The familiar phrase “accident of history" becomes especially poignant in William Dalrymple’s latest project. Following the publication of The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire earlier this year, the writer and historian reinvents himself as a curator and an archivist-sleuth.

Earlier this week, a magisterial exhibition of paintings put together by Dalrymple opened at The Wallace Collection, a museum in London that holds art from the 18th and 19th centuries, collected by the first four marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the fourth marquess. Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting For The East India Company seeks to train our attention on a curiously—and somewhat accidentally—neglected phase of Indian art history: the incredibly rich and diverse bodies of work made by Indian artists on commission from employees of the East India Company stationed in the country in the 18th and 19th centuries.

William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple (Photo: Hindustan Times)

Until recently, these artists were unceremoniously lumped together under the rubric of the “Company School". As Dalrymple writes in the introduction to the show’s catalogue (published in India last week), the term might be useful catch-all jargon but it is deeply problematic too—“it emphasises colonial patronage of these works over the artistic endeavours of the brilliant Indian artists who actually painted them". While the botanical historian Henry Noltie suggests an alternative, if somewhat inelegant, term—“Indian Export Art"—it fails to capture the aesthetic and historical complexities of this subgenre.

Surprisingly, even an eminent scholar like B.N. Goswamy, who has spent much of his career trying to establish the identities of little-known artists (and whom Dalrymple describes as his “guru and ustad"), had only a cursory section on the Company painters in the monumental two-volume study Masters Of Indian Painting, of which he is one of the editors. Dalrymple’s project, the culmination of his long and passionate interest in Indian art of the 18th and 19th centuries, attempts to undo these historical erasures.

Forgotten Masters—Indian Painting For The East India Company: By William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury India, 192 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1,099.
Forgotten Masters—Indian Painting For The East India Company: By William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury India, 192 pages, 1,099.

It all started with William Fraser, the British civil servant who lived in India from the early years of the 19th century till he was killed in Delhi in 1835. “He has been a constant companion to me for years," Dalrymple says on the phone from his home in the Capital. “Fraser is in at least three of my books." Apart from City Of Djinns, White Mughals and The Last Mughal, the Scotsman appears towards the end of The Anarchy as well.

An avid collector of Company painting, Fraser was related to Olivia Fraser, the contemporary artist who is married to Dalrymple. The Fraser Album, which has some of the finest specimens of Company paintings, was found by Olivia’s cousins in the very house in Scotland where she still spends summers with her husband and family. “Olivia and I never saw it because it was sold off to Sotheby’s," Dalrymple says.

In 1989, when Olivia came to India for the first time to see Dalrymple, who was working here (they were yet to be married), he gave her a recently published book, The Passionate Quest: The Fraser Brothers In India, by Mildred Archer and Toby Falk. The vivid images of flora, fauna and Indian life collected in the volume inspired a new way of seeing in Olivia, giving her work a fresh impetus. And it ignited a corresponding desire in Dalrymple to exhume the lives of these extraordinary, mostly anonymous, artists.

Thirty years later, the historian has reached a cornerstone in his quest. For the first time in Britain, there is an elaborate show featuring some of the unsung geniuses of Indian art who have been languishing in private collections and museums for decades (a couple of the paintings, Dalrymple says, had once belonged to the late writer V.S. Naipaul). At long last, the world can admire the glorious handiwork of masters such as Mazhar Ali Khan, Yellapah of Vellore, Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das and Manu Lall, most of whom have been unfairly subsumed under the umbrella of the Company School.

Even a flip through the catalogue is enough to realize the sheer inappropriateness of such a nomenclature. The range and diversity of the subjects and styles—plants and animals, portraits and street scenes, ethnographic and architectural studies, executed in a synthesis of Mughal influences and realist Western idiom—make it impossible to club these paintings under one unifying category.

‘Asian Openbill Stork In A Landscape’ by unknown artist, circa 1780.
‘Asian Openbill Stork In A Landscape’ by unknown artist, circa 1780. (Photo courtesy Bloomsbury India)

A classic illustration of the dialogue between these contrasting traditions is in the watercolour painting Asian Openbill Stork In A Landscape, made by an unknown artist circa 1780. Instead of the conventional white background against which European artists painted botanical and zoological specimens, the Indian painter framed his subject within a landscape. “The artist painted the bird as though he were painting a noble in the Mughal style," Dalrymple explains.

Apart from their aesthetic differences, especially in the way they handled foreshortening and perspective, the Indian artists had too much personality to be dismissed as a nameless group employed by rich patrons like Claude Martin, a French officer of the East India Company, or Lady Mary Impey, an English natural historian and patron of the arts living in Bengal. While the mandate of the artists (from Lucknow in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south) was to preserve the fascinating diversity of the empire as faithfully as possible for their employers, it didn’t erase their agency and subjectivity.

One look at the portrait of Yellapah, the celebrated painter of Vellore, is enough to drive the point home. Seated at his desk with implements of both Western and Mughal painting, with a pair of assistants flanking him, Yellapah looks defiantly out of the frame. The landscapes of Bengal and Bihar, especially the interplay of sunlight and clouds, made by Sita Ram hark back to the Romantic intensity of John Constable (1776-1837). A few paintings are unabashedly risqué (a male fruit bat is depicted by the assisting circle of artist Bhawani Das with its genitals in full-frontal display), some appear to be wickedly comic (Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya paints an English child on a horse, the poor girl’s face entirely shrouded by her bonnet, while her handsome attendants look on in profile). Then there are obtusely erotic ones (a pitcher plant, painted by Manu Lall, reminds him of the photographs of white lilies by Robert Mapplethorpe, Dalrymple says).

Until now, most works by these artists could be purchased for a few thousand pounds, except for the paintings in the Fraser Album, which are priced much higher. With this landmark show, the perception of the “value" of these paintings, both in the market and among scholars, will hopefully change.

Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting For The East India Company is on at The Wallace Collection till 19 April. For more information, visit Wallacecollection.org/.

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