On a journey to discover art of the past
17 Dec 2002, 0107 hrs IST
His mind finds solace only when it is busy seeking an aspect of life, relating to the yellowed pages of life’s document gone by. So, every year Pran Neville, former diplomat and author of more than half a dozen books that includes well-received coffee table books like
The Nautch Girls of India and Beyond the Veil, packs his bags and off he goes researching some characteristic of life buried under deep layers of time.
Supported by Indira Gandhi Centre for Art, this time Neville, who was in city recently, has researched Indian painting done by Indian artists during the Raj. “Till the middle of the 18th century, there was no record of Indian life by the painters. After the fall of Mughals, the miniature school had disappeared, only British-commissioned artists were working in India, who either made portraits of the elite or did landscapes. But these artists were expensive. Their works could adorn walls of only the rich and powerful. The common man--the soldiers, the lower rung officials--who wanted to show family members back home a glimpse of the land they were sent to, could not afford these works. But the demand was there,” he explains.
Continues Neville, “In the meantime miniature painters, who were out of work started seeking patronage from the newly-emerging powerful class, the British. They started settling down in Calcutta, Lahore, Kanpur, Lucknow, all centres of the British cantonment.
These painters worked as assistants to British painters and adapted their style, by using imported paper, new water-colours, brushes and European techniques. These works reflected the common man’s life in India, and for the first time, a kind of visual history of the vast diversity of life was recorded for posterity, without a conscious effort. For the Britisher, India offered a kaleidoscope of different castes, creed, occupation, rituals, festivals, vast variety of unusual transportation like palanquin, elephants, camel drawn carriages, different kinds of boats, exotic costumes and jewellery.”
About 6,000 paintings from the Company school remain unpublished, he informs. “Most works do not bear any signature. These remained neglected for a long time in the world of art as they were treated as kind of hybrid works, with the status of Anglo-Indian attached to them.” These works travelled abroad with the British. Hence about 3,000 are with the Victoria Albert Museum and about an equal number with the Oriental and Indian office collection, British Museum.
Interestingly, Neville also found a few hundred paintings at Peabody Essex Museum, at Salem, Massachusetts, near Boston. “Ships loaded with goods used to go to New England area from Calcutta, where many British had settled. These residents had donated Company paintings from their private collections to the museum.” Another discovery that came as a surprise to Neville during his research is the fact that these painters used to keep a family album. The works were followed in a gharanas style, the kind found in musical families now. With the advent of photography, the Company school faded.