About the Book
Two hundred years of imperial rule left a legacy of Raj literature comprising journals, diaries and travelogues, ably complemented with the visual images created by the numerous British artists, both amateur and professional. Until the late 18th century, there was no visual record of India since landscape painting did not figure in an otherwise rich Indian art. It was left to these dedicated and meticulous artists like Hodges, the Daniells and Gold to amass a vast illustrative treasure ranging from the Sahib’s day to day routine to the people of India, with their diverse customs and manners and way of life.
The Raj Revisited is a virtual pilgrimage in to the past, a guided tour of imperial India. It is sumptuously illustrated with reproductions of the finest paintings, aquatints, engravings and lithographs, assembled for the first time in a single publication from the collections of the libraries and museums in India, Britain and the U.S.A. A vibrant narrative blends with the rich imagery to create a wonderful tableau of the social and cultural scene of a bygone era.
About the Author
Pran Nevile, former diplomat and UN advisor has been engaged in the study of the social and cultural history of India for several years. Born and educated in Lahore, he is an acknowledgement specialist on the Raj period and has authored many books on the subject. He has also served as a consultant for two BBC film on the Raj.
He lives in DLF, Gurgaon.
Ralph Fitch visited India in the 1580s, and was the first Englishman to record the glorious splendours of Mughal India. On December 31, 1600 the East India Company was established by a royal charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I of England. Other European traders such as the Portuguese had already made inroads into India. William Hawkins, a merchant sea-captain, was the first British crown representative to visit India in 1608 and seek trading concessions from the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, though without success. Sir Thomas Roe came as the crown ambassador in 1615 and got permission to establish factories. Throughout the seventeenth century the East India Company set up a cluster of factories on the Indian coasts, such as those at Surat, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.
The following century saw not only the decline and disintegration of the Mughal Empire with all its political turmoil and chaos, but also the assumption of a wide administrative and political role by the East India Company. The British military and political exploits in the post- Plassey period of the eighteenth century proved extremely rewarding, so much so that the 'Company Bahadur' emerged as the dominant political power in India.
It was during this period that the Company officials, both civil and military, amassed fortunes not only due to the enormous profits through private trade, but also through the huge sums they extracted in gifts and presents from Indian Nawabs and princes who came seeking their protection. These wealthy gentlemen were known as 'Nabobs'. They lived in luxury and splendour emulating the style of native ruling chiefs with their zenana of bibis, or the unofficial Indian wives, and an army of servants. They built magnificent mansions in Calcutta making it famous as the 'City of Palaces.' When some of these wealthy nabobs returned to England, they were viewed as social upstarts. Still they managed to acquire palatial country houses and even buy positions of influence either as Justices of Peace or as Members of Parliament.
Rich in historical and human interest, Raj literature comprises journals, diaries and memoirs by officials, scholars and travellers. It provides a rare insight into British social life in India during this period. The late eighteenth century also saw a flowering of British interest in India's history, literature and the culture of its people.
Governor-General Warren Hastings was surrounded by eminent Indologists of the time like Charles Wilkins, Colebrook Davis and Sir William Jones, the renowned scholar and founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784. There was a lively interest in collecting illustrated manuscripts and miniature paintings. This also encouraged a number of British professional artists to visit India in search of fame and fortune, especially when their financial prospects in Britain were rather bleak at that time. For landscape artists there was the additional attraction of seeing exotic oriental scenery in their pursuit of the cult of 'Picturesque.' They brought with them the art of illusionist oil painting and naturalistic watercolours as well as the techniques of engraving and lithography. Until then, there was no true to life visual record of the Indian scene and its people. There were some published accounts by travellers with illustrations but these were largely imaginative. India was then described as a land of palm trees infested with cobras, with people of strange faiths and customs and with bejewelled kings in marble palaces adorned with harems of dusky beauties in gauzy veils. It was only in the early part of the nineteenth century that a visual image of India based on direct observation reached England, and it was seen as a country of infinite variety, picturesque landscape, marvellous monuments, and diverse communities with their rich civilization and culture. It has to be admitted that no other colonial power in history has left such an enormous volume of visual material recording the country's panorama, its people and their way of life with such fidelity and telling detail.
The varied landscape of India ranging from flat plains, great rivers and the snow-capped Himalayas provided superb subjects to suit the contemporary vogue for the 'Picturesque and the Sublime.' The monuments that attracted foremost attention were Hindu temples, then called 'pagodas,' as imposing, free-standing structures or cut out in the rocks. This was because of their origin in the B.C. era and also on account of the marvellous sculptured figures embellished in a unique way. Among the most notable artists who captured the Indian panorama in their paintings were William Hodges, who travelled to India between 1780-83, producing his Select Views of India in 1787, and the uncle and nephew team of Thomas and William Daniell who toured the country extensively. They made numerous sketches and watercolours which they took back to England and produced their famous six-volume series of aquatints, Oriental Scenery. Their pictures offer the most resonant examples of the British vision of 'Picturesque and Sublime' and India. Their work was greatly appreciated and this inspired several landscape artists to visit India such as William Simpson and Edward Lear, who brought out many scenic views of India including its ancient monuments and other historic edifices.
Other artists like A.E. Davis and Emily Eden applied their talents to the portrayal of the diverse people of India with their colourful costumes and strange customs and manners. There were also a number of British portrait painters who worked in India during 1780-90 and amassed fortunes, thanks to the patronage of the Indian nawabs and rajahs, and also the British merchant princes who were keen to have portraits of their glamorous lifestyle with Indian bibis. Due to purdah, Indian women of aristocracy would not sit for portraits by the male artists. But the bibis of English sahibs were free from purdah and gladly agreed to sit for their portraits. The leading portrait painters included Tilly Kettle, Johann Zoffany, Thomas Hickey, Robert Home, . Francesco Renaldi and George Chinnery. They were also at times commissioned by the John Company to make pictures of historical events of imperial interest.
Portraits were regarded as records of one's wealth and social status to be handed over to their succeeding generations. The portrait price varied depending upon the reputation of the artist and the status of the patron. Mr. Morris, not so famous, charged 80 gold mohurs or Rs.1500 for a full-length portrait while Zoffany charged Rs. 2500 for Mrs. Hastings's portrait. The portraits of high dignitaries were also commissioned to be hung in public buildings like the town hall and Government offices.
It was the Jure of wealth that brought Englishmen to India, "the land of the boiling sun and scorching wind." The picture of Englishmen in eighteenth century India that emerged from the Raj literature was that they lived in luxury and enjoyed a standard of living befitting the upper classes in England. The social interaction between the British and the Indians changed with the passage of time. The early adventurers who had come to make a fortune cultivated the ruling classes to win commercial contracts. Once established in their various trades they developed contacts with the native gentry. This period saw much social intermingling between the two. With the East India Company graduating from a trading venture to a political force, there was a change in attitudes. Social relations gave place to power equations. The situation deteriorated further during the first half of the nineteenth century when the British, who were now the rulers, kept Indians at a greater distance. The relationship had changed into one of master and servant. The Mutiny of 1857 swept away what little social intercourse had existed between the two races.
Two of the Indian entertainments became particularly popular with the Sahibs. One was smoking the hookah, described as a most curious device for smoking tobacco through water; the smoke being conveyed by a long tube called a snake which was washed with rose water. The other was the nautch or Indian dance; the English became almost addicted to the nautch. It was similar to attending the ballet in Europe. Professional nautch girls and their performances have been described in detail by European visitors, missionaries, and John Company's civil and military officials. Nautch represented a form of cultural interaction between the native and the early English settlers in India. Many British artists have depicted the captivating performances in their glamorous and glittering costumes. It was such a popular and common form of entertainment until the middle of the nineteenth century that even the Governor-General and the high-ranking British ruling elite attended the nautch parties organized by Indian nobility.
The English were greatly impressed by the folklore and hectic gaiety of the people singing and dancing at the celebration of their fairs and festivals which had a religious and also regional flavour. They were also amazed by the feats of the Indian jugglers, magicians and other street performers. Some of these performances have been recorded by both professionals and amateur artists. The snake charmers usually find ample mention both visually and also in writings. Indian mendicants, sadhus, astrologers, ascetics also attracted the attention of the Sahibs, some of whom were not only impressed by their knowledge but also by their predictions when these came true.
Among other unusual amusements were the animal fights involving tigers, buffaloes, elephants and rams. Then there were also bird fights, especially cock fights, a popular pastime of the nobility and commoners alike. We come across graphic accounts by Capt. T. Williamson of the Bengal army in his famous classic Oriental Field Sports, (1819). The native princes and nawabs organized special shows of animal fights to entertain English guests. The English were introduced to the big game hunting of lions and tigers by the Indian ruling princes for whom it had been a traditional outdoor sport from time immemorial. There are fascinating accounts of the hunting trips by some English sportsmen. The most popular game with English civilians and soldiers alike was pig-sticking or hog-hunting according to Bombay phraseology. Practically all these sports have been covered in drawings and paintings by some British artists.
The British recorded their impressions of India in their letters home or in their memoirs. Many English families made it a tradition to send one or two members to India for a promising lucrative career. Apart from letters, another good way to keep in touch with relatives home was through portraits or drawings. Before the advent of camera these served the purpose of snapshots.
The contribution of amateur artists in depicting India is equally noteworthy. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, upper and middle classes in Britain regarded the learning and practice of drawing as a desirable accomplishment. It was one of the most popular and commendable occupations for their leisure. Then it became a part of liberal education and youngsters received instructions in drawing by art teachers in their schools or at home. Many British men and women who came to India had acquired such training. No wonder, there were a number of talented amateur artists among the East India Company's civil and military officials whose works frequently reached a high standard comparable in certain cases to those of the professional artists. The British women amateur artists did not lag behind the men as they were also as competent With pencil, pen and brush. Moreover, though very much a part of the Raj, women artists were not burdened by a sense of imperial mission. They had an open mind and took genuine interest in depicting the country and its people. Also as their sketches and drawings were mostly meant for their own selves and not for any competitive market, they were executed quite freely and are thus more intimate observations of the Indian scene.
The amateur artists depicted not only the delightful landscape but illustrated the mode of life, the varied means of transport, native costumes, customs and manners, festivities and amusements. Certain drawings even show their mansions, military camps and their large retinue of servants.
Among these amateur artists the most accomplished was Sir Charles Doyly (1781-1845) followed by J.B. Fraser. Both of them had received training from George Chinnery, a famous professional artist, who spent over twenty years in Calcutta. Other notable artists were Captain Charles Gold (1842), James Forbes (1749-1819), R.M. Grindlay (1786-1877), Emily Eden (1797-1869), S.C. Belnos, Fanny Parks and Marianne Postans. They have all bequeathed to us a very valuable collection of drawings, watercolours and sketches which provide an interesting visual record of the English life during the Raj and their perception of the Indian scene.
By the late eighteenth century, the new employees of the Company coming in from England were from the educated, cultured middle classes, who took an interest in intellectual pursuits. Many of them shared the fashionable interest in the 'Picturesque' and the 'Exotic'. They were fascinated by the variegated landscape of the country, its magnificent monuments and the diversity of its people. They wanted to acquire pictures of their new environment, but not all of them could afford to buy the works of British artists. They had also no access to the works of amateur artists as these were generally not sold. As a result, many British Company Officials began commissioning Indian artists to produce paintings of their chosen subjects. They were keen to collect these as mementos and souvenirs for their friends and relatives in England. For the British, almost every aspect of life in India was worth sketching. Their favourite subjects, however, were historic monuments with their novel architecture, people of different classes in colourful costumes, festivals and rituals, crafts and occupations, different modes of transport, and dancing girls. For many of them, paintings and drawings were the best record and became one of their most valued possessions.
Indian artists, on their part, welcomed the opportunity to work for their new British patrons, especially because the traditional patronage of Indian rulers and their courts was rapidly declining. While adopting some features of western art they took care to preserve traditional elements. Since their own skills were more than adequate, they did not need formal training from the British. However, they gave up using gouache in favour of European paper and changed colour patterns to replace the brilliant hues of miniature painting with mute tones and sepia washes which appealed to the British.
The first European professional artist to devote himself to the neglected field of drawing true-to-life pictures of Indian people of different classes and professions was Balthazar Solvyns at Calcutta. He made a comprehensive study of the Indian communities and their occupations and produced 250 colour etchings (1799). His work was not only of great historic value but it had also a tremendous influence on the fortunes of Indian painters who were then seeking patronage of the emerging English masters. They looked for subjects that would appeal to their British clients and they found Solvyn's sketches as the best guide.
One of the most remarkable manuscripts covering trades, occupations and social classes is Tasrih- al-Aqvam by Col. James Skinner. It is an outstanding work in Persian dealing with the castes, sects and tribes of Punjab. Skinner was one of the most glamorous personalities of the Raj. Famous for his 'Skinner's Horse,' he was the son of a Scottish father and Rajput mother, and had opted for an Indian lifestyle with an estate at Hansi near Delhi. A Persian scholar and a great patron of Indian arts, he commissioned several native artists to work for him. The Tasrih- al-Aqvam is profusely illustrated with paintings in the Delhi 'Company' style combining European naturalism in the human figures with certain Indian elements. The medium of painting is watercolour on paper which is pasted on card and bound in leather.
Another remarkable collection of paintings by Indian artists as commissioned by British patrons is the Fraser Album discovered in 1979 in Scotland. These marvellous paintings of great aesthetic merit were commissioned by James Fraser (1783-1856), a gifted amateur artist himself, and his brother William Fraser (1784-1835) then stationed in Delhi as an assistant to the British Resident. With over a hundred water colours this album portrays a wide range of Indian characters and the pattern of everyday life in Delhi. These fine portraits are noteworthy for their striking likeness and graphic detail that captured every last detail of hair and wrinkle and also the subject's mood and expression - a rare combination of humanity and realism transcending the common depiction of human figures.
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