art world

Much before Instagram, the Prince of Prussia sketched everything he loved about 19th century India

The lithographs reflect the unique perspective of a European royal trying to understand foreign cultures.

In January 1845, Prince Waldemar of Prussia, Germany, landed in Calcutta while on an expedition to explore distant lands. Accompanied by a team of military men already familiar with India, a botanist and a medical doctor, Prince Waldemar had set out on his journey in September 1844 and made his way to India via Athens, Egypt and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Nephew of King Friedrich Wilhelm III, Waldemar harboured a deep love for travel and was driven by an insatiable desire to explore the natural phenomena, to venture into the unknown world, and to understand other cultures. Alexander Von Humboldt, a Prussian geographer, naturalist and explorer called it Waldemar’s “military curiosity”. In the Indian subcontinent, his destinations included Patna, Kathmandu, Benares, Delhi, Nainital, the regions of the Himalayas and finally Lahore, Jaipur, Gwalior, Indore and Bombay.

Besides being a trained military man, Waldemar was also an enthusiastic artist and created many watercolour paintings and sketches depicting his travels across India. These watercolours, turned into lithographs in Berlin on his return, are on display at an exhibition in New Delhi until November 9.

Prince Waldemar's painting of 'Afghan soldiers'.
Prince Waldemar's painting of 'Afghan soldiers'.

Titled Travels of the Prince of Prussia to India 1844-46, Waldemar’s art depicts his experiences in the subcontinent and includes scenes from an idyllic village, landscapes and monuments. Humboldt, who admired these works, said the sketches were “endowed with life and artistic value”.

Many of the lithographs show the Anglo-Sikh battle of 1845-1846 fought between the Sikhs and the East India Company during the Prince’s trip to India. According to The Legitimacy of Modern Age, written by philosopher-historian Hans Blumenberg: “The prince’s participation in this battle in distant Asia was praised as a heroic deed in military circles and at court in Berlin.”

Prince Waldemar of Prussia. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Prince Waldemar of Prussia. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Waldemar also had a habit of keeping detailed diaries and after his death in 1849, his art and writings from India were published in 1853 in a book titled In Memory of the Travels of Prince Waldemar of Prussia to India 1844-1846.

Prince Waldemar in Lahore.
Prince Waldemar in Lahore.

The Punjab Tourism department compiled these lithographs in an album that according to NPS Randhawa, Director Tourism at Art Gallery, Chandigarh, aims to be of assistance to historians, especially the historians of Punjab and future generations of researchers and scholars.

In a blog post on the website of the German Embassy in India, art historian Dr Jutta Jain-Neubauer, who also contributed a foreword to the album, writes about how the royal Waldemar did not like the extra security that was provided to him while in India and preferred exploring the region on his own, anonymously.

When once he tried to sneak out of his room to stroll through the ‘native’ bazaar in Calcutta on his own, his ‘Butler’ caught him and suggested that he made horses and carriage ready for him. The Prince requested to be left alone, but his guardian insisted on doing his assigned duties. Waldemar angrily shouted at him, which had the desired effect, followed by his guardian’s contemptuous and scornful glances. Prince Waldemar writes: ‘I was more than happy to get rid of this useless attendant, and enjoyed going out anonymously. It is such a pleasure for me to stroll around in unknown towns and to observe the hustle and bustle in the local streets and markets. And if this appeals to me in Europe, how much more in this country, where I encounter hundreds of new exciting images at every step.’” 

Waldemar returned to Berlin in June 1846, by which time he had not only sketched his experiences but also amassed a vast collection of notes and essays on India, along with a collection of Indian armament and a comprehensive herbarium of plants collected and pressed.

Prince Waldemar draws the river Sutlej.
Prince Waldemar draws the river Sutlej.

Travels of the Prince of Prussia to India 1844-1846 is on display at the India International Centre in Delhi till November 9.

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