Indian Artists and the British East India Company


Boundaries and major cities of British India, 1914 (NZ Ministry for Culture and Heritage)

Map of British India, 1914 (NZ Ministry for Culture and Heritage)

Beginning in the seventeenth century, groups of merchants in different European countries pooled their resources to form East India Companies to increase the opportunities for lucrative trade with countries in Asia. In eighteenth-century India, these mercantile relationships turned into political and military ones. In the wake of the Battle of Plassey in 1757, for instance, the British East India Company gained the rights to collect taxes in the northeast state of Bengal, which led to their governance of the region and their negotiations with other Indian rulers to increase their power over the subcontinent. Over the next century, the British East India Company (in shorthand, the “Company”) asserted colonial control over much of India until 1858, when in the wake of a major Indian rebellion against their policies, the British crown took over rule until India regained independence in 1947.  

Gangaram Tambat, View of Parbati, a Hill near Poona Occupied by the Temples at Which the Peshwa Frequently Worships, Poona, 1795. Watercolor and graphite on paper, 27.9 x 42.5 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut

Gangaram Tambat, View of Parbati (Parvati), a Hill near Poona Occupied by the Temples at Which the Peshwa Frequently Worships, 1795, watercolor and graphite on paper, 27.9 x 42.5 cm, Poona (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut)

A Company painter in western India: Gangaram Tambat

In this period, Company officials hired Indian artists to document their experiences, who have come to be known as “Company” painters as a result. Some of these artists even created images of artists working on Company commissions, such as Gangaram Tambat who depicted four artists using an optical device to draw a series of temples on a hill in the western Indian city of Poona (Pune) in 1795. [1] Gangaram worked for the Company official Charles Warre Malet, who was in Poona as a type of ambassador or “Resident” to the court of the Maratha rulers, a military elite who rose to power in western India in the late seventeenth century and expanded their territories across western and central India over the eighteenth century. Malet’s brief was to negotiate a treaty with the Marathas against their mutual enemy, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, to the south; however, he also sought other types of information related to the rulers with whom he sought to ally.

Gangaram’s drawings are sketchy, conveying a sense of immediacy balanced by clarity and precision. They include his signature, the date, and inscriptions by him and Malet in multiple languages. They offer a lens into how Indian artists learned European techniques and attended to subjects of interest to Company officials. View of Parbati (Parvati) portrays regional architecture and the surrounding landscape in conventions familiar to a European viewer. For example, Gangaram used one-point perspective to render the distant hill, added shadows to the figures and hillside to build three dimensions, and framed the image with large trees and a blue sky in a “picturesque” manner even as he stressed the “scientific” rendering of the structures via the viewing device. 

Gangaram Tambat, A Rhinoceros in the Peshwa’s Menagerie at Poona, Poona, 1790. Pen and black ink, brown ink, gray wash, gouache, and graphite on paper, 22.5 x 37.1 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut

Gangaram Tambat, A Rhinoceros in the Peshwa’s Menagerie at Poona, 1790, pen and black ink, brown ink, gray wash, gouache, and graphite on paper, 22.5 x 37.1 cm, Poona (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut)

Gangaram Tambat, Two Jeyties, Poona, ca. 1792. Watercolor and graphite on paper, 17.8 x 23.8 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut

Gangaram Tambat, Two Jeyties, c. 1792, watercolor and graphite on paper, 17.8 x 23.8 cm, Poona (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut)

Gangaram applied European techniques to other subjects he produced for Malet, including animals in the Maratha court’s menagerie, such as a rhinoceros, a series of wrestlers (jeyties) exercising, a group of Hindu devotees (not shown), figures intimate with Malet, including his Indian mistress, Bibi Amber Kaur, and their children (not shown). He also used European techniques for architecture, such as for the famed rock-carved temples of the region, as seen in an intricate façade of a Buddhist temple at Karle (known to Company officials as Ekvera in the period due to a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess at the site), but he interpreted them with flair. 

Gangaram Tambat, Temple at Ekvera (Karle), ca. 1793. Gray wash, watercolor, pen and black ink, and black chalk on paper, 64.1 x 84.5 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut

Gangaram Tambat, Temple at Ekvera (Karle), c. 1793, gray wash, watercolor, pen and black ink, and black chalk on paper, 64.1 x 84.5 cm (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut)

Here, Gangaram registered his patron’s desire for a perspectival, three-dimensional structure by creating a type of diorama. To his depiction of the main façade, he attached slim pieces of paper to either side via seams and shaded them a darker gray to represent the passage into the temple.

These subjects—landscape and architecture, natural history, manners and customs of the populace, and personal life—are found across paintings commissioned by Company officials and purchased by them on the commercial market. [2] They point to the ultimate aim of the Company, and of many Company officials: to understand and categorize information about the subcontinent in order to control people, goods, and lands. These colonial goals were nuanced by the specific interests of patrons and by the ingenuity of the artists they hired.

Gangaram Tambat, Self-Portrait of the Artist Gangaram with his Guru, Maharashtra, ca. 1790 (detail). Watercolor on paper, 25 x 36.2 cm. British Library, London, Add. Or. 4145

Gangaram Tambat, Self-Portrait [on the left] of the Artist Gangaram with his Guru [on the right], c. 1790, watercolor on paper, 25 x 36.2 cm, Maharashtra (British Library, London, Add. Or. 4145)

Gangaram’s drawings elucidate his work as a Company artist, but they also point to his training in a style of painting popular in western India, in which artists delineated figures through strong outlines embellished with flat planes of color, as well as his own artistic interests. For example, a sketch by Gangaram depicts the artist in a red turban seated on the ground facing his Guru (spiritual leader) with his hands clasped together in a gesture of respect. 

Shivram Chitari, Shahu Maharaj with Nanasaheb Peshwa on a Hunt, Maharashtra, mid- to late 18th century. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 47 x 30.5 cm. History Museum, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad

Shivram Chitari, Shahu Maharaj with Nanasaheb Peshwa on a Hunt, mid- to late 18th century, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 47 x 30.5 cm, Maharashtra (History Museum, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad)

This arrangement of figures is seen in other local paintings, such as one by Shivram Chitari of a Maratha king with his minister. While Shivram’s painting is embellished with a formidable entourage inhabiting a bright and busy landscape in the tradition of courtly paintings in the region, Gangaram’s stands as a personal and informal record of the artist’s devotion. We might think of Gangaram then as a “Company” painter, a “Poona” painter, and his own painter. 

Artistic agency and adaptation in Mughal Delhi

Artists across India who worked for the Company, for Indian patrons, and for the open market in this period can be described in similarly multivalent terms. [3] The Company works share an attention to certain subjects and categories, like landscape, architecture, portraiture, manners and customs, and natural history, and the adaptation of selective European artistic conventions and techniques such as perspective and shading, but these artists worked in diverse styles that reflect their artistic training and individual approaches and the patrons for whom they worked. 

Attributed to the family of Ghulam Ali Khan (active 1817-1855), Six Recruits, folio from the Fraser Album, India, Delhi, or Haryana State, 1815-1816. Watercolor, ink and gold on Whatman paper (watermarked 1814), 25.3 x 39.4 cm. Purchase – Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Arth ur M. Sackler Gallery

Attributed to the family of Ghulam Ali Khan (active 1817–55), Six Recruits, folio from the Fraser Album, 1815–16, watercolor, ink and gold on Whatman paper (watermarked 1814), 25.3 x 39.4 cm, Delhi, India, or Haryana State (National Museum of Asian Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

In Delhi, artists trained to render their paintings in fine brushwork on burnished paper in the painting techniques of the Mughal empire (1526–1858) poignantly portrayed figures related to their Company patrons’ governance and military units. For example, in an album for William Fraser, Ghulam ‘Ali Khan (or another artist in his family) portrayed six recruits. [4] He carefully rendered the men’s faces, bodies and dress through tone and shadows to detail their forms and penetrating gazes. 

This ability to call forth the presence of a person in a portrait was a honed skill at the Mughal court. However, the collection of these men—facing forward in comparison to the preferred profile or three-quarter view of the Mughals—on a bare background is more to the taste of the Company.

Unknown Artist, Mausoleum of Safdar Jang, Delhi, ca. 1774. Watercolor and ink on squared paper, 93.5 x 73.5 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Artist once known, Mausoleum of Safdar Jang, c. 1774, watercolor and ink on squared paper, 93.5 x 73.5 cm, Delhi (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Safdar Jang’s Tomb, Delhi, India (photo: Chitranshi, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mausoleum of Safdar Jang, 1754, Delhi (photo: Chitranshi, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Artists in Delhi, as well as other cities, also delineated the extraordinary architecture of the region in spare, topographical renditions of buildings that codified Mughal architecture in a European format and identified a historical repetition of architectural forms in a Mughal one. [5] This drawing of a Mughal tomb flattens the building blocks of Mughal architecture—bulbous domes, cusped arches, and the symmetrical organization of forms in a combination of red sandstone, white marble, and stucco, for instance—onto graph paper. [6] These artists adroitly adapted Mughal artistry to the expectations of Company patrons to survey and schematically delineate architecture.

Sheikh Zain al-Din, Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch, Calcutta, 1779. From a Series commissioned by Lady Impey. Opaque colors and ink on paper, 76.2 x 96.52 x 2.54 cm. Gift of Elizabeth and Willard Clark, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Sheikh Zain al-Din, Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch, 1779, from a Series commissioned by Lady Impey, opaque colors and ink on paper, 76.2 x 96.52 x 2.54 cm, Calcutta (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Colonial knowledge in paint in Calcutta, Patna, Tanjore, and the Deccan

Works like the drawing of a Mughal Tomb classified information at the same time as they marveled at the sources. These images participated in artists’ and Company officials’ collection of colonial knowledge across the subcontinent; they projected the continuity of past empires with their own, highlighted the value of colonial goods and possessions, and provided information about the people whom they wished to control. Another artist, Sheikh Zain al-Din, and others in his artistic circle in Calcutta (now Kolkata), produced hundreds of highly detailed paintings of flora and fauna, such as of an Indian roller on a sandalwood branch, for Lady Mary Impey and other Company patrons’ natural history projects. [7]

Shiva Dayal Lal, Women Selling Produce, Patna, ca. 1850. Opaque watercolor on paper, 26 x 39.5 cm. P. C. Manuk and Miss G. M. Coles Bequest through Art Fund, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Shiva Dayal Lal, Women Selling Produce, c. 1850, opaque watercolor on paper, 26 x 39.5 cm, Patna (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

In Patna, artists such as Shiva Lal and Shiva Dayal Lal, created series of images of trades and occupations, such as this scene of women selling vegetables and grain, which they sold from their market shop.

Unknown Artist, Portrait of Sultan Abul Hasan Qutb Shah, Golconda, India, ca. 1672-74. In a Golconda portrait album. Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, c. 19 x 30 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Smith-Lesouëf 232, f. 18v. Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Gallica)

Artist once known, Portrait of Sultan Abul Hasan Qutb Shah c. 1672–74, in a Golconda portrait album, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, c. 19 x 30 cm, Golconda, India (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Smith-Lesouëf 232, f. 18v)

In the central Indian region of the Deccan, artists produced highly finished albums of Indian rulers from an early period; while in south India, such as in Tanjore (Thanjavur), they made albums of deities, such as the Hindu god Bhairava, among other subjects. [8]

Unknown Artist, Kala Bhairava, in an album of ninety-one paintings. India, Thanjavur, ca. 1830. Opaque watercolor and ink on paper, 22.6 x 17.6 cm. The Trustees of the British Museum

Artist once known, Kala Bhairava, in an album of ninety-one paintings, c. 1830, opaque watercolor and ink on paper, 22.6 x 17.6 cm, Thanjavur, India (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

These artists produced series of images that defined Indian subjects for their Company patrons and the wider market. They share an interest in natural history, people, or gods, for instance, while they also differ according to their region of production and the particularity of the artists or patrons involved. 

Tilly Kettle, Shuja ud-Daula, Nawab of Oudh, Faizabad, 1772. Oil on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Tilly Kettle, Shuja ud-Daula, Nawab of Oudh, 1772, oil on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm, Faizabad (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Artists and patrons in Awadh

Company painters did not only work for the Company or the commercial market, but they also continued to work for Indian patrons. In the north Indian region of Awadh, artists from multiple backgrounds worked at the court of the Mughal governor (Nawab), Shuja ud-Daula. [9]

Mihr Chand, Portrait of Nawab Shuja ud-Daula (after a portrait by Tilly Kettle) and Two Pictures of Beauties, ca. 1780. In the Lady Coote Album. Ink, watercolor, and gold on paper, 45 x 61.3 cm. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Mihr Chand, Portrait of Nawab Shuja ud-Daula (after a portrait by Tilly Kettle) and Two Pictures of Beauties, c. 1780, in the Lady Coote Album, ink, watercolor, and gold on paper, 45 x 61.3 cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Left: Mihr Chand, Female Musician with a Tambura, Faizabad, ca. 1765-73. Opaque watercolor on paper, DIMENSIONS. Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin; right: Female Musician with a Tambura, Mughal, late 17th century. Opaque watercolor on paper, height: 42 cm. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Res. OD-43, fol. 6r

Left: Mihr Chand, Female Musician with a Tambura, Faizabad, c. 1765–73, opaque watercolor on paper (Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin); right: Female Musician with a Tambura, Mughal, late 17th century, opaque watercolor on paper, height: 42 cm (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Res. OD-43, fol. 6r)

The Indian artist Mihr Chand copied a large-scale oil portrait by a British artist (Tilly Kettle) of the governor (Nawab) Shuja ud-Daula into the small-scale format of a Mughal album and framed it with paintings of flowers and beautiful women in a Mughal manner. [10] While he incorporated British materials such as Kettle’s portrait into his designs, Mihr Chand also produced paintings in a late Mughal style that echoed earlier famed compositions, which would have delighted his Company patrons who were keen collectors of Mughal paintings. [11]

In one image, Mihr Chand delicately portrayed a female musician holding an instrument called a tambura for the Company official Colonel Antoine Polier. However, he based it on an earlier Mughal painting that was in the collection of one of Polier’s friends, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Gentil. [12] In both instances, these Company officials sought to compile paintings in albums in the tradition of ones created for the Mughals, such as those made for Shuja ud-Daula. As an artist working both for the Company and the Mughals, Mihr Chand enabled this artistic collection and production practice across cultures. 

Attributed to Ghasi, Maharana Jawan Singh of Mewar Receiving the Governor General of India, Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, February 8th, 1832, ca. 1832. Opaque watercolor, gold and silver on cloth, 189 x 128 cm. Brooklyn Museum

Attributed to Ghasi, Maharana Jawan Singh of Mewar Receiving the Governor General of India, Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, February 8th, 1832, c. 1832, opaque watercolor, gold and silver on cloth, 189 x 128 cm (Brooklyn Museum)

Artistic flexibility and cultural translation in Udaipur

Ghasi, Outline of a Temple to Mahadeva at Barolli, ca. 1820. From the collection of Colonel James Tod. MEDIUM, DIMENSIONS. Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland

Ghasi, Outline of a Temple to Mahadeva at Barolli, c. 1820, from the collection of Colonel James Tod (Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland)

Such artistic flexibility is seen across South Asia. Artists worked for Company and Indian patrons and could simultaneously produce works in any number of styles. In the western Indian state of Rajasthan, an artist named Ghasi worked for the rulers of Mewar in their capital of Udaipur as well as for the British Company official resident at the court, Colonel James Tod. [13] For Tod, he produced spare, linear architectural drawings, such as one of a nearby temple to Mahadeva at Barolli, whereas for the Udaipur ruler, he documented a colorful scene in the hierarchical protocols of the court. [14] He could also switch—and fuse—these manners of production based on the demands of the commission. Here Ghasi, along with Mihr Chand, Gangaram Tambat, and others, become intermediaries, translating—even negotiating—cultural perspectives for their patrons through their paintings. 

Rethinking the term “Company painting”

Indian artists who worked for Company patrons attended to certain categories and adapted European artistic conventions and techniques, which is why they have been called Company painters in scholarship. However, these same artists also worked for Indian patrons and the commercial market; they were skilled in multiple modes of production, including those of their own invention. Their diverse skillsets puts pressure on the term Company painter as the sole definition of an individual artist, one that is ethnically and hierarchically based. Rather, “Company” painting should be used as a stylistic term, a method to identify how artists from a range of backgrounds produced art for patrons connected to East India Companies or the wider market. These arts can be identified through certain European techniques and an attention to certain subject matters, but also differentiated by the diversity of their production. These artists developed the Company style alongside others in seventeenth- to nineteenth-century India that both shaped the Company’s understanding of India and was shaped by these artists’ knowledge.

 

Notes:

[1] See Holly Shaffer, Grafted Arts: Art Making and Taking in the Struggle for Western India, 1760–1910 (London and New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre with Yale University Press, 2022), pp. 67–130; and J. P. Losty, “‘A very ingenious person’: The Maratha Artist Gangaram Cintaman Tambat,” Asian and African Studies Blog, British Library (August 28, 2014).

[2] See Mildred Archer, Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1992). Mildred Archer popularized the term Company painting, and was a pioneering scholar of this material. See also, Mildred Archer, Patna Painting (London: Royal India Society, 1947); Natural History Drawings in the India Offie Library (London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1962); Company Drawings in the India Office Library (London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1972), among others.

[3] See William Dalrymple, ed., Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company (London: Wallace Collection, 2019).

[4] See William Dalrymple and Yuthika Sharma, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 17071857 (New York: Asia Society Museum, 2012); Yuthika Sharma, “Art in between Empires: Visual Culture and Artistic Knowledge in Late Mughal Delhi, 1748–1857” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2013).

[5] See Chanchal Dadlani, From Stone to Paper: Architecture as History in Eighteenth-Century Mughal India (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019); Chanchal Dadlani, “The “Palais Indiens” Collection of 1774: Representing Mughal Architecture in Late Eighteenth-Century India,” Ars Orientalis 39 (2010): pp. 175–197.

[6] See Dadlani, From Stone to Paper, pp. 114–47.

[7] On natural history illustrations for Company officials, see the work of Henry Noltie, such as Robert White and the Botanical Drawings of Rungiah and Govindoo (Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden, 2007) and Indian Botanical Drawings 1793–1868: from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden, 1999); Martyn Rix, Indian Botanical Art: An Illustrated History (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2022); and Beth Fawkes Tobin, Colonizing Nature: The Tropics in British Arts and Letters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), and Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999).

[8] See Marta Becherini, “Effigies in Transit: Deccan Portraits in Europe at the Turn of the 18th Century,” Journal 18, Issue 6 Albums (Fall 2018): http://www.journal18.org/2979. DOI: 10.30610/6.2018.5. See also Anna Dallapiccola, South Indian Paintings (Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2010).

[9] See Natasha Eaton, Mimesis across Empires: Artworks and Networks in India, 1765–1860 (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2013); and, more broadly on artists and color, Natasha Eaton, Colour, Art, and Empire: Visual Culture and the Nomadism of Representation (London: I. B. Tauris, 2019).

[10] See Yael Rice, “Painters, Albums, and Pandits: Agents of Image Reproduction in Early Modern South Asia,” Ars Orientalis vol. 51 (2021): pp. 28–66; and Natalia Di Pietrantonio, Circuits of Exchange: Albums and the Art Market in 18th-century Avadh,” Journal18 (October 2018)

[11] See Malini Roy, “Some Unexpected Sources for Paintings by the Artist Mihr Chand (fl. c.1759–86), son of Ganga Ram,” South Asian Studies 26, no. 1 (2010): pp. 21–29; and Malini Roy, “Idiosyncrasies in the Late Mughal Painting Tradition” (Ph.D. diss., SOAS, University of London, 2009). On Company officials collecting Indian paintings, see Natasha Eaton, Travel, Art and Collecting in South Asia: Vertiginous Exchange (London: Routledge, 2020); and Lucian Harris, “British Collecting of Indian Art and Artifacts,” Ph.D. diss., University of Sussex, 2002.

[12] Roy, “Some Unexpected Sources,” pp. 22–25.

[13] See Dipti Khera, The Place of Many Moods: Udaipur’s Painted Lands and India’s Eighteenth Century (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2020), pp. 117–46.

[14] See Khera, The Place of Many Moods, pp. 117–46.

Cite this page as: Dr. Holly Shaffer, "Indian Artists and the British East India Company," in Smarthistory, September 27, 2022, accessed December 1, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/indian-artists-and-the-british-east-india-company/.