history in images

For 18th century painters, Indian port cities Calcutta, Bombay and Madras held a very special place

Artists like William Hodges, Jan Van Ryne, William and Thomas Daniell travelled across the ports, painting what they loved.

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.

The Mughal emperor Shah Alam hands the diwani to Robert Clive, transferring tax collecting rights in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Company; by Benjamin West, 1818. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Mughal emperor Shah Alam hands the diwani to Robert Clive, transferring tax collecting rights in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Company; by Benjamin West, 1818. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Old Fort, Playhouse and Holwell's Monument, Calcutta; by Thomas Daniell, 1786. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Old Fort, Playhouse and Holwell's Monument, Calcutta; by Thomas Daniell, 1786. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.”

"Fort of St.George on the Coromandel Coast, Madras, belonging to the East India Company of England," a line engraving by Jan van Ryne. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
"Fort of St.George on the Coromandel Coast, Madras, belonging to the East India Company of England," a line engraving by Jan van Ryne. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A painting of the East India Company's settlement in Bombay and ships in Bombay Harbour, by George Lambert and Samuel Scott, 1731. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A painting of the East India Company's settlement in Bombay and ships in Bombay Harbour, by George Lambert and Samuel Scott, 1731. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.”

View of a house and bazaar in Calcutta; by Francis Jukes, 1795 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).
View of a house and bazaar in Calcutta; by Francis Jukes, 1795 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).

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.

A View of Chinsura, the Dutch settlement in Bengal, by William Hodges, 1787. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A View of Chinsura, the Dutch settlement in Bengal, by William Hodges, 1787. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.