It’s hard to say with certainty how hyper-realism found its way into Indian painting. The sharp eye and curiosity of the first Mughal emperor, Babur, is said to have inspired painters to record nature with microscopic exactitude.
Abul Hassan’s painting of squirrels in a plane tree, in the British Museum, is a favorite example. Using a calligrapher’s brush stroke, the painter adds each hair on the squirrels bushy tails. At about the same time, Indian artists familiarized themselves with European engravings and portrait paintings. This may account for the vivacity and individualism of Mughal imperial portraits.
With the ascension of English power in the Subcontinent, patronage shifted from the now threadbare Mughal and Rajput courts to the officers of the East India Company. The artists who flourished under these new masters are collectively known as the Company School of Painting. William Dalrymple, who has devoted a lifetime to memorializing the glories, follies and romance of early modern India, pleads passionately for more recognition for the Company’s “Forgotten Masters”.
The show recalls Stuart Cary Welch’s 1978 “Room for Wonder” at the Asia Society in New York, and indeed some of the most compelling works at the Wallace show such the petite European amazon with her groom, and the dour village elders, appeared in the American exhibition. But visitors who recall that show of 42 years ago will be rewarded with more than nostalgia. Dalrymple takes advantage of the collections of the British Museum, including some album books that have never been broken up, as well as botanical illustrations that had been donated to Kew Gardens by the commissioning nabobs. As a result, it is both more extensive and more varied in subject matters than the older show.
The organizers make a convincing case that the Company school includes some of India’s most accomplished pictorial artists. We are encouraged to recognize the distinctive talents of Bhawani Das, and Ghulam Ali Khan, as well as Yellapah of Vellore whose work is only beginning recently been fully attributed.
The extensive natural history illustrations showcase the capacity of artists like Sheykh Zein ud-din, Bhawani Das and Haludar for painstaking study and realisation of their subjects. Like Abul Hassan two centuries earlier, they painted with very thin brushes, sometimes with only a hair, to render leaves, tendrils, rough skin, scales and feathers. Their monkeys and bats fairly fly off the wall at the viewer.
An unknown Delhi artist recorded the architectural glories of the medieval sultans and the Mughals. Again, every brick, every tile, each monumental inscription is delineated by no more than a hair of paint stroke. Whilst introducing realistic perspective, this painter rendered the Taj Mahal and the Audience Hall of the Red Fort to look like stage sets, as if the ebbing of Mughal power left these structures as shadow-like as the brush strokes that drew them.
The highlight of the show is the Fraser Album, produced for James Baille Fraser, himself a gifted watercolor painter. The principle artist, Ghulam Ali Khan, produced strikingly virile yet deeply humanised portraits of Rajput soldiers of fortune, Afghan horse dealers, recruits to Skinner’s Horse (commanded by Fraser’s friend Robert Skinner). Each subject’s foot gear, turban, writing accoutrements, weapons as well as their varying willingness to make eye contact is patiently recorded with subtle ink strokes and coloring.
Dalrymple, ever calling on his countrymen to own up to its Indian legacy, good and bad, points out Britain has never hosted an exhibit of Company artists, and that most of the works are lying forgotten in specialist collections. This is not true of America, as noted above, nor of India. But given the richness of Britain’s holdings, it’s only right to have a major exhibition dedicated to the visual talent, the artistry and the powers of observation of the 4-5 named masters and several unknown artists of the late 18th and early 19th century.
One hopes that the works of artists like Bahwani Das, Yellabah and Ghulam Ali Khan will take their place alongside the masters of the Mughal court in the story of India’s stunning visual traditions.