A group of men, clad in dhotis and turbans, are gathered on the porch of a tavern, waving animatedly in their drunkenness. One man at the back appears lost in liquor-induced melancholia. A few are demanding that their earthen cups be refilled. And one tippler is being threatened with a shoe for “untying his turban and waving a bottle”.

This depiction is part of Indian Life and People in the 19th Century, an ongoing exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. On display at the museum are 120-odd Company paintings and sculptures from the collections of CSMVS and of Textiles and Art of the People of India.

Company painting is a collective term used for the hybrid art once produced by Indian artists in a European palette. Created in the late 18th and 19th century, these works offered a view of the everyday life in India, in a distinct departure from preceding art. Until then, local artists, patronised by rajas and nawabs, were almost always focused on the splendour of courts, royal portraits, historical scenes or illustrations of the poetic and the divine.

Weaver, Murshidabad (from the TAPI Collection). An elderly bearded Muslim weaver sits on the verandah of his house weaving a long white cloth on a pit-loom, his feet in the pit below him, his water-pot and hookah beside him. The surplus threads at the end of the warp are caught up on a framework above. We can see distant trees through the windows on both front and back walls of his house.

Prints from the British period have been exhibited at CSMVS in the past – including landscapes from 18th-century Calcutta and Bombay – but this is the first time original paintings and sculptures from the era are being showcased in the city. Unlike Company prints, which are reproductions of works of British artists, these paintings are the works of Indian hands. The commissions may be English, but the flavour is unmistakably desi.

The exhibition, inaugurated by writer William Dalrymple, was accompanied by the release of a catalogue, Indian Life and People in the 19th Century, authored by art historian JP Losty. Published by Roli Books, the catalogue features a comprehensive introduction to the subject of Company Paintings by John Keay, a contemporary Indic studies scholar.

Goldsmith, CSMVS.

Origins of the form

Financial patronage, academic attention and public interest are the ingredients needed for the success of any art movement. When the Company school of art was born, all these elements came from the British. As Losty writes:

“The designation ‘Company Painting’ is normally used for all the various styles of Indian painting from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that show to a greater or lesser extent European artistic influence. The term ‘Company’ comes from the patronage of Indian artists in the colonial period by the officials of the East India Company.”

— 'Indian Life and People in the 19th century'

In the 1920s, an art-mad couple attached to the East India Company found their life’s passion in the discovery, study and cataloguing of these paintings. William Archer and his wife Mildred Agnes Bell developed a love for the art while he was posted as a civil servant in Patna. Barrister PC Manuk, who introduced the couple to the Patna school of paintings, was a connoisseur himself, and may have been the first person to use the term Company Paintings in his published monograph. However, in her later publications, Bell cites two names – Rai Krishna Das of Benaras and Ishwari Prasad – as the people who may have coined the name.

Whatever the source of the name, one thing was clear: from the moment European merchants landed in the country, they held a fascination (and, often, abhorrence) for India and her people. Not wanting to miss the spectacle, they commissioned artists of all manner to capture every moment.

In painting the new sights of India, Company officials were not only recording, but also understanding their prized lands. “The purpose was dual – [of] memorialisation and surveillance,” said Vandana Prapanna, senior curator at CSMVS. It became a trend for officials to get India-themed paintings – singular or sets – commissioned for themselves, their superiors or their families. When British artists could not cope with the demand, Indian artists were brought in. It served Indian artists well, for the declining wealth and power of the Mughals and other royals generated a need for new patrons.

“The Company Paintings could be considered the next stage in the history of Indian art after miniature paintings, which were in vogue in the medieval period,” said Prapanna. “The rajas and maharajas, though great patrons of the art, were only interested in getting themselves and their lives painted.” The results were ornate, highly stylised and, often, larger-than-life depictions of courtly life.

But the Company was more interested in the subjects than the rulers. For the first time, the everyday and the everyman became a point of artistic interest. Local trades, occupations, attire, crafts, bazaars and festivals – everything was frozen in artworks. “To see kings and queens in their courtly settings, or gods and goddesses in theirs, we have our miniature paintings to go to,” said Shilpa Shah, who, along with her husband Praful Shah, put together the TAPI collection. “But where do you go to see the ordinary Indian humbly plying his trade 200 years ago? For this, you need the Company paintings. Before photography, it is [the] paintings patronised by the British that provide an authentic and unparalleled window into India’s past.”

Traders in Chintz, Andhra (from the TAPI Collection). He sits cross-legged on the plinth wearing a yellow jama and pale lilac paijama with a blue shawl and a pale red turban with an interesting back. He holds out what is possibly his stock book towards a woman customer who stands at the other side of the central pile of patterned textiles. She wears a white skirt, brown bodice and two dupattas, one yellow tied close to her body and another pale red whose ends she holds out to the dealer as if seeking to match it or show its length. They are positioned on a black plinth decorated with floral designs while the frame shows a meander pattern.

In colourful company

As with all artistic schools and movements, the Company school took some time to evolve. Indian artists attached to royal studios or schools slowly migrated to growing centres of British power in search of work and opportunities. But their sensibilities were often different from those of their European counterparts.

Their use of bright colours and flat backgrounds, for example, appalled the British audience at first. But Indians, well known for their adaptability, quickly learnt about Western preferences, and started using watercolour washes and incorporating elements like shadow, perspective and naturalism. Most Company paintings were made on paper, and were drawn with a brush using watercolour and sometimes gouache (watercolour thickened with an opaque filler).

A wedding procession, Patna, Painting on Mica (from the TAPI Collection). The bridegroom on a white horse is being led in a baraat to the bride’s house, preceded by men on elephants and on foot waving flags and pennants and by musicians playing various drums, a trumpet and of course the shehnai. Around the bridegroom men hold up flower wands and large stylised leaves, whisks and flowers and a lantern.

Gold, the traditional highlighter in Indian miniatures, or occasionally silver, were used sparingly for jewellery. The styles could be slotted into the Calcutta, Delhi, Tanjore, Murshidabad, Kutch, Patna and Andhra schools by the discerning eye. Each of these schools had distinctive features but what united them were their subjects. Life in India and her people were captured like never before. And in their historical record lay their greatest worth.

For how else, in a nation obsessed with Hindu canonical narratives of gods and kings, would you know what a hookah maker from Murshidabad, a silver stick bearer from Kolkata, a seal engraver from Patna, a water carrier from Lucknow, a faqir from Delhi, a punkha-puller from Punjab, a money-changer from Kutch or a falconer from Tanjore looked like in India of the 19th century?

Indian Life and People in the 19th Century is on at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, till February 17.