Kolkata in print: In paintings, a peek into life in the 1800s
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Kolkata in print: In paintings, a peek into life in the 1800s

A new exhibition of topographical paintings, once used by the British to document their colony, gives a rare insight into the city’s pre-recorded public life.

mumbai Updated: Oct 16, 2017 16:47 IST
Prakruti Maniar
Prakruti Maniar
Hindustan Times
Calcutta,Kolkata,Prince of Wales
View on the Banks of the Ganges with representation of the Churruck Poojah - A Hindoo Holiday by James Moffat, 1806. (Pauline and Roy Rohatgi, CSMVS)
Kolkata Through Colonial Eyes
  • Where: Prints and Drawings Gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Colaba
  • When: October 14 onwards
  • Time: 10:15 am to 6 pm
  • Entry: Rs 60

Browsing SnapMaps to visit Machu Pichu, Greece, Spain or The Grand Canyon in 2017, it is difficult to imagine a time when a land was an unrecorded mystery. Pre-colonial Indian life, especially, remained confined to the pictures of commissioned artists, whose chief subjects included the upper class families and royalty.

In the early 1800s, soldiers and travellers from Britain began sketching detailed landscapes of the country, which they took with to England. They were panoramic documentations of India of the time. The images would then be engraved on metal sheets or ivory, coloured and printed using lithographic techniques.

Kolkata Through Colonial Eyes, shows 37 prints by artists such as Thomas Danielle, Selmar Hess, William Wood Junior, Frederick Fiebig, at the dimly lit Prints and Drawings Gallery at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Curated by art historian Pheroza Godrej, it portrays urban infrastructure and life of the 1820s. The images show the city’s wide, almost empty roads, Esplanade Road, Garden House, Writer’s Building and Loll Bazaar. They feature British guards with high pants and tailcoats on horseback, strutting among men in dhotis and turbans. There are children in loincloth, women in sari (heads covered, going about their jobs), vendors in the market and men in bull-carriages.

One anomaly: the sky. The clear blue and fluffy clouds are a constant, unlike tropical skies that can go from grey to crimson. “The drawing, engraving and colouring was done by three different people, mostly by the Englishmen in England who knew little about tropical skies. So while the scenes are depicted accurately, the skies are more European than Indian,” says Godrej.

She says that the aim of landscape painting was to document the topography of the colony. “This exhibition focuses on the development on the city of Calcutta and the role of the river Hoogly.”

Around the 1860s, with the advent of photography, printmaking declined. But these prints, kept intact from 1826, reflect the age of the labour-intensive process, and offer a rare insight into the urban India of the time.

First Published: Oct 13, 2017 20:30 IST