Disclaimer – I am not a student of art history. Neither am I an expert on it. In case you are a student of art history or an expert , I guess you can skip reading the rest of this post as this is an oversimplified narration for common people like us, who are non experts.
We went to see an exhibition of company paintings at the national museum, Janpath, delhi. While it was open to all, we went to see the exhibition in a group event organized by Shagufta Siddhi, founder of Ganga Jamuni (a cultural organization who, among other things, organises insightful, immersive cultural trips).
We would have read the notes below each painting & walked out of the exhibition in an hour’s time. However, Mrinalini Sil , a phd candidate at JNU, was the expert educator for our group and she explained the history & context of the paintings in very easy common man’s language. What you read below is a gist of our recollection of Mrinalini’s talk.
The term ‘company painting’ loosely refers to professional paintings made after the death of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb till the Early 1900s.
Here is the story of company paintings –
After Aurangzeb’s death, the Mughal empire started disintegrating & many local chieftains who were earlier paying taxes to the Mughals stopped doing so. Parts of the empire started being ruled independently by local rulers. So over time the money & resources of the Mughals started reducing.
As a result, the painters & other artists who were employed by the Mughal court / who had long term contracts with the court, started losing their jobs.
Slowly, some painters spread out across other provinces of india in search of work. They started to work as freelancers for smaller kings & provincial rulers. Over time most painters followed suit.
Artists were now travelling to get patronage, Looking for work.
Over time, the painting forms became more free lance & more free flowing than in the Mughal era, where painters were employed permanently.
Later, in early 1800s, the east india company officials started commissioning such painters as well. Some Englishmen had, by this time, started living like nawabs. (Nabobs). They would have a harem, spend on art, get dressed like Indians & would also commission paintings.
Towards the end of the tour Shagufta recommended that we watch Bollywood movie Laal kaptan to understand the nuances of the equation between the rulers, mercenaries & the British. We did watch & I would say it was a good recommendation
There are different Genres (my way of understanding & classifying) of company paintings that we saw at the exhibition:
1. Raja’s / zamindar’s portrait
The local rulers would commission a painting for themselves. The Initial paintings of the Rajas had a clear Mughal visual culture, Visual Idioms & motifs. The Half profile Mughal style was continued even in later paintings.
The paintings of the kings & noblemen of south india, were however, way more ornamental, had more gold ornaments & the paintings simply had more more details. Probably the patrons had requested for changes to the existing Mughal style.
The paintings of portraits in this period also saw a Change in medium – these new paintings were mostly water color on European imported paper, while the Original Mughal era paintings had colours made from natural minerals & guash (gum).
By the 1800s, European prints had come in to india. Some Rajas wanted their portraits to Look like European print paintings. That was another change over time, that we could see in the paintings.
2. Europeans also became clients of these painters, to take back paintings to England as souvenirs. They also commissioned their own portraits or pictures of a royal court with them as a part of proceedings.
3. Paintings on ivory started in late 1800s early 1900s. These were small in size as compared to a paper painting, as per availability of thickness of ivory.
Ivory paintings were also used for Gifting – to friends, for ‘nazar’ (gift to emperor), to hosts etc.
Ivory paintings were worn as lockets & bracelets & also inlaid in wooden furniture.
The British company officials also found this as a less expensive but very beautiful gift, not as expensive as say a large painting.
4. Customised picture of people – the situation / background shown in the painting was a mix of reality & exaggerated imagination.
In some of the paintings European representation creeped in. Mughal painting influences continued.
Chehrai nami – portrait of important person used to be done in the above concept.
Sometimes the painters would travel on their own. Sometimes when the demand was much, Many painters would be employed together by the main painter. Not one single person might be finishing the entire painting, but might be working on parts of many paintings. Often in such cases, a Specialist painter might have done the face / other difficult parts of the painting.
Sometimes painters used Charbaz (like stencils) to make multiple paintings of the same event.
5. Studio portrait – this painting of a person was done in European style – More real than the earlier, less / almost no imaginary situations.
6. European women paintings were made & sold in late 1800s. These paintings were mostly bought by rich Indian men.
7. Imaginary situations – in some paintings, the Painter juxtaposed an element of England with an element of india e.g. Thames flowing & scenes from hyderabad in the background.
Paintings Beyond art – pre cursor to photography as a Means of documentation
8. Topographical drawing – these were de-humanised paintings – Used for records to be sent to England & other European countries. Paintings of important buildings were made for documentation.
9. Animals & plants – These paintings were done to propagate Encyclopaedic knowledge of flora & fauna of india & also for Documentation by the company rulers.
10. Portraits not commissioned by self
A) painting depicting lifestyle of different men & women from different linguistic, religious, cultural, caste, social backgrounds etc.
B) Documentation of ethnographic survey – migration census, part of large imperial project
Loved the exhibition, understood the nuances & the context way better than we would have on our own, thanks to Mrinalini & Shagufta.