The Tribune - Spectrum


, August 4, 2002
'Art and Soul

Gifts from an ambassador
B.N. Goswamy

The Simurgh carries two princes in his beak. Mughal painting with some European influence, 17th century
The Simurgh carries two princes in his beak. Mughal painting with some European influence, 17th century

CONTRARY to what most of us might imagine, the first English envoy to India was not appointed after our land became independent in 1947: it was nearly 400 years ago that the first English ambassador came to India. Sir Thomas Roe was the gentleman's name, as every keen student of history would know, and it was King James I of England whom he represented. But the mission had a very specific end in mind: to secure from 'the Great Mogol' - it was the Emperor Jahangir who was in occupation of the throne then - trade concessions on behalf of the still young East India Company. Roe landed at Surat in 1615, and left India some three years later. He was not eminently successful in his mission, at least in his own judgment, but he did something that most ambassadors do at some point or the other of their crowded lives: he wrote a diary of his stay in India. And it is a wonderful account in many ways, rich in detail, filled with fascinating insights into characters and events, free of stuffy inhibitions, and written with wit.

Not everything that Sir Thomas Roe wrote may sound 'objective', but one can make allowances. In any case, historians find the account most valuable, for it provides a perspective of the times that is refreshingly different from that which one gains from professional court chroniclers. Or even from the account of his times by Jahangir himself, since the Emperor wrote his own memoirs. The sights and the sounds of India, and the travails of a white man caught between the need to carry out his mission in as dignified a manner as possible and to slip into the Oriental mode of transacting business (while negotiating the hazards of a vastly different climate!), shine forth with brilliance in Roe's mosaic-like account. There are delicious bits one picks up on nearly every page—the careful working out of what height he should be standing at while greeting a Governor, the bending of rules of courtly etiquette which included offering obsequious salutations to the Emperor, the escape from his room in a sarai which had 'four chambers like ovens', the ease that crept into negotiations as soon as a case of European wine bottles was presented, to take some random examples—and the account makes for lively, very lively, reading.

Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002
Zen and the art of archery
June 16, 2002
Art from the south seas
June 2, 2002
To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002
Rama’s journey in San Diego
April 21, 2002
An intrepid photographer
April 7, 2002
Shringara: Passion and adornment
March 24, 2002
The peaceful liberators, again
March 10, 2002

Picasso: Again and forever
February 24, 2002

A female naturalist
February 10, 2002
Miniatures in another vein
January 13, 2002
Magic in the shadows
December 30, 2001

One can pick on any series of details, and find richness in the account. But what I am most struck by is the frequency of references to 'gifts and presents', without which, it seems, nothing proceeded in this land of ours then, much as it does not now. Everyone was constantly eyeing the ambassador's crates of baggage, and palms itched everywhere. The Emperor's interest in objects that the ambassador brought in must clearly have been due to his hunger for exotica and novelties than due to avarice, but there was constant talk, even at the highest level in the court, of what was changing hands. Liquor and wine apart—and here one speaks of large cases—one reads about glass bottles of a very special kind, cups made of china, the latest edition of Mercator's maps of the world, even a coach brought in pieces and assembled here. But the demand for foreign goods, small sums of money and objects needed to grease palms and to win favours apart,

seemed to be insatiable. And at one point, the ambassador reported to his imperial master in England the wish of Emperor Jahangir to have an English horse, instead of the 'pawky offerings' being made to him from time to time: velvet which had faded, leather cases that had gone mouldy, and mirrors from which the silver coating had peeled. There is even a complaint that one hears, in one of the letters he wrote to the East India Company, about his having to part with his own personal possessions in the absence of any proper gifts that he was left with.

My own great favourite in all this is Sir Thomas Roe's account of an exchange that centred around a painting. European works of art, one knows, had arrived in India already in the 16th century, in the great Akbar's times, and Christian subjects aroused great curiosity. But Jahangir's great passion for paintings made him constantly seek works that were different from the work of his own painters, both in respect of technique and theme. The account is not all that easy to follow, for, apart from the curious spelling of many words (here modified for the sake of clarity), it is couched in old English, and there are phrases that one has to struggle to make sense of. The subject here is "a picture of a friend of mine", as Roe writes, "that I esteemed very much, and was for curiosity rare, which I would give His Majesty as a present". When the moment for making the presentation finally came, the Emperor "took extreme content, showing it to every man near him: at last sent for his chief painter, demanding his opinion. The fool answered he could make as good, whereat the King turned to me, saying my man sayeth he can do the like and as well as this: what vow?" A wager was set, the painting handed over to the imperial painter, and on the day appointed, in Roe's own words, the King "sent for me, being hasty to triumph in his workman, and showed me six pictures, five made by his man, all pasted on one table, so like that I was by candle light troubled to discern which was which…" The ambassador did identify his own picture eventually, but "for that at first sight I knew it not, he (the Emperor) was very merry and joyful and cracked like a northern man." The account goes on further, and there are merry jests between the Emperor and the ambassador concerning the wager, while the painter's work is much admired for its skills, but ultimately the picture does change hands.

Olde English

For the sake of getting the flavour of olde English spellings, one should perhaps cite a sentence here as it occurs in the original of Sir Thomas Roe's diary. Thus: "I sent for it (the picture) and astonished him, he seeming to take extreame content, eaven to admiration; assuring mee it would bee the most welcome guift I ever presented …."


This feature was published on July  28, 2002