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The Sahib’s Pictures

From Merchants to Emperors: British Artists and India, 1757–1930

by Pratapaditya Pal, by Vidya Dehejia
Cornell University Press, 264 pp., $75.00

Ironically, the least “Indian” exhibition among those of the nationwide Festival of India was organized by two scholars from India. This is so not because of the subject—British watercolors, drawings, prints, and photographs relating to India, from 1757 to 1930—but because a significantly large proportion of the works in the exhibit conform to the taste not of internationally minded specialists but of some ghostly Colonel Blimp eager to please an equally outdated John Bull. Although it would be extremely difficult to assemble a perfectly balanced selection, either on historical or aesthetic grounds, one must question the conventionally “colonial” tenor of the present choices. But before this ruffling problem can be considered it must be pointed out that we are concerned not with the exhibition “From Merchants to Emperors,” at the Morgan Library from May 1 through July 31, 1986, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from September 9, 1986, to January 4, 1987—largely taken from the collections of Paul Walter of New York City—but with the stimulating and informative book of the same title, which doubles as a catalog to the exhibition. Its well-reproduced illustrations have been amplified by one hundred or so others or works from public and private sources in India, England, and elsewhere.

Only the Roman Empire has inspired more scholarly books and articles than British India. But unlike ancient Rome, British India, which unlike with India’s independence in 1947, remains a subject that is difficult—or impossible—to approach dispassionately. British scholars, indeed, are now more outspokenly anticolonial than most Indians. In this case nearly three critical centuries have been documented and discussed by two not entirely unbiased Indian scholars. Both Pratapaditya Pal and Vidya Dehejia experienced the Raj through their adolescences, and spent their professional lives in another former British colony, the US, where the Revolution is celebrated once a year, usually at picnics, with beer and firecrackers. Although most Indians are probably now oblivious to the evils of their imperial past (and take for granted its benefits such as transportation and postal systems, a dependable civil service, and the lingua franca, English), the inequalities and pain of foreign rule are not wholly forgotten. Their slightly acrid scent too often permeates the page of the present book.

In the beguiling words of Dr. Pal, a Bengali from Calcutta, he was reared “in a very conservative, nationalistic home” and in 1946 was packed off by his father “to a prestigious English-speaking boarding school in the hills…[where he] was molded into the caricature of a young English gentleman, who loved reading P.G. Wodehouse and playing cricket, but when [he] returned home for the holidays [he] reassumed [his] native guise.” Vidya Dehejia, a South Indian Brahmin, on the other hand, to quote Dr. Pal, “was raised as a true baba sahib, as she was the daughter of one of the first Indians who was permitted to join as an officer the thus far (as late as the thirties) entirely British ‘Indian Police.’ Her childhood days were spent in pukka British-Indian manner, generally in the company of British children, under the vigilant eyes of ayahs and sepoys.”

Pal and Dehejia confess their ambivalence lence about the British Raj. Although they have avoided overt empire-baiting—while never quite forgetting such rough passages as the India Mutiny of 1857 (“The First War of Independence”)—their selection of works of art strikes this India-loving American as virtually a spoof of old-fashioned British values, and as failing (subconsciously?) to appreciate the more constructive aspects of their imperial legacy. I also wonder why works of art expressive of British enthusiasm for qualities that are innately and marvelously Indian have been filtered out in favor of those that show violent, painful, or strained relations between the rulers and the ruled. The works selected reveal little of the zestful curiosity often expressed by British visitors to one of the world’s most fascinating and diverse cultures.

As represented here in more than 250 images, the English painters, printmakers, and photographers only rarely do more than scratch the surface of Indian culture, or even manage to evoke the stunning variety of sounds, smells, and life that so exhilarate visitors to India. It is difficult to ascribe the impression given of icy British noninvolvement to anything other than the policy of selection. Was it necessary to focus upon so many of the unappealing historical panoramas and heroic allegories of military conquest, mechanical pictures seemingly created by drum-major artists waving their brushes like banners? And need we be exposed to so many miles of landscapes by determined artists suffering from overlong dedication to scenes of the Italian countryside and Scottish moors? We are given the impression that while in India, British artists were inspired equally by love of exploration and by the need for money, and that they depicted only scenes and people likely to loosen patrons’ pocket books. Crowded as are their canvases, gouaches, watercolors, drawings, and prints with Sivaite temples, Mughal palaces, and quaint natives, most of them recall the comforting, but forgettable, views of Alps and Scottish highlands known from hallways in country houses or sitting rooms in Anglican rectories.

Other subjects as seen here are also too often infected with the same aversion to things unlike home. Indian hunting scenes and animal combats were transformed into episodes that recall Squire Jorrocks’s tallyhos. When depicting Indians, it seems, British artists seldom looked them in the eyes, or came close to their lives. And as with the land, they restricted their subject matter to quaint, colorful specimens: sadhus, courtesans, maharajahs, and nawabs—the Indian equivalents of home-grown human exotica, riffraff, and lords. Although the British in India scrutinized and even guffawed at the curious anatomies and behavior of other Britishers—as is proved by the enterprising Mr. Walter’s most welcome series of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century caricatures—they kept at a respectful distance in the face of real live natives. Indians were ordinarily reduced to picturesque little ciphers adorning middle distances or backgrounds; and those so honored usually were folk conveniently at hand, or under foot—servants, clerks, and the munshis who drilled them in languages.

Notwithstanding the legend of British India’s greedy dominance over all that breathed in the subcontinent, British culture did not in fact profoundly penetrate Indian culture. (More potent by far is the constant, treacly erosion by radio, film, television, and tourism that continues to change traditional India.) Indians—apart from servants—who took to British ways invariably came from the higher levels of the socioeconomic pyramid, a segment of society where ideas change swiftly, but which has had limited impact upon India’s vital reserve of energy and intelligence, the multitudes of the villages. This is borne out by the sparse sampling of popular art in From Merchants to Emperors, even though it is represented only by prints and watercolors from the urbanized folk artists of West Bengal, long the most “English” area. But the impact upon Indian culture of the “higher” art of professional British artists, the only art from the British Isles known widely in India, was also negligible below the very peak of the pyramid.

This can be ascribed in good measure to the fact that the vast majority of civil servants, soldiers, merchants, and others who came out to India lived as aloof foreigners, pining for home. They remained in India only long enough to earn enough money—or seniority—to retire; and most of them clustered together. Although formal acquaintanceships between English and Indians took place at the top of the pyramid, true friendships were rare on any level. When close relationships occurred, they were likely to be between Indians and members of the small minority of dedicated scholars and anthropologists who adored India, some of whom were also civil servants—people such as the eminent Sanskritist Sir William Jones, and Colonel James Tod, whose Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan remains the major work in its field. Recent examples are the specialist in Indian miniature painting, William G. Archer, and his wife Mildred, who continues herself to publish studies of Indian art during the British period which are basic to the field she has made her own. Both found lasting friendships in India.

After a search through From Merchants to Emperors for pictures of truly moving artistic quality, one finds that they attract in ways scarcely Indian. The Blair Conversation Piece, for instance, in which Miss Blair entertains her family by performing on a spinet, hints of exotic origin only through the presence of a soulfully wide-eyed Indian servant girl, the most probing and appealing painting of an Indian in the book (fig. 104). International in treatment, it is by Johann Zoffany, a German-born virtuoso of the brush who was probably the only major European artist employed in British India. More often, we are nostalgically moved, amused, or charmed by the selection of pictures by professional painters. Most of those who went to India were lesser men: Tilly Kettle, who portrayed the colorful elite, British and indigenous alike, with skillful gusto; the landscapists William Hodges and George Chinnery, and Thomas and William Daniell, uncle and nephew, whose romantic views served India as Richard Wilson’s canvases did Italy. These romantic artist/travelers are pleasingly, if seldom brilliantly, represented in From Merchants to Emperors, often by pictures in the Paul Mellon Collection of the Yale Center for British Art.

Somewhat more sympathetic to India in their treatment of sunlight and motion are Edward Lear’s lively watercolors, although one must study them closely, and assiduously substitute Indian temples or forts for the classical ruins so ingrained in our minds from his Greek sketchbooks. But, like Hodges, the Daniells, and others, Lear drew in a style so intensely European, with its bold washes, perspective, and soft edges, that however Indian the subjects, the effect is as English as cooked kippers. Crumpets and marmalade, but still no chapatis or curry, are provided by the dashing line and camera-quick eye of a more accomplished topographical watercolorist, William Simpson, who visited India soon after the “Mutiny.” Regrettably, the ambitious compositions shown here—including a distressing view of British troops battering the walls of Lucknow with a cannon, and the one on the cover, which reminded a friend educated in India of a street in Cairo—lack the vivid immediacy of his smaller sketches (soon to be published by Mrs. Archer) made from life on the road.

Less constrained by orthodox training than the charmingly whimsical Mr. Lear and virtuoso Mr. Simpson were some of the British amateur artists, who experienced India longer and more deeply than either one. When inspired, they could record land and people with insightful directness. Luminously Indian is Captain John Young Porter’s mysterious watercolor of Sir Thomas Strange’s neoclassical house before which an Indian woman salutes a pair of exceedingly picturesque ascetics. An outstanding amateur was the accomplished Sir Charles D’Oyly, whose View of a Street in the City of Patna conveys the hurly-burly of Indian life with uncommon passion, and without Italianate theatricality. But he was one of those quirky colonials who succumbed to native ways, and made India his home during the golden age of British India that preceded the “Mutiny.” Another noteworthy amateur, Emily Eden, who accompanied her brother, Lord Auckland, during his governor-generalship, never wholly adjusted. However much we admire her Lord Auckland Receiving the Raja of Nahun in Durbar, with its elegant arrangement of English and native officers in a tent, it brings to mind an Orientalist drawing-room comedy interpreted with the witty charm of Jane Austen. Her pictures, and those by others of her genteel sisterhood, may be the collectibles of the future: memsahib masterpieces.

In a chapter entitled “Native Artists and Exotic Art,” the authors briefly violate the rule established by their restrictive subtitle and demonstrate that Indian artists lost none of their inbred artistic bite under British patronage, even when they adjusted their styles to foreign modes. Sewak Ram, an early-nineteenth-century Patna artist who had been trained in the Mughal tradition, painted Muslims worshiping in a courtyard during the Mohurrum festival with an insider’s eye for accurate, meaningful detail. Unlike the broadly conceived, infinitely tamer paintings and watercolors of Hodges, the Daniells, or Lear, which were intended to be framed and hung on walls, this picture, designed for more intimate viewing, invites us to explore each tiny detail of costume, tent, or hanging lamp.

Even more engagingly informative are two vital gouaches of the 1820s painted for the albums of William Fraser, an illfated Scot (he was murdered in an incident over Muslim succession) enamored of India and Indians, who was the most inspired British patron of “native” artists. The study of Six Afghans, by a brilliantly observant painter worthy of the imperial Mughal ateliers, not only describes every coat, knife, turban, face, hand, and whisker but defines each man’s character with an almost upsetting immediacy that anticipates photography. In the second portrait from Fraser’s panoramic survey of early-nineteenth-century Delhi and Hariana life, the artist boldly angled across the page a comfortably gawky, hawk-nosed young trooper of the famous unit Skinner’s Horse. Nothing is prim, proper, self-consciously staged, or deodorized either in these earthily informal, sensitively observed pictures from the Paul Walter collection, or in the group portrait belonging to Edwin Binney III, of six congenial courtesans. At last we are transported from England into India.

We are also carried there by several old photographs, the material evidently closest to the hearts of the collector and the authors. Mr. Walter has gathered them with such eager devotion that those in the book are but a small fraction of his treasure.

Nevertheless, outstanding prints by Felice Beato, Captain Linneaus Tripe, Dr. John Murray, Samuel Bourne, Charles Shepherd, and others greatly enliven the book. Again, however, we might query the emphasis of the selection, which portrays Indians as curiosities, pompous numbskulls, or menials. Although one longs to see more of Mr. Walter’s photographs (and hopes for an exhibition of them), the current sampling seems oddly imbalanced, even slanted. Is it necessary to illustrate not one but two of Captain Willoughby Hooper’s remarkable but appalling arrangements of victims of the Madras Famine of 1877–1878? And considering restrictions of space, is it wise to reproduce Beato’s most gruesome spread of skeletons in a Lucknow courtyard, the aftermath of a victory over the “Mutineers” by H.M.’s and Greens’ 4th Punjab Infantry?

One would also question the emphasis on architectural grandeur in a lavish sequence of views of forts, palaces, and imperial edifices, scarcely interrupted by the more significant and appealing views of vernacular architecture which were taken in as great a quantity by the same photographers. Although From Merchants to Emperors offers a needed view of the art of British India from an Indian standpoint, and is the most carefully documented and felicitously written of Dr. Pal’s many publications, it is regrettable that greater emphasis was not given to works of art that bring out the sympathy and delight in India and Indians felt over the centuries by many English.

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