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Kampani Kalam in the spotlight

A recent exhibition at Bonhams, London, is the latest in a series of shows that seeks to highlight the diverse bodies of work that constitute the genre of ‘Company’ paintings

‘Merchants From Kabul And Iran’ by Ghulam Ali Khan.
‘Merchants From Kabul And Iran’ by Ghulam Ali Khan. (Photo courtesy: Arts of Hindostan)

At Bonhams, London, close to 80 rare works by Indian master artists from Kolkata, Patna, Lucknow, Delhi and Chennai were recently on display. Titled In Good Company, this “exhibition from a private collection of fine Indian paintings under the influence of the Raj" was organized by the auction house in collaboration with Arts of Hindostan (AoH), an Instagram handle dedicated to the visual and decorative arts, architecture, design and fashion of the Mughals, Rajputs and Company sahibs, and rated by auction house Christie’s as one of the top 100 art world Instagram accounts to follow.

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, Indian artists were employed mainly by the British East India Company, and, to a lesser extent, by other European East India companies to record picturesque sites, monuments, festivals, royalty, zenana and nautchkhana. Their work, a blend of Indian and European styles, is known as the Company painting or the Kampani Kalam in local parlance," the spokesperson for AoH tells Lounge. While the Bonhams exhibition concluded on 17 January, some of these images can still be seen on the AoH Instagram handle.

This was the latest in a series of exhibitions in the art world dedicated to the nuances of Company painting. Writer and historian William Dalrymple has curated a show titled Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting For The East India Company at The Wallace Collection, a public art enterprise in the UK, that opened in December. On view till 19 April, it seeks to shine the spotlight on the diverse body of work within this genre.

The effort of such exhibitions is to bring out the distinctive styles of these artists, instead of viewing them within the overarching umbrella of “Company paintings"—as Dalrymple mentioned in an interview to Lounge earlier, the artists had too much personality to be dismissed as a nameless group employed by rich patrons.

This style of painting came about as dusk began to settle on the Mughal empire, taking a toll on patronage of art. Many of the artists flocked to newer patrons—the East India Company officials based in Delhi, Lucknow, Patna, Murshidabad, Kolkata, Trichy and other places. This brought them under the influence of European counterparts such as Thomas and William Daniell, William Hodges, Johann Zoffany and Frans Balthazar Solvyns. Visual vocabulary transformed to include the use of perspective, the move from gouache to watercolour and softer palettes.

There is a documentary feel to the paintings as they faithfully chronicle lives and landscapes, creating an image of the “exotic India" that British officers so wanted to convey to their families back home. An example of this, at Bonhams, was a depiction of the marriage procession of a Muslim bridegroom (Day Scene, Patna, circa 1813) by Sewak Ram. This shared space with a fine album of 50 botanical studies by Seeturam (1814-21), featuring frangipani, custard apples and mangoes painted with a certain photo realism.

“In some ways, there was a democratization of subjects from the earlier Mughal and Rajput painting, where the finest work was done for a maharaja or emperor and the topics tended to cover the court, zenana, hunts and battles. In the Company paintings, artists captured daily life for British sahibs to share with their families in England, or the scientific studies of flora and fauna in an age of discovery," says the AoH spokesperson.

The stories of artists such as Sewak Ram and Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya lend insight into the lives of Company painters—the former, who worked from 1790-1826, used to be the most prolific and influential of the Patna painters. “He seems to have had different styles of painting—on the one hand producing sets of trades and occupations, and, on the other, painting fine large paintings of processions and ceremonies. In his larger compositions, like the two paintings in our exhibition, he is closer to European watercolours, with the emphasis on modelling, transparency and neutral tones," notes the AoH spokesperson. He was patronized by senior British Company officials, including the Earl of Minto and the Earl of Caledon. Meanwhile, Amir focused on the lives of his English patrons in Calcutta (now Kolkata), capturing the elegance and affluence of the age with a lyrical style and subtle touches of humour.

The provenance of these paintings throws up some interesting stories as well. The Diwan-i-Khas In The Red Fort At Delhi by Ghulam Ali Khan, for instance, was once owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The colours in the work are believed to have inspired the fashion icon’s look for her 1962 trip to India as US first lady.

“These paintings are a magnificent record of a time when artists in India were open to different styles and techniques from Europe and built on the rich traditions of their own heritage and culture," concludes the spokesperson.

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