If, like me, you’ve forgotten about Christmas presents or, with just four days to go, you’re scrambling around for suitable new year gifts, then I might just have the perfect advice for you. It’s a sumptuous book that would thrill the heart of any recipient. The only problem is once you see it and hold it in your hands you’ll probably want to keep it for yourself! So, perhaps, you should buy two.
Called ‘Sita Ram: Picturesque Views of India’, it’s a collection of water colour illustrations of Lord Hastings’s journey from Calcutta to the Punjab in 1814-15, published along with the British Governor General’s journal. An accompanying introduction by the delightfully named JP Losty provides the most insightful details and helpful understanding of Sita Ram’s art and how it compares with the Daniells and Hodges, whose aquatints and lithographs are better known but not necessarily always better.
Thankfully I was given this book on a quiet Friday evening. My curiosity aroused by the cover painting of Constantia, a mansion built by the French General Martyn in Lucknow in the 18th century, I started to casually flick through its pages. What began almost thoughtlessly soon transformed into an absorbed reverie that stretched late into the night.
Sita Ram’s water colours are vibrant but also delicately painted. The colours are eye-catching whilst the penmanship is striking. You can see each individual leaf of his trees and all the feathers of the birds he paints but, at the same time, the enormity of his street scenes or the sheer spread of his landscapes is equally impressive. In miniature or in expansive size, Sita Ram can be truly captivating.
These are water colour illustrations of India as it was 200 years ago, long before photography or video-cameras were invented. However, the paintings that I found most riveting were of Delhi. For me the contrast between then and now was almost bewitching. At any rate, I couldn’t tear myself away.
Seen through Sita Ram’s work, what strikes you about early 19th century Delhi is its apparent order and calm. You see Humayun’s Tomb or the Purana Qila as they must have appeared before the mad development that today surrounds them obstructed their view. They seem strangely lonely and isolated but also unrecognisably peaceful and quiet.
Sita Ram’s paintings of the north-east gate of the Jama Masjid or of its enormous inside courtyard are reminiscent of the more famous Daniell aquatints. Though older, the Daniells seem more contemporary. Sita Ram’s have a desolate quality that perhaps better captures the reality of his time.
As the evening stretched past midnight a second aspect of Sita Ram’s illustrations caught my attention. I suddenly found myself fascinated by his painting of Lord Hastings entering the Lucknow residency on horseback, his grand camp at Cawnpore and four of his European servants seated on a slow lumbering elephant and couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like to be Governor-General of India? Ah, if only...
Now, what could be a better gift than a collection of water colours that feed your fantasies and dreamily transport you into a world of make-belief? This is so much better than the hurriedly bought ties and scarves or the casually picked up bottles of vino which, usually, either remain unworn or end up recycled. If nothing else, when it lies on a table this book commands attention and could easily spark a riveting conversation.
The views expressed are personal