By the mid-eighteenth century, as the European powers were busy expanding their settlements within the territories of India, a new school of painting was beginning to take shape. Several among the colonial officers wished to capture replicas of the new and different varieties of flora, architecture, people and landscapes they came across. The absence of the camera meant the Europeans often commissioned out works to established Indian painters to create paintings that resulted in a European style with Indian flavours. Delhi-based art historian Seema Bhalla recently recreated this long-lost colonial world of ‘Company Art in a week-long exhibition held at Bikaner House in Delhi.
However, these were not 17th or 18th-century works that she put on display at the exhibition titled “The Allure of India: 300 Years of Shared Heritage of Art and Trade — Dutch, French, and British East India Companies”. Rather Bhalla commissioned out the 25 paintings to few of the last remaining painters of this genre, a majority of whom are based in Rajasthan and Mysore. “While I was doing my Ph.D. in documenting surviving artists I realised that there are still very few left who can make these,” says Bhalla. The 25 pieces on display are miniatures of Company paintings that were made in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Muharram procession created by J.S. Sridhar Rao at Mysore, The Humayun’s Tomb, Two portraits of a Bibi, Qutub Minar were few of the miniatures on show. Each of the paintings is accompanied by two smaller supporting paintings that tell its background story. “Take for instance the Shiva procession. The image on the left shows that by this time a power game had started out between the French and the British. The image on the right shows the British taking over the rock of Tiruchirapalli and a tiny plaque being hoisted there,” explains Bhalla.
“The Company paintings saw the coming together of two fairly different traditions,” says historian William Dalrymple who gave the closing lecture at the event and drew the historical trajectory of the school of art. “There is no uniformity in this style which is why many historians doubt its validity. We are talking about different Europeans over 300 years employing different kinds of artists over quite a large geographical area,” he says.
While the tradition of Company paintings had been in existence since the days of the Dutch and French in India, the British end of the story began from late eighteenth century when a Scottish botanist named Kerr commissioned an album to painter Bhawani Das to document the botany in India. The first of such works appears to be a painting of green mangoes. These works continued to be produced till about the middle of the nineteenth century when the camera came in. Further, after the revolt of 1857, the Company also lost its interest in developing art work around Indian culture. They kept a distance from Indian culture. As Dalrymple puts it in his review of the exhibition, “These artworks, often of astonishing brilliance and, possessing a startling, completely innovative and hybrid originality, represent the last phase of Indian artistic genius before the onset of twin assaults- photography and the influence of western colonial art school.”
However, it would appear that the usage of the word ‘Company’ to describe this school of art in itself was a reason why this genre did not receive the kind of attention that it deserved. Carrying within it the baggage of colonialism, a number of artists are still hesitant to consider using the term ‘Company art’ to describe them. “There is nothing inherently problematic about being a court artist, but there is something slightly more dubious about being say a Company painter in the Punjab,” says Dalrymple. He goes on to explain that today while a good Mughal painting can sell for upto a million pounds, no Company painting has ever sold for anything more than a third of a million pounds. “This is a school of art that for political rather than aesthetic reasons has been forgotten.”