For the ‘Company Bahadur’ : The Tribune India

Join Whatsapp Channel

'Art & soul

For the ‘Company Bahadur’

I write here, briefly, about ‘Company Painting’, and the idea comes to mind after having seen, just a couple of weeks back, a fine new catalogue of a part of the collection of Praful and Shilpa Shah, both avid collectors of painting, even if more widely known as collectors and connoisseurs of Indian textiles.

For the ‘Company Bahadur’

Maratha nobleman with wife. Tanjore, c. 1825



BN GOSWAMY

In the picturesque properties of the scene, how greatly does this Indian assemblage transcend our own! …we have here domes, minarets, fanciful architecture and a costume, above all, flaunting in colours, set off with weapons and formed, from the easy flow of the drapery, to adorn beauty and disguise deformity….

Every hut, equipage, utensil and beast of India is picturesque …Eastern manners, customs and attitudes are picturesque: the language, even replete as it is with figure and metaphor, may be said to be picturesque.

— Capt Godfrey Mundy in Pen and Pencil Sketches in India (1858)

I write here, briefly, about ‘Company Painting’, and the idea comes to mind after having seen, just a couple of weeks back, a fine new catalogue of a part of the collection of Praful and Shilpa Shah, both avid collectors of painting, even if more widely known as collectors and connoisseurs of Indian textiles. The catalogue, put together by J.P. Losty, related to the exhibition of these paintings held recently at that wonderful museum in Mumbai, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), for long known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India.

The Shah Collection was not the only thing on view in the show, even though it formed a major part of it, the focus of the show, as conceived by Vandana Prapanna, being Indian Life and People in the 19th Century. But then, how does one show Indian life and people in that century without leaning on ‘Company Paintings’? So much was happening then in respect of the need to record what life was like and how people lived, since the ‘sahibs’ and ‘mem-sahibs’ who came to India and spent years here sometimes, wanted very often to take back with them ‘visuals’ when they returned home. Photography had come in, of course, but the reach of that art was still both slow and limited. There were many ‘foreigners’ — professional and amateurs included — who came to India, and drew and recorded this ‘alien’ but vast land, but their numbers were — could only have been — small, and so much must have been beyond their understanding: the professions and trades, the bewildering range of ranks and castes, the types of people and their costumes, local tools and technologies, and the like. Those who could draw or paint themselves were more in search of the ‘picturesque’ rather than everyday ‘sights’ of people and professions, but there was this need for visuals of the latter kind. 

At the same time, for the Indian painters, traditional patronage that discriminating rajas and nawabs and the like used to extend, had begun seriously to wither and shrink. It is out of this concatenation of circumstances, one might say — over-simplifying a little, to be sure — that ‘Company Painting’ was born: in its essence work done by Indian painters for new patrons who belonged for the most part to the East India Company.

One thinks somewhat naturally of how this somewhat odd but not uninteresting term — ‘Company Painting’ — came to be coined. It is unlikely that it came from some Englishman although, as John Keay, that “gifted non-academic historian” who has written the Introduction to the Shah collection volume, draws attention to the fact that by the 1930s, the British, including the distinguished Mildred Archer, were completely comfortable with the term and had started using it freely. The term itself might have been coined by Rai Krishnadas of Benares, that great connoisseur and founder of the Bharat Kala Bhawan, or by the painter Ishwari Prasad, who came from a family of painters active at Patna and worked at the Kala Bhawan for long years. But, regardless of where the term originated, the ‘style’, if it can be so called, was soon everywhere. Indian painters from the north to the south and from east to west had started working for new ‘masters’, producing series, sometimes remarkably extensive series, of commissioned works. We have ‘Company’ paintings from everywhere: from Murshidabad and Patna, from Lucknow and Delhi, from Lahore and Kutch, from Tanjore and Mysore, from Andhra and Kerala. It is as if neither the desire to have ‘visuals’, nor the productivity of the artists, showed signs of abating anywhere as decades rolled on.

What stands out in this welter of ‘styles’ and ‘sub-styles’, however, is the astonishing difference in the quality of the work that was turned out, and in the range of patrons who either commissioned or amassed works. At the lowest end in respect of quality stood ‘bazaar’ paintings sometimes of remarkably indifferent level. Often called ‘firka’ or ‘firangi’ paintings, they would be offered in ‘bundles’ to prospective buyers, with the labels pasted on them announcing the content inside; thus, “is bastey mein chalees tasveer hain: faqir, darvesh, sahib, rail gaadi, mistri, mali, sapera, sarangia, tawaif aur bahut aur” [There are 40 pictures in this basta: beggar, darwesh, sahib, rail car, mason, gardener, snake-charmer, sarangi-player, courtesan, and so many others]. In contrast, at the higher end, falling also under the ‘Company’ rubric, there was some masterful work like that by the famous Ghulam Ali Khan, of Delhi extraction, who was engaged by the Fraser brothers and turned out some of the finest portraits that ever came out of India, distinguished as they were by ‘delicate realism, characterisation, and subtle compositions of groups’. Figuring in his work were soldiers, moneylenders, peasants, accountants, performers, herdsmen, mendicants, and the like. Jats and Pathans, Mewatis and Sikhs, are all there, all endowed with incomparable dignity. Among the patrons, or buyers, of Company Paintings were as much the highest of the ‘sahibs’ in the then land — Warren Hastings, Lady Wellesley, Sir Elijah Impey, among them — as fortune-seeking tourists and lowly cadets in the British army. 

It is a mixed, variegated, bag then when we speak of ‘Company Painting’, and the Shahs had a clear vision when they started collecting the works that figure in the present catalogue. “Where” wrote Shilpa Shah once, “do you go to see the ordinary Indian humbly plying his trade two hundred years ago? For this, you need Company Paintings!”

All images are from the ‘Tapi’ collection of Praful and Shilpa Shah

Top News

Centre notifies rules under anti-paper leak law, mandates National Recruitment Agency to prepare SOPs for tests

Centre notifies rules under anti-paper leak law, mandates National Recruitment Agency to prepare SOPs for tests

The Act has provisions for a minimum of 3 to 5 years of impr...

NEET row: CBI takes over 5 more cases in multiple states; Mamata Banerjee writes to PM Modi

NEET row: CBI takes over 5 more cases in multiple states; Mamata Banerjee writes to PM Modi

Pradeep Singh Kharola takes additional charge of National Te...

Opposition hits back at PM Modi, claims ‘undeclared emergency’ existed under BJP’s rule

Opposition hits back at PM Modi, claims ‘undeclared emergency’ existed under BJP’s rule

'Let him be under no doubt: the INDIA Janbandhan will hold h...

11-year-old dies of head injury after toy train 'overturns' at Chandigarh mall

11-year-old dies of head injury after toy train 'overturns' at Elante mall in Chandigarh

Police have registered a case under relevant Sections of the...


Cities

View All