THE ALLURE OF INDIA

Review by Neha Kirpal
December 01, 2018

 

By Neha Kirpal

The Allure of India: 300 years of a 'Shared Heritage' of Art and Trade – Dutch, French and British Company Paintings
Curated by Seema Bhalla
November 20 to 25, 2018
Bikaner House, New Delhi

The Allure of India is an exhibition looking into the 300 years of a shared heritage of art and trade of Dutch, French and British Company Paintings from the 17th century to the early 20th century. For the exhibition, curator Dr Seema Bhalla travelled extensively to identify these last living artists, to create a historical re-contextualisation of Company Paintings.

“The basic concept behind this exercise was to use the medium of art to create a pictorial history of textiles. While documenting the living traditional artists of Indian miniature painting, I realised that this art is on the verge of extinction and I decided to involve the surviving artists together in a project,” says Dr Bhalla about the project.

The project documents the last living masters who have been commissioned to work on the Company School Paintings, a unique art form that flourished from the 17th century to early 20th century. In the 17th century, the British, Dutch and French East India Companies established their headquarters in India for trade. Soon, European merchants from these countries settled down in cities like Madras, Calcutta, Lucknow, Patna and Delhi. Fascinated with the landscape of the country—ancient India, with her colours, costumes, flora, fauna, and people—these Europeans began to commission works to local artists to paint and document this exotic land.

With this, a particular new style of art emerged: the Company style, which was an amalgam of traditional Indian miniature art, with its meticulous attention to detail, and the Western treatment of perspective. This Indo-European style encompassed a range of subjects, from the common Indian—tribals, hawkers, professions—to architecture, festivities and daily life. The colours were more European—sepia, with washes of watercolour, a technique that was previously unknown to the indigenous artist.

Author and historian William Dalrymple explains, “Company School painting was the result of commissions made by East India Company patrons from Indian artists between the late 18thand late 19thcenturies. These art works, often of astonishing brilliance, and possessing a startling, completely innovative and hybrid originality, represent the last phase of Indian artistic genius before the onset of the twin assaults—photography and the influence of western colonial art schools—ended an unbroken tradition of painting going back two thousand years.” He goes on to applaud the curator for this “vital work of curation, conservation and preservation” and says that she has reminded us of the importance of this nearly forgotten genre and kept important artistic traditions alive.  

The paintings incorporate designs of Indian textiles that became a rage in European fashion, particularly in the late 17th and 18thcentury. With painstaking research, these paintings have been treated to unique borders with references to the trade of textiles and spices, painted in 24-karat gold. Each of these rare paintings is an account of India’s captivating past, making them unquestionable collector's pieces.  

Some of the subjects of the paintings include Hindu, Muslim and Christian processions and rituals and portraits. They also feature some of the country’s iconic monuments, such as the Qutab Minar, Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb and Safdarjung Tomb. The People series includes a diverse range from a yarn seller to a Kawadiya couple, a shawl dealer, a basket weaver with his wife and child as well as a group of Nautch girls from Trichinopoly. Further, each painting also highlights a spice along its border. 

The museums that have supported this academic-based art project by providing generous access to the relevant images from their collections include the British Museum, London; the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris; Musee de la Compagnie des Indes, Ville de Lorient; Rijks Museum, Amsterdam; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Art critic and historian B.N. Goswamy wrote that while there has always been a connection between textiles and paintings in India, the exhibition has references of a different order. “Through newly commissioned paintings, attention is drawn to old textiles: or is it the other way round, and it is textiles that are drawing attention to the paintings?” he asks. He elaborates, “For instance, Kashmiri shawls may be seen as being displayed and sold in the centre of a panel, but in the corners, there lurks references to materials and processes and eventual usage.”

However, with the arrival of the camera, Company Painting saw a decline—and a slow extinction. As demand and patronage dipped, artists languished, many giving up the art form altogether. Today, there survive only a handful of artists who are Masters of the tradition of Indian miniature paintings.