Sketch pad – checked, pencils – checked, brushes – checked, paints – checked … we’re all set to blast off to the time when the British established their mighty rule in India. How? When? Why? Come now, there are a lot of history books to answer these questions. But to cut the long story short, a large body of merchants in England formed a new trading company – which later came to be known as the East India Company – to trade with East Indies, India, and Southeast Asia. It came to India to trade cotton, silk, spices, and tea, and exchanged English gold and silver coins for these commodities. It then used these commodities in China to subsidize the prices of the things it bought there. This way, the Company earned huge profits, became rich, and established strong relationships with the local Indian kings. To protect their own interests, the traders in the Company started playing one king against the other with promises to help these maharajas overthrow their enemies in return for special privileges. But some rulers didn’t give in to their wicked plans; one of them was the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, who began to shut down all British factories in Bengal. In order to stop him, Lord Robert Clive, a soldier and statesman in the East India Company, fought the famous Battle of Plassey against the nawab of Bengal in 1757. Unfortunately, the nawab lost. With the Company’s victory, it transformed from a group of traders to the new rulers of the country, and from this moment on, the British Raj in India was born – which not just changed the course of Indian history but Indian art as well. Want to find out how? Read on…
Of Indian, by Indian artists
It was India of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. The Company had expanded its purview in the country, and many British officers, along with their families, were stationed in India. Now these British officials and their families were quite taken with the way of life they saw in India, which was very different from what they’d experienced in their home country. The landscape, the flora and fauna, the people, the variety of occupations, the ancient monuments, everything in India was quite exotic for them. And they wanted to show all these things to their friends and relatives back home. But they didn’t have smart phones back then – forget about smart phones, they didn’t even have cameras in those days, these poor things, for this was an era before photography was invented. So they hired native Indian artists to record their visual experiences in paintings and sketches which they could carry back to their own country. Since this style of panting developed under the patronage of East India Company, it came to be known as the Company paintings.
Now the Indian artists who were hired by the British officials to create these paintings were previously trained in the Mughal techniques of painting and had to evolve their styles to respond to the tastes of their British patrons. Both the subject matter and the style in these paintings got influenced by the English watercolour paintings and prints that were brought to India. The result was a type of painting that blended the Indian and the British styles, and an attempt was made by Indian artists to meet European demands for accurate depictions of subjects. Shading and linear perspective started being used, and the bright colours which were traditionally used in Indian miniature paintings were replaced with soft blue, green and brown tones.
Since these paintings were mostly for documentation purposes rather than imaginative purposes, the subjects in these paintings tended to be fairly mundane – images depicting deities and festivals, various castes and occupations, architecture, plants and animals, fruit and vegetable vendors, etc. Many of these paintings were created by Indian artist families in areas of British influence such as Tanjore, Trichinopoly, Delhi, Murshidabad, Patna, Calcutta, Benares and Lucknow.
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