When you think of Bengali art and culture, you might think of Rabindra sangeet or terracotta temples or all those mouth-watering textiles. But one particular art form that has thrived in the region, been shaped by its cosmopolitan marketplace and found fame around the world is the Company School or the Kampani Qalam. And you don’t often hear of Bengal’s contribution to this very popular genre of 18th and 19th century paintings.
The Company School of art refers to paintings created by Indian artists, who were commissioned by officials of the East India Company, which was headquartered at the time in Calcutta. These artists documented the flora, fauna, heritage and people of the Indian subcontinent. Paintings of astonishing diversity are clubbed under this label, which can seem inadequate at times. It would be like referring to Italy’s Renaissance art as the Medici School—it evokes the identity of the patron but gives you no idea of the larger themes animating the works or the brilliant artists who gave it expression.
Partly to bring these lesser-known Indian artists into the limelight, The Wallace Collection in London is hosting an exhibition titled Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, curated by author and historian William Dalrymple and in partnership with DAG museum. The stunning works on display feature artists like Shaikh Zain-ud-Din, Bhawani Das, Ram Das, Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya, Yellapah of Vellore and Ghulam Ali Khan.Among other centres, the collection represents work that originated in Calcutta, where provincial Mughal painters from Murshidabad, Patna and Faizabad were employed.
We spoke to Dr Xavier Bray, the director of The Wallace Collection, for a better understanding of this genre. Dr Bray is an art historian specialising in Spanish art and sculpture and he has curated several exhibitions including The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Sculpture and Painting 1600-1700 (2009), Goya: The Portraits (2015) and, most recently, Ribera: Art of Violence (2018). He explained to Sarmaya why the Indian masters who created the Company School paintings should be considered among the greatest ever and how Bengal came to play an important role in their development.
To start off, could you tell us what drew The Wallace Collection to the paintings in the Forgotten Masters collection? And why did you want to display and highlight this exhibition?
The Wallace Collection is one of the great national museums in London. It was a private collection and then it was given as a gift to the nation, so that people could visit for free. It’s a very diverse collection, we have paintings, sculptures and furniture. We have also a great collection of arms and armour—especially Indian armour, both Sikh and Mughal, and also from Persia. It’s an extraordinary collection.
Among this collection is a dagger that was made in northern India in the 1620s. It’s made out of rock crystal and has the most beautiful gold and enamel, and rubies and emeralds. And inscribed on the rock crystal is the name Claude Martin. He was a Frenchman who joined the East India Company in the 18th century and became immensely wealthy. He became an advisor to the Nawab of Lucknow, and he’s the one who realised that there was incredible talent in all the artists that had been working under the Mughal empire. They could, if told to represent nature and birds and landscapes, make the most beautiful images. And he was very keen to commission these artists to record the wonders of India.
He set about getting these albums together. And not only were they recognised as true gems in themselves, but they inspired many others to commission Indian artists to record the world around them. And so this dagger here gave us the perfect excuse to set about a sort of rediscovery of these great Indian artists that are no longer household names but certainly deserve to be. We worked with historian William Dalrymple, who has always been trying to push museums to think about these great artists. Our job [with Forgotten Masters] is to bring them back into the limelight.
Speaking of the Impey Album, could you elaborate on what makes it different from the rest of the exhibition?
The Impey Album is one of the most famous albums [of Company School paintings] and very likely inspired by Claude Martin – they knew each other. As you know, Lord Elijah Impey was the Chief Justice of Calcutta and his wife would host salons, where she would bring people around to her house and showcase different crafts and art. She had a great fascination for zoology and the flora and fauna of India. She worked with artists, the most famous one being Bhawani Das and Shaikh Mohammad Amir from Patna, to record her menagerie. She had a private zoo at home, consisting of pangolins, Malabar giant squirrels, cheetahs — it was the most extraordinary sort of setup.
Interestingly, the paper was brought from England in big, huge albums. The artists set the animals in this beautiful white expanse. And when you look at these, the detail of every hair, every spot, every whisker is captured with astonishing realism, something that surpasses the European way of looking at natural objects. So there’s something really, really special about these artists. And at the same time, this is a very honest, truthful representation. There’s something very fresh about the way that they recorded what was in front of them. It’s as if the artist has a very good connection with the animal, because the animal is standing very still as if aware that it’s being portrayed. There’s a very nice connection between the animal and the artist.
Places like Calcutta and Murshidabad emerged as centres for these artists—what role do you think geography played in fostering this art?
I think there might have been schools or workshops (in these centres) that produced great artists. Or these might have been travelling artists. Or perhaps, they were employed by a local Nawab or Sultan, who wasn’t commissioning work anymore, so when they heard about the new East India Company arriving in Calcutta, they travelled there seeking patronage.
You’ve described these paintings as a hybrid between the European and the Indian styles. What can you tell us about the technique or the skill that is used?
This is what’s been very interesting, and I think this is why it’s been a success as an exhibition. There’s this wonderful sort of collaboration between West and East, or East and West — both in terms of ways of looking and recording an artistic approach, but also in terms of technique. So the paper was British and some of the watercolours were brought over from England. But then the Indian artists had their own sort of techniques, particularly of gouache on paper and very delicate oil-based glazes that they would apply on top.
So it’s a very nice fusion of techniques from the East and West at work. What you get are these wonderful water-based colours that fill the page and then for the special details there’s translucent foil placed on top. This is what makes them not only very evocative, but long-lasting. A lot of these paintings are in very good condition mainly because the technique was so sophisticated.
The other thing is that we’ve been able to slowly give names to these paintings. Luckily, the Impey Album paintings tend to be signed. For example, [a painting will say] Shaikh Mohammad Amir from Patna made this. So there’s a real sense of individuality coming through. And maybe this is something that is also inspired by the European idea that artists should be named and remain, you know, as important as the work of art. There is one self-portrait that we have by Yellapah of Vellore. You see him sitting there with his colours and you can see that the Indian colours that he’s mixed in oyster shells are the ones that are oil-based, and then he’s got a little rack with the English watercolours. He’s got the big album and he’s painting directly into it, with two people helping him. I think, these are the earliest self-portraits that are known about in Indian art.
Do you think the Indian artists were given examples of European paintings to be influenced by, or try and copy that style?
I think that’s a really good question. In the 18th century, there was this desire to catalogue everything. But the beauty about these Indian artists is that they don’t copy the Europeans, they might be inspired by the idea of just one animal on one page. But as soon as they see that, they push that away, and they just do their own thing. And that’s what’s so remarkable.
What’s wonderful about the images is that they are so elegant. What we call in French, the mise-en-page, the idea of positioning the animal on the page is unlike anything I’ve seen. The closest is the German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer, who liked to position animals on white paper and let the white say something. These Indian artists are not scared of letting the paper do the work. So there’s a lot of weight around each animal, and that makes them artistically phenomenal.
Personally, are there any artworks from the Impey Album that stand out for you?
Yes, the one that really made me think we have to do this exhibition is the bat from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (by Bhawani Das), which is the male bat, where one wing is in and the other wing is out. That’s the thing, they are not just representations. The Indian artist is very keen to make you understand how the body of a bat works, how the bones are organised, how the claws work. So the observation is such that it allows you, even somebody who’s never been to India or seen a bat, to understand the way they’re made. And at the same time, it’s artistically beautiful. And that’s the one that really stays with me. I wanted [the bat] as the poster but in the end, we decided that not everybody likes bats. Some people are very scared, especially at the moment with the coronavirus.
William Dalrymple describes this work very nicely. He says it’s like a sort of figure from the opera, a Commendatore. It’s very theatrical.
These artists tend to be grouped together, depending on the patronage, or the East Indian official that commissioned the art. But do we know more about them individually, can we differentiate between their style? Or glean where they came from?
This is the big thing, we realised how little we know. The catalogue that we’ve published is one of the first to really start looking into who these artists were and giving them names. And then giving them a place. So it’s of course, not just one part of India, but many parts from Vellore to Patna to Lucknow to Calcutta. So, it’s a very rich area, which I’m hoping Indian and European scholars will start looking at together.
We don’t have any biographical details about these artists. Most of the time, we know from their names whether they were Hindu or Muslim but there’s still a lot to be discovered about them and their role in society. For instance, how were artists seen within the caste system? A lot of them may have come from communities working with textiles or leather, we don’t know. But it seems that maybe working as an artist on this format (Company School art) was a way of temporarily coming out of the caste system. This is something I would love to know more about.
The irony is that these paintings were commissioned and made in India, brought back with the families to England, where they ended up in people’s homes and museums, and now they are being brought back to India. Ideally, this exhibition will come to India in some form, because I think it would be a great moment for the Indian public to engage with these great artists.
This collection is called forgotten masters because of the fact that they were overlooked, or in a way, they were ignored so far. And you have spoken about how this is the first step in trying to understand the past and to fix that erasure. Could you tell us what The Wallace Collection hopes to achieve with the show? Or is there something particular that you want to highlight?
A lot of these albums, I think, were born out of sheer amazement and fascination for Indian culture. This idea of equal collaboration is something we should feed from and learn. There were, of course, the terrible things that the East India Company did. They were traders, they were there to make money. Some of these watercolours are about understanding what they could make money out of. So there’s images of ginger, silk, cotton plants, of anything that can be traded. This is pre-photography; some of these drawings and watercolours were there to record and then bring back to England say, this fantastic plant that if we grow it up in the hills, we can cultivate it and make lots of money. There’s definitely that aspect.
But I think great art like this is perfect to open up conversations. And I think that the time has come to do that. William Dalrymple is very keen to do that. He’s bombastic in his opinion, but he’s not scared to say what really happened. Not many English people can do that even today. So I think there’s a long way to go. But I would like to see this exhibition as being the beginning of some very fruitful conversations between Britain and India and looking back into the past.
William Dalrymple, when he describes this collection, holds these artists at the same sort of standing as the European Renaissance artists. How would you position these Indian artists in terms of art history?
It’s early days. We all like to categorise, catalogue and position. And it’s good because it’s like having a nice audit library. But I think the greatness of these artists is the honesty and their truth-seeking, there’s something unique about them, particularly the Frazer Album with portraits of people in Delhi.
I think these are great artists that yes, artistically, it’s important to elevate their status, but they’re also very important in recording cultures that have maybe been lost — the identity of people, the way they dressed, thought and behaved. I think these are wonderful windows into the past that would allow us to study and understand it better, and bring lessons into the present.
So from that point of view, I see these as great early 19th-century artists who are able to capture the world around them, and whose work is still very relevant today. That’s what makes them truly important.
Do you think now with this exhibition, more scholars or more historians would want to explore this genre?
It definitely has engaged with a new public. There’s a great love for India in this country. I think this exhibition has opened up possibilities for many young scholars. The British Museum has young curators who are very excited about this material. Hopefully, universities and professors will start encouraging their students to look more into this area and, you know, this is the beginning. Let’s hope that this exhibition can reincarnate itself in India and maybe in America and see if that spreads the word further.
How has the exhibition been received?
I think it’s been received as an eye-opener, because it’s so different from anything the public in England has ever seen. This applies to the world really, it’s new material. I think people have been amazed by the breadth of what’s represented. I had David Attenborough come to the exhibition and he was just marvelling at the plants represented. He knew a lot about them and was able to talk about how they functioned, which ones attracts flies and things like that. So people who are familiar with that world really get these images very quickly.
[Forgotten Masters] has appealed to all kinds of audiences, which is really good. And then I think people want to know and understand more. I think a lot of the past here in this country has been put aside. You know, there’s this English sort of embarrassment and in the embarrassment, it is [considered] best not to talk about it and put it under the bed. This exhibition has encouraged people to just start talking. The older generations have been very excited and drawn to it; they remember their connection with India through their parents. And that should be brought back to life, rather than remain silent.
Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company is on at The Wallace Collection, London till 13 September 2020. You can take the online tour here.