Art keeps good company with history. Colonialism has created singular offshoots of aesthetics, such as Company Paintings. “This school of art evolved to satisfy the tastes of European patrons and was slowly replaced by the camera,” says curator Seema Bhalla, who travelled extensively to identify its last living artists in order to create a historical re-contextualisation of the lost form.
The recently held exhibition —The Allure of India at the Bikaner House in Delhi—looked into the 300 years of a shared heritage of art history of Company School Paintings dating from the 17th century to early 20th century. Bhalla painstakingly sought out the last of the living masters and commissioned them . Company Painting style evolved with the British East India Company establishing trade relations in India. When Company officials visited India for the first time, they were captivated by its picturesque landscape, its variety of people and their exotic way of life. India was the talk of Europe. Company officials were followed by European travellers eager to see what they had heard of.
They wanted to send back home replicas of what they saw. It was the 17th century and the camera was yet to make its appearance. Paintings were the answer to record the sights that were strange to occidental eyes. The idea was a godsend to both Europeans at home and Indian artists of that time. The Mughal Empire was on the decline and traditional royal patronage was shrinking. Indian artists were on the lookout for fresh patrons. The artists were quick to modify their court technique to cater to British tastes, thereby giving life to a new genre.
There is much debate as to where in the country did the art originate. Experts believe that both the Madras Presidency in South India and Kolkata in the Bengal Presidency were important centres of the art. In Kolkata, Lord Impey, chief justice of the High Court from 1777 to 1783, and the Marquess Wellesley, who served as governor-general from 1798 to 1805, were famous patrons of the art. When Lord and Lady Clive were stationed in Madras from 1798 to 1804, they encouraged the growth of the form, that was attracting wide-scale appreciation. From these places, it soon travelled to other cities such as Murshidabad, Patna, Benares, Lucknow, Agra, Delhi, Punjab and centres in Western India. Delhi’s art market expanded only after the British occupied the city in 1803.
They would commission images depicting festivals and scenes from Indian life illustrating various castes and occupations, as well as the architecture, plants and animals, which they found outlandishly striking. Most of the works were painted on paper. Some artists were exclusive commissioned to draw on small ivory plaques. Such a style of painting, however, did not develop throughout the country. Rajasthan, Hyderabad and Punjab stayed isolated from the art stream since Company officials there were fewer in number. Among the famous artists of the genre were Sewak Ram, who worked in Patna and members of the Ghulam Ali Khan family in Delhi.
The evolution of the camera rang the death knell for Company painting. It slowly lost its momentum in the early 1840s. Soon painted images were not part of a common need. The camera gave the ‘real’ perspective that the British and Europeans sought in India. As the art languished, artists changed their profession. Just like the rise and fall of Miniature Mughal Art that has coincided with the fortunes of the Mughal Empire, the Company School of Art came to be replaced with flashbulb- blazing cameras. Curator Seema Bhalla believes the time has come for artists to repaint history.