Monday, 12 January 2009

Visions of India past and present

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by Kathryn Hadley

Colourful, chaotic and charming; India is also an enchanting and overawing country of extremes, with an immensely rich history and cultural diversity. Vasco de Gama landed on the Malabar coast in the south-western state of Kerala in 1498. The prospects of developing trade links with India sparked considerable European interest in India. Throughout the sixteenth century, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Danish and English traders increasingly set up coastal trading centres exporting commodities such as textiles, sugar, indigo, saltpetre, tea and opium.

The British East India Company was founded on December 31st 1600 following Queen Elizabeth I’s signature of a Royal Charter, which granted a group of London merchants a monopoly of all trade East of the Cape of Good Hope and West of the Straits of Magellan for an initial period of fifteen years. The Company first landed in Surat (Gujarat) on the East coast approximately two hundred kilometres North of Bombay in 1608 and gradually established trading posts in Madras (1639), Bombay (1660) and Calcutta (1690). Perceptions of India in Europe at the time were largely based on accounts and paintings by European travellers who published or exhibited their works upon their return.

How did the first Europeans arriving in India view and depict the new world which they discovered? An exhibition currently on show in Mumbai attempts to answer this question. The show at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum provides an important insight into European views of India from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. It is organised in collaboration with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum from which many of the paintings by British artists are on loan. The display includes works by both professional and amateur artists, by artists who travelled to India to paint first hand accounts, as well as by artists in Europe who based their depictions on Mogul works of art, written accounts by European travellers or who copied other artists’ works.

Artists painted scenes of some of the architectural and natural wonders of India which were entirely unknown to their European publics. However, in their depictions of such novel and previously unknown subjects they remained influenced by the changing artistic influences popular in Europe at the time. The chronological display of paintings, prints and sketches highlights the evolution of European artistic trends, from Romanticism from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, to the Realism of the end of the nineteenth century.

European painters first began to travel to India to paint first hand accounts of the landscapes and monuments which they visited in the eighteenth century. William Hodges (1744-1797) was the first English professional landscape painter to travel to India. He had previously accompanied Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific from 1772 to 1775. Hodges was granted permission to travel to India by the East India Company and arrived in Madras in 1780. He travelled for three years around the North of India and upon his return to London in 1783, he published a collection of 44 prints under the title Select Views in India.

Six years later, two other British artists, Thomas Daniell (1749-1840) and his nephew William Daniell (1769-1837), followed in Hodges’ footsteps. They arrived in Calcutta in 1786 where they set up a printing studio and then embarked on a tour of northern India. Returning to Calcutta in 1791, they then toured southern India for a further eight months. Their unprecedented collection of 144 prints was published in England between 1795 and 1808 under the title Oriental Scenery and saw considerable commercial success.

From the 1860s onwards, with the arrival of photography, European representations of India gradually changed. Subjects shifted from landscapes and architectural wonders to depict everyday and ‘real’ life, including the Indians themselves and their customs. This evolution of European artistic influences is particularly prominent in the works of John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911) and John Griffiths (1837-1918). Both artists arrived in Bombay in 1864 where they were appointed to teach at the Bombay Jeejeebhoy School of Art. Griffiths became Principal of the school in 1865; Kipling was commissioned by the British government in 1870 to tour the North-West Provinces and to sketch the Indian craftsmen of the area. In 1875, he became Principal of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore in British India (now the National College of Arts in Pakistan).

For more on British views of India, read our article
British Views of India

Here are the full details of the exhibition in Mumbai:

Indian Life and Landscape: paintings and drawings from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century
Until February 8th
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum of Western India)
159/161 Mahatma Gandhi Road
Fort, Mumbai 400 023

A fascinating insight into the initial perceptions of the unknown and alien country and culture which European travellers to India discovered, into the evolution of such perceptions and into how the visions of European artists in turn shaped views of India in Europe.

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