Begum Samru’s life has been turbulent and full of intrigue as many questions about his life have remained unanswered. The life and times of the 18th century dancer who married a European mercenary, ruled Sardhana (present-day Meerut district) and left a massive legacy at Chandni Chowk in Delhi, are the stuff of which the legends. A snapshot of Begum Samru’s life shows her alongside George Thomas, her lover and leader of her troops. This portrait is currently on display as part of the catalog accompanying an ongoing exhibition at the National Museum in Delhi. Titled Company Painting: Visual Memoirs of Nineteenth-Century India, the exhibition (ends July 20) invites the viewer to travel back in time to when India lingered on the threshold of change.
The canvases also deviated from the sensibilities then existing. Instead of preparing the paper by hand, the artists worked on imported machine-made paper. While paper was the most popular medium, ivory and new materials such as mica and glass were also seen during this period. The majority of the paintings in this exhibition and this catalog are executed in watercolour, characteristic of this style, preferred for its delicate tones. The rapid Western techniques adopted for the use of watercolors also deviated from the laborious execution of traditional gouache paintings, which required layering and burnishing.
The exhibition is a tour de force of commissioned art in the dynamic period of the 18th and 19th centuries. The collection of over 200 paintings from the period is full of intriguing details about people, architecture, rituals, and portrait styles, but most importantly, it shines a light on the women of the time.
Most of the women depicted in the collection are not familiar faces as the artists have documented their ethnographic details such as region, costume and jewelry, and other aspects of material culture, rather than the individuals they were.
Pointing to a painting of a tribal woman from South India, Dr Savita Kumari, curator of the exhibition, said: “This one is important for several reasons. For example, his gaze is compelling and provocative, unlike before, where portraits of women were idealized and removed from viewers. The paintings are also, in a way, snapshots of the personal and professional lives of women of the time. For example, the portrait of an Indian woman sitting in a chair and reading a book reflects a wealthy background and the growing European influence on the lifestyle of an Indian woman.
On the other hand, a painting of a bare-breasted woman, sensually brushing her hair, represents her as a courtesan. Architectural designs such as the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula and his wife Asmat Begum in Agra, and that of the Qudsia Bagh Palace in Delhi resonate with the role of women in shaping tradition. The mausoleum was commissioned by Nur Jahan, wife of Emperor Jahangir for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who enjoyed the title of Itimad-ud-Daula (pillar of state). “Every aspect of the building reflects Nur Jahan’s refined taste for art and architecture. The delicate ornamentation of the Taj Mahal borrows from the trends it set in architectural projects,” says Kumari. In another painting where Nur Jehan is seen smoking a hookah, the Mughal queen was modeled after British Empress Victoria.
During this period, stylization and canonical ideals of beauty gave way to realistic representation. For example, one of the paintings represents a woman with wrinkles. It was unthinkable in the past. Another work from South India, which deviates from tradition, is the documentation of a medical condition known as neurofibromas (a benign tumor that grows along your nerve cells) in the work titled “A seated lady in a yellow sari”.
The pan-Indian series also has regional variations. The realism seen in the paintings of South India is different from those of Punjab. In the latter, the emphasis is on decorative elements and stylization, as evidenced by “A Princess and a Friend on Horseback” and “An Armed Woman of the Sikh Court”.
The exhibition contains a wealth of information on women’s clothing and adornments from all over India. Some of the South Indian paintings show women with distended earlobes and heavy auricles. Although primarily produced to suit colonial tastes, today these works of art enrich our understanding of
life in 19th century India and shed light on the material culture and professional practices of the time.
Patrons of this kind mainly included British civil servants and their families who took them home as souvenirs for relatives and friends who could get a taste of India, much like postcards from distant lands today. bring stories from foreign lands.