Currently on display on the first floor of the National Museum, New Delhi, the exhibition Company Painting: Visual Memoirs of Nineteenth-Century India, curated by Savita Kumari and Kanak Lata Singh, brings together 200 paintings in the field, sourced from the rich repositories of the museum with loans from the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) and Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi, and the Victoria Memorial and Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata.
Company School refers to a particular Indo-European style of works created by Indian artists for officials of the English East India Company and British travellers visiting the subcontinent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Following the decline of the Mughals, these colonial masters provided much needed patronage to native artists, commissioning them to create paintings which were typically small in size, inspired by the older tradition of miniatures. The Company style blended elements from Rajput and Mughal schools of painting with Western realism and art materials imported from abroad to generate its own hybrid language. The paintings captured historical events along with scenes from daily life and nature studies. What the British treated as souvenirs or documented for their curiosity, research or governance later went on to become one of the most important visual archives of the period.
At the National Museum, these works have been presented in a dark, theatrically lit room. A comprehensive introductory note and a large wall-sized map at the start of the exhibition help visitors navigate through this space. While walking past the exhibits, an occasional burst of sound adds an aural layer to the viewing experience -- this is in the form of an elephant’s trumpet, coming from a video of a European officer’s elephant chariot digitally projected on one of the walls. The video takes off from a nineteenth-century painting from Jaipur displayed on the same wall.
The exhibition is broadly divided into three sections: Elites, Ethnography and Empirical Studies. For ease of understanding, these are further divided into the following sub-sections: Splendid Indian Maharajas, Indian Aristocrats, Europeans in India, European Print and Indian Painting, Many Paths One Reality, Indian Deities, Processions and Ceremonies, Trades and Professions, Vignettes of Everyday Life, Portraitures of Women, Indian Architecture and Studies of the Natural World.
The first section on elites consists of paintings of Indian kings and princes, including Maharaja Shahji of Tanjore, Maharaja Dalip Singh of Punjab, Nawab Wazir Ali of Awadh and Jayaji Rao Scindia of Gwalior. The poses, royal costumes and jewellery were all carefully chosen to present the sitters as larger than life individuals. There are some painted portraits made of watercolours on ivory ovals that were created by artists from Punjab. A fine example of these is a 7.5 x 6 cm portrait of Maharaja Sher Singh from the collection of the NGMA. Another interesting tempera on paper work dating to c. 1850 is “Wajid Ali Shah Acting in a Dance Drama”. The dancers here have wings and facial features that must have been borrowed from European paintings. This section also features portraits of East India Company officials and British residents of India.
The second section of the exhibition captures the ethnographic diversity of India with figures representing different regions, ethnicities, religions, classes and trades. Along with images of everyday life, there is a focus on specific occupations (coachman, surveyor, jamadar, soldier, kite seller), influential figures like noblemen and aristocrats (Rajput Thakur, Mir Hassan, Kunwar Singh), priests (Pir Babas, Brahmins, Nathdwara Goswamis, Lingayats) and gods and deities (Hanuman, Vishnu in the Trivikrama Avatar, Ganesha, Devi Worship). There are also glimpses of women’s lives from that era. “Nur Jahan Smoking a Huqqa”, a watercolour on paper from the NGMA is one of the highlights of this section.
The third section devoted to empirical studies turns to Indian architecture and natural history. The paintings of famous historical sites and popular monuments include the Tomb of Safdarjung and Red Fort’s Diwan-i-Khas in Delhi, and the Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula and the Taj Mahal in Agra.
There are also a range of European prints showcased in this exhibition. They are divided into two categories. The first pertain to portraits of prisoners from the Kabul Insurrection of 1841-1842 which was part of the First Anglo-Afghan War. This series of lithographs was developed by J. Lowes Dickinson based on the sketches by Sir Vincent Eyre made during his imprisonment in Kabul in 1842. The second set of prints consists of painted landscapes from England and India. Artists like Thos and John Boydell superimposed European prints with paintings by Indian artists. One such example on display is “A View of the Mortlake up the Thames and the Battle Scene at Golconda Fort” originating from the Deccan region in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. In this picturesque Thos Boydell work, the Thames river appears in the foreground while a war scene plays out at Golconda and its dwellings in the background.
Following this section, the exhibition moves on to a room with over 40 paintings depicting animals (Indian Fox, Fishing Cat, Chittagong Ox and Elk, Antelope Leucoryx), birds (Bulbul, Kingfisher, Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, Canary, Partridge, Lesser Florican) and flora and fauna (for instance, zoological studies of John Fleming and the ‘Roxburgh Icons’). While the paintings of the animals were probably created in Calcutta, the works on birds do not carry any information about the place of origin.
The exhibition concludes with an interactive feature that is immensely popular with the visitors. Known as the Time Travel booth, it allows visitors to click their photos and superimpose it on a character from one of their favourite works from the exhibition, following which they can email themselves these images as souvenirs.
The significance of this exhibition lies in its success in bringing together a diverse and eclectic range of Company School works from five important institutional collections in the country. It rekindles interest and discussions around this genre, known for its picturesque quality but also valuable as documentary coverage of society and culture in nineteenth-century India. Among the minor points of criticism is the absence of more wall texts explaining the history and character of Company School paintings, given that this is a fairly wide genre and new discoveries continue to be made.