Company Paintings - Capturing an Era



The 19th century was a turbulent time for India, marked by social, economic and political changes. The British were getting deeper and deeper into India as commerce gave way to politics and control. It was also a time when cultures were colliding. Given India’s rich artistic tradition, this clash of worlds sometimes encouraged new forms of creative expression.

Diorama from the exhibition
Diorama from the exhibition|LHI

As officers of the East India Company went deeper into the subcontinent, they were fascinated by the world they saw. Since photography hadn’t been invented yet, Company officers got local artists to paint scenes from everyday life and sent these paintings back to the UK. This gave birth to a unique style of painting called the ’Company Style’. It was so named since the artists were patronised by the British East India Company.

Indian Life & People In The 19th Century: Company Paintings In The TAPI & CSMVS Collections is an exhibition that explores this period and the art that emerged from it. The exhibition, open to the public at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangharalaya (CSMVS) till 7th January 2019, has been curated from artworks held by the CSMVS and the Surat-based TAPI Collection. The exhibition itself has been curated by Vandana Prapanna of the CSMVS and was inaugurated by noted writer and historian William Dalrymple. It also has an associated catalogue by art historian J P Losty with a foreword by John Keay.

Exhibition Poster
Exhibition Poster|LHI

Shilpa Shah, who put together the TAPI Collection, says in her press note: ‘To see kings and queens in their courtly settings, or gods and goddesses in theirs, we have our miniature paintings to go to. But where do you go to see the ordinary Indian humbly plying his trade two hundred years ago? For this, you need Company Paintings! Before photography, it is paintings patronised by the British that provide an authentic and unparalleled window into India’s past.’

Three distinct styles of Company Art emerged in the three of the British centres of power in India – Delhi, Calcutta and Madras. Born just before the advent of photography and at a time when the great royal patrons of miniature art were waning, Company Painting created its own unique niche in Indian art.

Exhibition display
Exhibition display|LHI

The exhibition is composed of water colour paintings and clay figurines created in 19th century India, and claim to being accurate depictions of India in that era. Besides the major centres of the East India Company across India, this style of painting spread to some princely states like Kutch. In each geography, Company Paintings took on their own unique flavour.

Eastern India saw the rise of the artistic style in Murshidabad, Patna and Calcutta. Influenced by the British, Indian artists started experimenting with watercolours and picked up many techniques of contemporary painting.

In Murshidabad, artists developed the technique of using colour washes to achieve a picturesque effect. With the loss of power, the Nawab of Murshidabad was unable to sustain his patronage and many of the artists migrated to Calcutta and Patna. In Calcutta, India’s colonial capital till 1911, a style which focused on scientific accuracy instead of artistic flourishes developed.

Painting from Calcutta
Painting from Calcutta|LHI

In Northern India, the British had captured Delhi at the turn of the 19th century and were eyeing Punjab and Awadh. As the imperial capitals surrendered, the artists working for the old guard were forced to seek patronage from local chieftains and British officials. The artists were able to cater to both Indian and British patrons. The European influence can be seen with the coming of Western perspective and the use of watercolour washes.

Painting from Delhi
Painting from Delhi|LHI

Artists in Southern India were skilled in painting deities and festivals and were able to paint people of different castes, occupations and even ascetics for British patrons. The style spread to the Andhra coast, Kerala, Madras and Tanjore. One can see the influence of the Deccani style in the paintings form Tanjore and Madras. Trichinopoly also saw paintings done on mica, which are extremely rare and highly prized today.

Painting from Andhra Pradesh
Painting from Andhra Pradesh|LHI

The artwork on display:

In the artwork displayed at the exhibition, four distinct themes of Company Art emerge: community representations through couples, religious scenes, scenes from daily life and depictions of trades and professions.

When we looked at the communities represented through couples, two paintings caught our attention: one of a Persian couple from Patna and the other of a Brahmin and his wife from Kerala.

The images, although following a template, show the diversity of Indian life. This can be seen in the vibrant colours and costumes of the Persian couple and the muted attire of the Kerala Brahmin couple.

A Persian couple
A Persian couple|LHI
A Brahmin couple
A Brahmin couple|LHI

The scenes from daily life show a lot of activity and movement and, to some degree, would have been exotic for their colonial patrons. Some of the most interesting ones are a scene from a tavern in Murshidabad; a banquet scene in Kutch; and a painting on mica from Patna, which shows a nobleman watching a dance.

Tavern, Murshidabad
Tavern, Murshidabad|LHI
 Banquet, Kutch
Banquet, Kutch |LHI
Dance Performance, Patna
Dance Performance, Patna|LHI

Portraits of trades and professions depict both pre-existing professions as well as those that emerged with the advent of the Company. Among the varied professions depicted are the coach man and water carrier from Calcutta, sepoy from Lucknow, chintz trader from the Andhra coast, and panhkhawala or fan bearer from Madras.

Coachman and Water Carrier, Calcutta
Coachman and Water Carrier, Calcutta|LHI
Sepoy, Lucknow
Sepoy, Lucknow|LHI
Chintz trader, Andhra Pradesh
Chintz trader, Andhra Pradesh|LHI
Panhkhawala, Madras
Panhkhawala, Madras|LHI

Indian festivals and rituals greatly fascinated the British and there was great demand for their representation by Company patrons. Two striking images in the exhibition are a temple procession from Tanjore and a Muharram procession from Trichinopoly.

Tanjore procession
Tanjore procession|LHI

Clay figures depicting Indians were also in demand by the British and many were created in Pune near Mumbai, and were popular souvenirs.

Clay Figures
Clay Figures|LHI

Not only does the exhibition present some excellent examples of Company Art from that era, it also dips into the CSMVS’s collection and brings out objects from that period. This helps us actually see many of the objects depicted in the artworks.

 Object Display
Object Display|LHI

Although the Company School developed for a specific reason and artworks were supposed to follow a template, local influences can be seen in the perspective, dimensions and even in the shading used by the artists. Conversely, the Company School ended up influencing local styles and the art that emerged in India after the end of the Company School.

Many factors led to the end of the Company School – the coming of photography and the collapse of the East India Company.

The end of the Company School also signalled the end of the ateliers in India, where the artists remained anonymous, and art began to be practiced more in a workshop set-up.

A great deal of effort has gone into collecting and curating the collection at CSMVS, and we at LHI have shared only a small representation of the excellent collection on display. This includes around 120 paintings and dozens of clay figures, which would interest connoisseurs of art, lovers of history and heritage, and just about anyone else who wants a better understanding of India’s rich and diverse heritage.

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