It is hard to imagine the charm and mystery which many everyday sights of Indian life held for British colonialists. From the fakirs to the nautch girls, from the private zenanas of the royal ladies to the palanquin-bearers, from the hawkers of Ko-i-staun to the peons of Mysore, British artists expended great labour to document the life of the Oriental. Many of these themes can be seen as lithographs, aquatints, mezzotints, woodcuts and wood-engravings in an exhibition-cum-sale organized by People for Animals (PFA) called Vintage India.
“Lithographs have been collected by royalty and private collectors for many years from antique shops, but never really been showcased,” says Maneka Gandhi, chairperson of PFA. Lithographs are reproductions of original drawings done through a process involving the rare lithographic stone, either under the supervision of the original artist himself or by a well-known printer. All the 3,000 images at the exhibition are at least a century old. According to Gandhi, the images have been sourced from a private collector, and come with certificates of guarantee.
The artists on display include well-known names such as William Hodges, Emily Eden and William and Thomas Daniell. Ganesh Singh, an art collector in Kolkata who owns a sizeable collection of old lithographs and aquatints, says these artists are the oldest and biggest names among pre-independence British artists in India. “Though the lithograph market has seen a slump owing to the boom in contemporary Indian art, Daniells’ 19”x23” aquatint still sells in the British market for anything between £3,000 (Rs2.49 lakh) and £5,000,” he says.
These artists were not merely guided by curiosity about native customs; a voyage across the seas made a lot of economic sense as well. “India was a big attraction for these artists since the competition in mainland Britain was intense, and here they could command the patronage of nawabs and Indian princes,” says Pran Nevile, author of numerous books on the British Raj. These views of Indian life during the pre-photographic era are especially valuable because unlike Europe, India did not have a tradition of landscape painting. “Our concept of painting was different. The landscapes that one encountered in the miniatures made by Indian artists were not true to life, but based on the fantasy and imagination of the artist,” adds Nevile.
Some of the themes featured in the works have a distinct socio-anthropological significance. François Balthazar Solvyns, for example, portrayed the different castes of India. He also attempted to document indigenous musical instruments, about 90% of which are feared lost.
Gandhi expects 6,000-7,000 people every day at the show, considering that the prices have deliberately been kept low to attract amateur art investors. The starting price of the lithographs is Rs1,200 and they go up to Rs10 lakh. “We are selling them at 50% of their market price, which means you can get a 6”x8” Daniells as cheap as Rs5,600,” she says.
Vintage India at Regal Room, InterContinental The Grand, New Delhi, from 10-12 August .