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Illustrious journeys: Book compiles the forgotten art by Sita Ram

A wonderful exhibition unveils the forgotten work of Sita Ram, who accompanied Lord Hastings from Calcutta to Punjab in 1814.

books Updated: Dec 12, 2015 13:53 IST
Manjula Narayan
Sita Ram

The camp of the Begum Samru at Nureela. The encampment shows tents rather like Lord Hastings’s own, as well as several curtained raths suitable for female transportation. Presumably after this encounter Lady Hastings left for Delhi taking Sita Ram with her.

Sita Ram: Picturesque Views of India

JP Losty, Roli Books

Rs 2,495; PP 256

Sita Ram’s watercolours of early 19th Century northern India, currently on display at Bikaner House, are a revelation. Rich in architectural detail and with an exquisite lightness, these paintings are a record of the sights encountered between 28 June 1814 and 9 October 1815, when Sita Ram journeyed with Lord Hastings, Governor General of Bengal, and the rest of his coterie, from Calcutta to Punjab and back.

They were a complement to the journal that the Anglo-Irish nobleman maintained.

The book cover for Sita Ram: Picturesque View of India.

The group was large and included Hastings’s wife Flora, many children, and retinue of servants apart from officials and soldiers who occupied “something more than two hundred and twenty boats” according to Lord Hastings’ journal entry for June 28.

The Qutb Minar. Sita Ram has inserted one extra red sandstone storey complete with balcony above before beginning on the two storeys faced with marble.

Incidentally, the journal, edited by JP Losty, former curator in charge of the Indian collections of the British Library in London, that’s available at the exhibition venue, provides a fascinating insight into a changing India, and describes meetings with such historical characters as James Skinner (of Skinner’s Horse, the famous cavalry regiment of the Indian Army) and Begum Samru (whose palace in Chandni Chowk now houses the State Bank of India), among others.

A gharial or the Gangetic crocodile face to face with a grasshopper. (The British Library)

Here’s Hastings on his visit to Fatehpur Sikri on February 18, 1815.

“Reached Futtehpore Sikri. It is the ruin of a town which the Emperor Akbar founded... I know not that I have ever felt the sense of desolation more strongly. In every direction the heaps of red stone testified that edifices of no mean class had existed here, and must have been tenanted by busy agents, though no descendants of such a population remained… Never did I see buildings better calculated for duration than those which surrounded us… All was solidity. Yet these buildings are universally deserted and most of them ruinous.”

Interior of the Imambara (in Lucknow) decorated as during the Muharram and the grave of Asaf al-Daula. The simple grave of Asaf al-Daula under a canopy inside the Imambara, with parties of imams reading the Koran, and a Ta’zia (model of a tomb) used during the Muharram procession beyond.

Reading Lord Hastings journal entry, the contemporary Indian experiences a delicious sense of je ne sais quoi accompanied by the total recall of Shelley’s Ozymandias. 120 years ago, the Mughal empire had withered away, the British had acquired lands, and Hastings was the most powerful man in India. Sita Ram was only the artist commissioned to illustrate the great lord’s journal, which he intended as a record for his children.

Portrait of Sita Ram, by a Calcutta artist, c.1820.

Yet, today, it is Hastings’s journals that act as supporting text to Sita Ram’s delicate and breathtaking work. It’s the sort of reversal that neither Sita Ram nor Hastings could have imagined. Visit the exhibition to marvel at how this country has changed and how it hasn’t, and to perhaps try and imagine how it will be long after we too are gone.

The exhibition is on until December 31, at Bikaner House, Pandara road.

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