includes the Thomas Ramsay Album with works by artist Manu Lal — from an officer of the princes’ guard in the uniform of the Bengal native infantry, dressed in red cutaway jacket, to a puppeteer with two puppets in a purple turban. The paintings on mica from Patna depict festivities such as weddings to occupations like candle making to fishing. The artists in Delhi, Losty notes “could paint in different styles to suit their different clients, changing from a Mughal style when working for the emperor to a highly Europeanised naturalism when working for the Fraser brothers and (James) Skinner.” While in Punjab some artists specialised in painting portraits on ivory ovals, Losty writes, “Southern Indian artists were among the first to adapt their style and subject matters for their ne patrons.”
Exhibited at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya last year, the Shahs are open to exhibiting the collection in other cities as well — putting the spotlight onto the school of art that is often not acknowledged for documenting its times.