‘Company art’ – art produced in India, by Indian artists, commissioned by the East India Company. The Late 18th and early 19th century was full of rich Company officials commissioning countless pieces of art, covering all kinds of topics: flora, fauna, architectural, some even social. Yet, in the few times this art has been exhibited, it has still only ever been known as ‘Company art’, the actual Indian painters behind it forgotten and unnamed. Some were, admittedly, painted anonymously, but there is a huge body of work by numerous artists we can name and appreciate. William Dalrymple, the Scottish historian, writer, and curator, has written many books on Indian history, and has edited a book called ‘Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company’, the full name of this exhibition. It was a genius idea for an exhibition, and I was really excited to see it. The first time this art has been given a stand-alone exhibition, trying to actively appreciate the names behind the company’s paintings, and show the mastery that these painters achieved.
However, it was a big disappointment, for exactly the reason I thought it would be a disappointment went reading about the exhibition. It barely addressed any of the history behind the stunning pieces of art. The colonial history, the relationship between the East India Company and the local workers at the time, the regions the painters were from and the styles that influenced them – there was so much to say about the work, and barely anything was mentioned. The history of the East India Company is very complicated, and though people focus on the Raj, it is worth remembering that the Raj was in India for 90 years, while the EIC was there for 250 years. It began as a business, and they were much more involved (in some ways) with Indian workers and tradesmen than the Raj ever was. They wanted some of these paintings simply for ornamentation, but many of them were painted for Kew Gardens, working out, for example, plants that would have commercial interest in the UK. There is such a dialogue between the paintings and their commissioners and none of it was explored in the exhibition. There was not one paragraph, even a few sentences, explaining all of this. Some of it may have been given in the audio guide (provided free with the ticket), but not only were no earphones/headphones provided (therefore people were roaming around with the audio guides shoved in their ears), but the sound quality was so bad that one could barely work out what anyone was saying.
How could paintings like this not warrant some kind of colonial explanation –
So there’s the first major downfall of this exhibition. But there is, sadly, another major failure.
The art of this exhibition falls into a very complicated period within the Indian style of art. The exhibition did explore this slightly, but not nearly enough. The artists were painting for a white company, for white buyers, and to appeal to England, so they Westernized their styles. The scope of the exhibition was very small, as Darymple admits in an interview about it – ‘We’ve very much chosen this elegant, classical, restrained, white background, detailed hyperrealistic, gorgeous Mughal style over, for example, Thanjavur or this very colorful work coming out of Putna by an artist called Sevak Ram [c.1770–c.1830], who, in the end, we didn’t show.’ I’m not quite sure why this was chosen: perhaps because the pieces chosen cater to the majority white audience they’re still appealing to today; perhaps they couldn’t get their hands on the other pieces. But this little fact was not mentioned at any point during the exhibition, nor was the importance of the ‘cataloguing’ idea, and its influence on the art, at all mentioned.
The immense detail of ‘Male Reheaded Merlin on a Perch – Unknown Artist’, of every flower, every (slightly lewd) detail of the bat paintings. These are not reflective of any form of traditional form of art, but fall into the scientific, hyper-realistic requirements the Company had for the paintings. The effect this had on traditional forms of art in certain regions of India resonate to this day. Artists trying to cater to a Western audience meant many traditional forms of art were left behind, and some have never fallen back into fashion. The immense effects that Company, and then the Raj, had on the country were completely ignored. Fine, you don’t want to descend into an argument about colonialism. But at least talk about the effects that are very specific to the exhibition you have chosen to put on, and that can be explained in just a few sentences (as he does in interviews such as those).
A little positive though to end… Some of these paintings of clothes were SO stunning!! Did Indians invent flares? ‘A dancing girl called Kandar Baksh’ is a painting that completely took my breath away, and showed just how absolutely iconic Indian tradition dress can be. Ornate, colourful, stylish, fitted yet free, and seriously forward thinking. A bad exhibition yes, but the brilliance of India couldn’t help but seep through!
‘The worst thing colonialism did was cloud our view of the past” – Barack Obama