Snapshots of life from over 200 yrs ago are on display at a city museum
A woman in Patna, clad in a bright red sari, waiting as a shopkeeper weighs her groceries. Two dhobis beating clothes on a washstone by a river. A farmer plastering the walls of her house with cowdung.
A total of 120 paintings from the TAPI (Textiles and Art of the People of India) collection are on display at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum, alongside other Company paintings from the museum’s collection.
The Company school gets its name from the British East India Company that ruled large parts of India at this time. It was an Indo-European art style that incorporated Western elements like the use of watercolours and a Mughal aesthetic. The paintings were typically commissioned by British officials, to document the everyday lives of Indians in the days before photography.
“Sadly, the term Company Paintings honours the patrons and forgets the artists,” said historian and author William Dalrymple, speaking at the inauguration of the exhibition. “Not only does the phrase tarnish the work by foregranting colonialism, it also diminishes the Indian-ness of the art. Different cultural influences such as the Punjabi, Maratha, Mughal, Sikh and Tamil contributed to these paintings.”
There is ongoing work by researchers to recognise the artists who worked on these paintings, Dalrymple added, but very few have been identified.
In the exhibition are works painted in Kolkata, Delhi, Tanjore, Murshidabad and Kutchh, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There are also clay figurines, another popular art medium at the time.
TAPI, incidentally, was set up and is run by the collectors Praful and Shilpa Shah; this exhibition has been curated by Vandana Prapanna.
“As a museum of the people and by the people, it is important to show glimpses from the lives of ordinary people now and in the past,” said Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general of the CSMVS. “Art of such historical significance should be accessible.”
(The exhibition runs from December 7 to January 7)