A painting created in 1818 by British artist Benjamin West features Mughal emperor Shah Alam II presenting a scroll to Robert Clive, a British colonel. According to historian John McAleer, the event depicted in West’s painting can be categorised as one of the most crucial events in the history of the British Empire and one of the most important legacies of the Battle of Plassey that took place in 1757 in Palashi, Bengal.
The scroll, which forms the focus of the painting, was responsible for transferring tax-collecting rights and the authority to administer justice in Bengal to the East India Company. It set the ball rolling, establishing the East India Company as a major power and Calcutta as its seat.
The artwork appears in Picturing India: People, Places And The World Of The East India Company by McAleer, a lecturer at the University of Southampton. The coffee-table book, published by Niyogi Books, explores Britain’s complicated relationship with India through images of the Indian subcontinent, by artists and travellers in the 18th and 19th century.
In a chapter, titled Politics, Power and Port Cities, McAleer outlines the background of the East India Company’s position in mid-18th century India, its maritime trade routes and activities, the port cities it occupied and the depiction of India in a variety of texts and images. The three main ports featured in the narrative are Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.
Artists like William Hodges, Jan Van Ryne, William and Thomas Daniell travelled across India and sketched whatever they found beautiful and exotic. Along with the people and culture, there are also several paintings of landscapes.
McAleer writes: “Although the Company traded from Surat on the North-West coast in its early days, the first permanent Company fortress in India was at Fort St George (in Madras).” The Fort St George features prominently in most of the works from Madras. According to McAleer, the approach to the city was one of the defining moments of British travellers’ encounters with India.
According to the book, Hodges is believed have said:
“The English town rising from within Fort St George, has from the sea a rich and beautiful appearance; the houses being covered with a stucco called chunam, which in itself is nearly as compact as the finest marble, and, as it bears as high a polish, is equally splendid with that elegant material. The stile of the buildings is in general handsome. They consist of long colonnades, with open porticoes, and flat roofs, and offer to the eye an appearance similar to what we may conceive of a Grecian city in the age of Alexander.”
By the early 19th century, Bombay had emerged as a great centre of British commerce in the West. “The view of Bombay by George Lambert and Samuel Scott gives a snapshot of its development in the first sixty years under the company control… the image focuses squarely on the fort (the warehouse) and the shipping, the twin concerns of East India Company at this time,” writes McAleer.
Though the two port cities, Madras and Bombay, featured in many paintings during this time, it was Calcutta, the capital of British India, that really captured artists’ fancy. “It was a magnet for Company officials,” writes McAleer. “Many of the artists attempting to forge new careers for themselves made directly for the city. It was, as a result, one of the most frequently represented places in India. Artists offered a variety of perspectives (literally and metaphorically) on its river, its scenery, its waterfront, its buildings and its people.”
After Colonel Clive’s victory in Plassey, the population of Calcutta had swelled to well over 1,00,000 and by the 1770s, the city had become the seat of the governor-general and the headquarters of major army and naval commands. According to Picturing India, a French visitor in 1790, Louis de Grandpré, described it as “not only the handsomest town in Asia but one of the finest in the world”. Hodges, taken by the beauty and richness of the city, painted it at least five times.
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