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The Indian artists who painted the Empire

The Indian artists who painted the Empire

Posted on : 09/01/2015 12:19pm
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Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya established himself as one of the most prolific and innovative painters working for East India Company officials in the Calcutta of the 1830s. Despite being well known in his time, there is little documentary evidence of his life, except for his ubiquitous signature that reads: Shaikh Muhammad Amir, mussavir stationed at Karraya.

 

Art historians speculate that since he mentions he is a mussavir — professional picture maker — he was probably an artist trained in the miniature painting tradition in Patna or Murshidabad, from where he migrated to Calcutta, perhaps because of the declining patronage from the nawabi courts. But you can know enough about an artist from his works.

 

One of his most intriguing compositions, titled English Child in a Bonnet on Horseback (1830-50, watercolour and body colour on paper, 26x39 cm), shows a European child in a white dress seated on a horse and surrounded by three Indian servants. Her face is obscured by a large bonnet and her hands covered by white gloves. She looks like a prop, making the servants and the horse the real subjects of the painting. Historian and journalist Lucian Harris, in his essay Bespoke: Painting to order in 1830s Calcutta and Vellore, writes that the omission of his British patrons in Amir’s work is a quiet expression of resistance. While Amir portrays his fellow Indians with great sensitivity, he represents the British only by their material possessions — their magnificent houses, horses, carriages and gold embroidered umbrellas.

 

Harris’s essay, which is part of the recently released book Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, manages to create stimulating portraits of Amir and Yellapah of Vellore — Amir’s contemporary working in the south of India — by joining the dots between the little information available about their lives with their profuse and extraordinary works. The book, edited by historian William Dalrymple, has been published to coincide with an exhibition by the same name at The Wallace Collection in London (on view till April 19 this year). Dalrymple is also the curator of this exhibition, which showcases more than a hundred works — commonly referred to as Company School paintings — made between 1770s and 1840s by a diverse group of Indian artists for, primarily, East India Company officials.

 

The artists belonging to the Company School practised a hybrid style of painting — combining Mughal, Maratha, Punjabi, Pahari, Tamil and Telugu artistic traditions with a European ethnographic approach. They gave up their dense burnished stone-based pigments for the lightness of watercolours, and documented in vivid detail the flora, fauna and landscape of India for their new patrons, who were mostly British but also included a few Frenchmen who had deflected to the winning side.

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