Editor’s Note: This is the first instalment of a two-part series on Company Paintings. These guides are brought to you by our partner, MAP Academy, a wonderful online platform aimed at building knowledge of South Asian art. Each month, we will carry an essay from their Encyclopedia of Art—a fabulous resource for anyone who wants to learn about our shared history and culture. The MAP Academy is a non-profit online educational platform committed to building equitable resources for the study of art histories from South Asia. This article originally appeared on the MAP Academy website, with due image credits for photos used in this republished piece.
Company Painting: Art, Empire and Science
A school of painting that emerged in the Indian subcontinent during the late eighteenth century, Company painting was a hybrid style that was influenced by European painting styles as well as existing painting traditions in India, bringing together the visual idioms of Mughal and Rajput miniature painting with Western modes such as Victorian Illusionism and the picturesque. Other influences included prints from Europe as well as the works of landscape painters such as Thomas and William Daniell. Notable artists of the Company painting school included Sewak Ram of Patna and Ghulam Ali Khan of Delhi.
Company painting emerged out of a sustained interaction between Indian and European culture after the British East India Company gained administrative control over Bengal in 1757. Company rule resulted in the loss of courtly patronage for artists in India, which led to artists and craftsmen from the courtly centres in Bengal migrating to cities such as Patna and Murshidabad, which had viable commercial markets. Indian artists who had been trained in the conventions of Western art, such as perspective, chiaroscuro and the picturesque, were absorbed in the administrative apparatus of the East India Company and employed to create an ethnographic record of the people, landscape, culture and traditions of India, including costumes, professions, architecture and street scenes. There were also a number of artists who came from Europe, particularly Britain.
Sustained by the East India Company and its officials, such as William Fraser and James Skinner, the Company School had several centres across the subcontinent, with the work influenced by the local subject matter and pre-existing styles. Commonly commissioned subjects included depictions of flora and fauna, personal collections of animals, estates, monumental architecture, banquets and parties, servants, carriages and horses. Beyond commissions, the artists also began producing standard sets of paintings. Instead of the traditional gouache, the paintings were characteristically made in watercolour and were distinct in their treatment of linear perspective and shading.
They were rendered on paper, occasionally on ivory, and bound as folios in albums. Even as it spread over the subcontinent, the Company Painting style remained concentrated in centres of British influence such as Delhi, Lucknow, Varanasi, Kolkata, Murshidabad, Patna, Thanjavur and Tiruchirapalli. It lasted through the nineteenth century, also spreading to colonial centres in Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, until being replaced by the medium of photography.
A large number of Company paintings were entrusted to the East India Company’s Museum as gifts from Company officials. After its closure, the collection was transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which, along with the British Library, contains the largest body of Company paintings.
The Patna School
Also known as Patna Kalam, the Patna School is a style of painting grouped under the Indo-British Company School of painting. It originated in Patna and various other parts of Bihar, primarily Danapur and Arrah, in the mid-eighteenth century in response to early British travellers’ interest in documenting the country and its people. The resulting paintings provided a glimpse into the prevailing local environments, livelihoods, clothing and festivals, as well as extant flora and fauna, and were made and sold as sets of snapshots, or firkas, patronised primarily by employees of the British East India Company. Prominent artists of the school include Hulas Lal, who is considered an early master, Sewak Ram, Sona Bai, Shiv Lal, Daksho Bibi, Shiva Dayal and Mahadeo Lal.
The School is a derivative of Mughal miniature painting, which was largely practised in courts. The decline in patronage under Aurangzeb’s rule in the seventeenth century, coupled with a shift in the tastes of Indian patrons—who favoured the work of visiting European painters—forced several local artists to migrate to various parts of the country, away from these courts.
One such group settled in Murshidabad, Bengal, enabled by the support of Nawab Mir Jafar, the first Nawab of Bengal installed by the British East India Company. During this period, the painters came in contact with officials from the British East India Company, as well as local businessmen who commissioned paintings of the people, monuments and flora and fauna of India.
However, dwindling support and patronage from Mir Miran, son and descendant of Mir Jafar, and the subsequent decline of Murshidabad uprooted the painters, who then resettled in Patna around 1760. By then, Patna had become a prosperous centre of new activities following the influx of Dutch, Chinese and Portuguese settlers trading in cotton, sugar, indigo, opium and spices.
Artist groups settled primarily in the Maccharhatta, Lodi Katra Chowk and Diwan Mohalla localities of Patna city, making portraits for local kings, nawabs, landlords, officers, businessmen and soldiers. Some artists of the School flourished in the court of Raja Ishwari Narayan Singh of Benaras (now Varanasi), while others worked in smaller provinces such as Bettiah, Darbhanga, Purnia, Gaya and Arrah.
The result was the emergence of a composite style of painting, in which the brilliant colours of the Mughal style met the British manner of shading. The ornate borders of Mughal painting were abandoned in favour of a plain white background, which helped draw attention to the subject. Despite thorough knowledge of the scientific perspective, painters of the School, like their Mughal antecedents, used this knowledge only when it contributed to the pattern or decorative quality of the overall image. The style also largely adhered to the material conventions of Mughal miniatures, with the exception of the surface—whereas Mughal miniatures were executed on paper or cloth, artists from the Patna School used a variety of surfaces, ranging from paper to mica, silk, vellum, bone and round ivory.
The paper used was either locally produced or imported from Nepal. Colours were made from mineral or natural materials, such as fruits, flowers, barks of trees and blue and red stones, and were prepared in the monsoon (to avoid dust particles) and applied in the winter. All paintings were executed in Kajli Siyahi, which involves applying paint directly on the surface with the brush without a prior drawing or outline. Artists created their own brushes with hair from squirrels and horses and feathers from pigeons and eagles for variations in thickness. Java stippling, which consists of dots that look like barley grains, was characteristic of the School’s work, as they gave the painting the appearance of a print.
Since these paintings were bought by European traders as souvenirs, portraiture emerged as the prevalent subject, and the depiction of everyday activities and occupations of the locals became an enduring theme. The School’s paintings were an articulation of the people, especially the working classes within the city, depicting drummers, coppersmiths, local congregations, dancers and singers, as well as various religions and celebrations.
The established demand for firkas also coincided with the establishment of the Bihar Lithography—a press set up by Sir Charles D’Oyly and assisted by Jairam Das — which produced books on Indian life and customs that were possibly inspired by and in turn influenced the School’s artists. The press was instrumental in producing prints in large volumes to meet growing demand which, coupled with the advent of photography, led to the School’s decline. The passing of Ishwari Prasad, widely considered to be its last famous artist, in 1950 marked the end of a two-hundred-year-long tradition.
The Bihar government has since attempted to revive the art form, notably through releasing calendar prints of the School’s paintings in 2010. Institutional collections of work from the Patna School exist in the Patna Museum; Khuda Baksh Oriental Library, Patna; Patna University’s College of Arts and Crafts; The National Museum, New Delhi; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and private collections around the world.
Introduction to Sewak Ram
A prominent Company School artist, Sewak Ram’s work defined the distinct stylistic elements of the Patna School of Painting. However, little is known about his early or personal life; it is believed that he moved to Patna in the 1790s from Murshidabad to find work as a painter in the bazaar, where he attained popularity.
The period between 1750 and 1760 witnessed the political ascendancy of the British East India Company and the waning power of the Nawab of Murshidabad. It was during this time that artists, who were left with little or no royal patronage, migrated to Patna. Despite its political instability, Patna was a booming commercial centre and the artists of the Patna School found a market for their art in the city.
By the time Ram began working, the Patna School was well established. Similar to the Murshidabad School, the Patna painters had absorbed European influences such as the use of watercolours and painting subjects such as festivals, which held great appeal for Europeans. Ram’s work introduced a formal style which became characteristic of Patna painting; he painted in a technique known as Kajli Siyahi where pictures were painted directly with a brush, instead of first creating outlines. The human figure was painted with precision, with identifiably sharp noses, thick eyebrows and deep-set eyes. The paintings have a sombre colour palette, influenced by European prints, with either sepia and ochre overtones, while clothing is depicted with dull whites and greys and using light and occasional colour.
Ram was well known for his crowd scenes depicting festivals, processions and interiors which he painted in the Murshidabad model, while also focusing on figure studies in the foreground. Among his most popular works are scenes of Muharram processions and prayers at an imambara. By the 1820s, his large-scale paintings of ceremonies and festivities were being collected by governors-general of India such as Lord Minto and Lord Amherst.
His work was studied by the Patna painters, as evidenced by the presence of his paintings in the collection of Ishwari Prasad, who was grandson to Ram’s contemporary Shiva Lal. His successors continued following his model of painting until the nineteenth century. Presently, his work is part of private collections as well as on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
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