Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company review
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Colonialism didn’t just come for the minerals, spices and priceless artefacts, colonialism came for the art too. As the East India Company tightened its grip on the Indian subcontinent in the nineteenth century, it also grabbed at the arts of the places it was occupying.
This gorgeous show brings together botanical, portrait and everyday scene paintings commissioned by wealthy European patrons. And if nothing else, you have to admit they had taste. The artists they commissioned were the masters of their fields – the greatest miniaturists, portraitists and textile designers of their generations – and now they were in the employ of Westerners. Their work has always been anonymised as ‘Company Painting’, but now, here, the artists are taking centre stage.
There’s compromise involved in that transaction. The patrons didn’t want traditional painting, they wanted watercolours on English paper, they wanted European art, but had to get it with local artists. So Indian artists used European materials, twisting Eastern forms into Western shapes.
The best work is botanical and zoological. The swirling yam by Chuni Lall, the spiralling squash by Rungiah, the hungry stork by Shaikh Zain ud-Din, the cheeky bat with a boner by an artist from the circle of Bhawani Das. The composition of textile designers, the microscopic detail of miniaturists, it’s all here.
Yellapah of Vellore captures ascetics and pujaris, but soldiers in British uniform, too. Ghulam Ali Khan paints dense groups of merchants and courtiers. They create beautiful, detailed worlds.
But this is a story with two sides. The first is a Western narrative of dominance and consumption: the patrons are colonial figures desperate to drain, record and own the culture, flora and fauna of the lands they were occupying. Just as with the physical resources of the subcontinent, this is the consumption of the ephemeral: the hoarding and manipulation of cultural production.
The other side of the story is of artists as opportunists, seizing their chances to make cash, and a name for themselves, off the back of European patronage.
There are little acts of rebellion here – Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya’s refusal to include his patrons in his paintings – but more than anything, there’s a sense of identity winning through. No matter what these artists were asked to paint, or how, or what materials they were made to use, their aesthetics shine through.
These names have been erased for more than a century, now we can watch as, rightfully, they are written back into the history books.