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Remembering India’s Forgotten Artistic Masters

A new, first-of-its-kind exhibition in London spotlights painters associated with with Kampani Qalam, the Urdu name for the rich, hybrid art style associated with commissions for the East India Company.

Yellapah of Vellore, “Three Ascetics” (early 19th-century) (image courtesy of the British Museum)

LONDON — When Europeans first established a foothold in India, they were interested in acquiring the subcontinent’s fabulous wealth and in documenting and understanding the cultures therein. By the mid-18th-century, as the East India Company (EIC) secured its dominance, this curiosity led to some enterprising officials commissioning Indian artists to paint for them. The result was a remarkable admixture between sterile British academic drawing and Mughal and Indic traditions; “Company Art.”

This history, stretching from the 1770s to the 1840s, is the subject of a new, first-of-its-kind exhibition in London, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company. Curated by William Dalrymple, a well-known historian of British India, the exhibition eschews the term “Company School” to avoid obscuring “…the distinctive artistic contributions of the artists who actually painted them.” By focusing on Kampani Qalam (the Urdu name for this hybrid art style) and its practitioners, the Wallace Collection exhibition informs us about the Indian artists; a rarity when it comes to Western discourse regarding Company Art.

Shaikh Zain ud-Din, “Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch” (c. 1780)(image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art); drawn in opaque colors and ink on paper, the detail of the bird could only have been captured by a Mughal miniature trained artist

While EIC patrons like Claude Martin (1735-1800), a French mercenary and the first major collector and commissioner of Indian objects d’artes, Chief Justice Elijah Impey (1732-1809), his wife Mary (1749-1818), and Scottish-soldier-turned-wannabe-Delhi-aristocrat William Fraser (1784-1835) do appear, the focus of the exhibition is the painters — something made clear with the positioning of a self-portrait by one of their finest, Yellapah of Vellore, opposite the exhibition’s entrance.

By the 18th-century, Indian artistic traditions were already several thousand years old. Broadly speaking, there were two aesthetic styles which interacted with one another — Indic, a blend of Hindu/Buddhist and Jain artistry and, from the 12th century onwards, an Islamicate style which developed  via conquest in the North and trade in the South. These were deeply pluralistic thanks to the different vernacular cultures that practiced them. The Islamicate style was equally complex, bearing influences from Pashtun, Timurid, Safavid, Portuguese and Arabic art. And yet a clear “Indian” aesthetic sensibility was evident, that simultaneously demonstrated a pan-Indian practice and contained significant regional differences.

Bhawani Das, “A Spray of Mangoes” (c. 1775) (image courtesy of the Natural History Museum)

Thus, when the Impeys commissioned three “natives of Patna” to paint their private zoo and botanical garden in Calcutta, it was considered enough to describe them as Indian artists. The trio, masters in the Mughal miniature style of painting, would create the first significant work of this new hybrid art form.

We know their names; the master, Shaikh Zain ud-Din, and his assistants Ram Das and Bhawani Das. The latter specialized in botanical drawings – his “Spray of Green Mangoes” (1775) is a delightful showcase of all the greens in the spectrum, the fruit’s darker tones contrasting with the lime of the bent branches. Bhawani Das also excelled at drawing animals, perhaps best encapsulated in his “Male Fruit Bat” (ca. 1772-82). Painting in watercolors on paper in the European tradition, Das captured the form of the fruit bat using the Mughal practice of prataj: meticulous shading from light to dark to define shape. The eye for detail, another hallmark of Mughal miniatures, is evident in the coarse hair of its body and the leathery texture of the wing. But the outstanding feature is the cheekiness of the bat; the humor in its expression, its wing reminiscent of a charismatic Hammer film villain. For Indian artists of all styles and mediums feeling the subject was just as important as faithfully observing it.

Bhawani Das, “Male Fruit Bat” (c. 1777-82) (image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Zain ud-Din produced the most awe-inspiring natural images and was especially fond of drawing birds. The brilliance and simplicity of the colors used in “Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch” (1779), for example, is juxtaposed with the detail of the ruffled feathers on the preening bird’s curved neck and the marine blue of its upper wings scumbled to the teal of its middle.

The exhibition contextualizes these well-known works by placing them alongside works by lesser-known painters like Vishnupersaud, Manu Lall, and the Bengali artist Haludar. Their art demonstrates a similar technical dexterity and aesthetic decisions that no Western artist at the time would have made. In Vishnupersaud’s “A Cobra Lily” (ca. 1821), for example, the leaves loop around almost surreally to fill the page — an artistic choice antithetical to European rationalism.

Vishnupersaud, “A Cobra Lily” (c. 1821) (image courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Focusing on the painters highlights the inherently pluralistic artistic traditions of India. Yellapah of Vellore, whose fantastic ochre-pigment “Self-Portrait” (ca. 1832-1835) greets visitors to Forgotten Masters, was Zain ud-Din’s opposite in many ways. The first was geographical; Yellapah hailed from South India. He was also a “picture moochie” — a member of the leather-working caste that many Tanjore school artists belonged to. Yellapah did not train in Mughal ateliers but had an equally brilliant style and an astute sensitivity to the changing cultural focus of his European patrons.

Yellapah painted in the first decades of the 19th century – a time when the cosmopolitan Orientalist obsession with India’s antiquarian past had been replaced with a contemptuous and racialized desire to document its people. His depiction of “Three Ascetics” (ca. early 19th Century) recalls the ethnographic photographs commissioned by the British Raj, with the mendicants classified into archetypal figures of Vaishnavas and Saivaites (devotees to the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva respectively). Interestingly, he never depicted Europeans in his work; perhaps a subtle show of resistance.

Yellapah of Vellore, “Self-Portrait” (c. 1832-35) (image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum)

In its eclectic showcase Forgotten Masters cogently argues that Kampani Qalam was not merely a relic of the EIC, but instead the last triumphant gasp of an unbroken tradition of Indian art before it was shattered by colonialism and imperial photography. But that is a story for another exhibition.

Forgotten Masters – Indian Painting for the East India Company continues through April 19 at the Wallace Collection(Hertford House, Manchester Square, London).

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