Before the camera came

The works produced by Indian artists, mainly for servants of the
East India Company, are alive with the most wonderful of observations
and remarkable penetration of character, says B. N. Goswamy

This is quite a life to my liking. I am deep in Politics and War. The country is beautiful, and the climate superior to anything I ever saw. — William Fraser, 1814

THE words are from a letter written by William Fraser, serving in the East India Company, to a relation of his back home in Scotland. But nothing of this letter, or the rest of the papers of the entire Fraser family, was known till as recently as 1979. The names — William Fraser and James Baillie Fraser, his slightly older brother — had been familiar for some time and had a resonance, for James, an ‘amateur’ painter as he called himself, had published in London several of his splendid views of India — landscapes essentially — a long time ago, between 1820 and 1826 in fact: thus, his Views in the Himala Mountains; Views of Calcutta and its Environs. But that there was this enormous cache of diaries and the correspondence between the two brothers, as also 90 coloured drawings by Indian artists, lying somewhere in the archives of the Fraser family hardly anyone knew. There was much excitement among scholars over the discovery, therefore, for here was material that brought a whole period alive: the adventures, the tribulations, the thrill of discovery, the heartache, of two enterprising young men leaving the security of their home in Scotland and seeking to make their careers in unknown India.

Kala in his native dress, with a drawn sword. Haryana, 1815-16.
Kala in his native dress, with a drawn sword. Haryana, 1815-16. Both images are from the Fraser Albums 

Kala in his soldier’s uniform.
Kala in his soldier’s uniform. 
Haryana, 1815-16

William, the first one to leave for joining the service of the East India Company, was only 18 years of age then, and there were natural fears and misgivings in the family, his mother cautioning him to stay away from the "dissipation and corruption"`A0of India, and asking him not to lay "a foundation for future remorse and misery"`A0while he was away from home. But William went on, reaching Calcutta in February 1802; James came much later, in 1814 to be precise. By then, William had been through an astonishing range of experiences on the Indian soil, deep as he was in ‘Politics and War’, as he wrote. He learnt Indian languages, from Persian to Bengali, set about obtaining a ‘knowledge of Eastern manners and literature’, was keen on ‘a personal intercourse with natives of all denominations and castes’ with a view ‘to acquire idiom, dialect, manner, characters, prejudice, religion, internal arrangement, ancient hereditary habits and distinguishing characteristics.`85’ All this in the midst of his duties, first as a ‘writer’ — which meant clerk — then as Assistant to the British Resident at Delhi, touring on horseback, surveying land, shooting, even taking part in armed skirmishes with marauders and highwaymen. He adapted himself so well to the Indian environment that the wife of a senior officer remarked upon his being "as much Hindoo as Christian".`A0 He was at home here, it seemed, a bond which became even stronger when he developed an association with an Indian girl, Amiban by name, a native of the Rania village in Haryana, who, in the then established usage, started being called his ‘bibi’. In 1814, William was assigned to a detachment that was to take part in the Nepal War.

When James, older than him, arrived in India, the two brothers were meeting after 12 long years, and there is a moving description of the meeting — which took place in the environs of Nahans — in the correspondence. James’s career in India overlapped that of William, but what set him apart from William was his great skill at painting. He regretted that he "had not pursued instruction in drawing more seriously" in his earlier years, but, there being so much here to observe and to record, he now turned to art seriously, turning out in the process some wonderful work. In a letter to his father, William reported, "James has become a complete artist".

What is, at least, of equal interest, however, is the fact that the two brothers also had Indian artists working for them. The names are not prominently recorded, but at least one name comes up again and again: Ghulam Ali Khan of Delhi. William was constantly being asked by James to get his painter to produce paintings of "scenes in and about Dihlee", for he wanted to keep them as references for his own work in the future. But this was not easy, for landscape painting was not what Indian painters were used to. "I have got a good painter of figures, portraits and groups", he wrote, "but a landscape painter is not indigenous to Hindoostan". All the same he took his artist around with him wherever he went, especially to Rania where his Indian bibi lived. All the time, this painter was observing people and recording their appearances: now as individuals, now as members of a group. Whether it was he who did these, or someone from his circle, an extraordinary gallery of characters was created in the process. Anyone or everyone could be a subject: a "munshi", a ‘deewan", a ‘zumeendar’, a ‘chuprassee’. There are studies of "Oojala jath of Bulluh vill (age), district Kurnal" and "Ghureeb of Baanuh Lakhoo district Soneeput"; "Beeroo, a goorung of Goorkha" figured as much as "Koolub-u-Deen,`A0 Chukatta Mohgul, native of Sirhind". Whole albums were created, James acknowledging, for instance, having received from William "a Portfolio of native Drawings, some old and valuable as being illustrative of native costume and feature groups of Goorkhas, Sikhs, Patans, and Affghans, Bhuttees, Mewattees, Jats, and Googers". For him, these were priceless.

So they are to us. For they are alive with the most wonderful of observations, a remarkable penetration of character. Truly, as Mildred Archer, that highly gifted historian of ‘Company Paintings’ — work produced by Indian artists mainly for servants of the East India Company — noted: "Technically these drawings surpass all other known Company pictures for their delicate realism, characterisation and subtle composition of groups." If proof were needed, one has only to go to two amazing studies of a Haryana lad, Kala by name, who had been recruited by the British as a soldier. Both of them bear notes in William Fraser’s own hand on the cover paper. One of them shows, as he says, "Kala after cutting down the Tyger...," and the other the same "Kala in his soldier’s dress". The works breathe as it were.

Stuart Carey Welch once wrote of this kind of work as having been done before the invention of the camera, but almost in anticipation of it.