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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

Introduction

Detail of cat. no. 29

Detail of cat. no. 29 ©

In December 1834, a young Indian king – his straight, black hair finely curled that morning by his English barber – led a party of European officers into his Indo-European style palace, known as the Farhat Bakhsh (‘Giver of Delight’). Inside, under the sparkling candelabras, 152 splendid presents were laid out for their inspection, including a large oil painting and valuable manuscripts from the celebrated Lucknow royal library. Among the latter were works of history, poetry, philosophy and religion, each wrapped in silk brocade. The gifts were intended for another monarch living more than 4,000 miles away: William IV, King of the United Kingdom. After his guests had provided appropriate gasps and murmurs of admiration, the young ruler had descriptions of every article diligently recorded on goldflecked paper and each was carefully packed away for its lengthy sea voyage.

Despite no British monarch having set foot on Indian soil before 1911, the Royal Collection had by then amassed a vast number of magnificent works of art from the many diverse states of South Asia. Of these, the paintings and manuscripts form a world-class group containing some of the most important and well-preserved specimens of their kind. Including illuminated manuscripts, exquisite natural history paintings, vivid depictions of the Hindu pantheon of gods and modern masterpieces, the collection spans a period of over 400 years and a geographical expanse from Kashmir to Kerala. Each work has a remarkable provenance. Many boast a long list of proud owners and a well-travelled history before their arrival in Britain. Highlights of this superb collection, less than a fifth of the total, are being published together for the first time in this catalogue.

These works have been acquired by several different, though sometimes interconnected, means. Some of the finest examples are diplomatic gifts offered to the British sovereign as head of state. Others were presented by British officers stationed in the subcontinent, many of whom developed their own interests in South Asian culture in the service of the East India Company. Only two were given as trophies of their military conquests. Queen Victoria learned the Hindustani language in her seventies, and her private library came to contain many South Asian texts, both in their original languages and in translation. Less well known, though no less significant, are the paintings given to, and bought by, King George V and Queen Mary during their two tours of South Asia and later in Britain. Amongst them is a work by Abanindranath Tagore (cat. no. 86), a painting that looks forward to the modern age of South Asian art and a political climate that transformed the subcontinent in the profoundest of ways.

As the works represented here originate in the modern-day independent states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the terms ‘South Asia’ and ‘Indian subcontinent’ are used to describe the area historically called ‘India’. The present selection of works, however, is by no means representative of the art of the entire subcontinent either geographically or historically; it solely reflects the particular holdings of the Royal Collection. Nor does the catalogue attempt a comprehensive assessment of the development of the art of the book or painting in South Asia although it is, for ease of interpretation, organised largely by historical period. These are art forms which differ considerably from those of the West. A thriving manuscript tradition endured well into the nineteenth century in South Asia and, even then, printed books often retained many of the design elements of earlier manuscript traditions (cat. no. 82). South Asian paintings are traditionally small in scale and executed using water-based pigments, the earliest on palm leaf and later on handmade paper. They are by nature portable, stored either within bound volumes or individual covers.

Manuscripts and albums of paintings from the imperial Mughal court account for more than half of the Royal Collection’s holdings. Dating from the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, they include elegantly penned works of poetry (cat. nos 12), intimate portraits (cat. nos 17–20, 28, 35, 36, 39 and 41), grand durbar scenes (cat. nos 2930) and romantic visions inspired by contemporary literature (cat. nos 38, 43 and 45). Late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works from the Mughal provinces of Awadh and Bengal comprise a smaller but noteworthy group that includes a manuscript text of Hindu philosophy (cat no. 46) and several vivid depictions of Hindu deities (cat. nos 4748). One of the latest examples from Awadh is a large illustrated and illuminated manuscript, a youthful autobiography of its last ruler, Wajid Ali Shah (cat. nos 77–81). Paintings from the Rajput courts of Rajasthan and the Punjab entered the Royal Collection in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prominent among these are two series of paintings illustrating verses from Hindu devotional texts (cat. nos 5163) and ragamala paintings representing the moods evoked by the musical melodies of these northern states (cat. nos 4950). Among the works in the collection from the southern states are two magnificent Quran manuscripts (cat. nos 65 and 68), a group of meticulous temple drawings (cat. nos 6970) and an illuminated royal letter (cat. no. 73). The Sikh Kingdom of the Punjab is represented by a majestic portrait of Maharajah Ranjit Singh (cat. no. 75) and a handsome series depicting the ten Gurus (cat. no. 76). The late nineteenth-century works of art include heavily embellished printed books written by the Begum of Bhopal (cat. no. 83) and the Maharajah of Benares (cat. no. 84), and oil paintings by the well-known society artist Rajah Ravi Varma (see fig. 31). Of the twentieth-century South Asian works in the collection, the painting by Abanindranath Tagore is the only example reproduced here (cat. no. 86). 

Cat. no. 13, Mansur, Chameleon

Cat. no. 13, Mansur, Chameleon ©

This study has provided a unique opportunity to investigate the long-standing relationship between the British monarchy and South Asia. Drawing on new research, this publication examines this shared history, exploring how, when and why the manuscripts and paintings came into royal hands. The story is not one of imperial nostalgia. It begins with the painful sense of inadequacy felt by the earliest British ambassadors to the subcontinent, overawed by the wealth and opulence of the Mughal court. The East India Company and its rise to power in the eighteenth century plays a central role in the story, often dictating how the relationships between British and South Asian rulers developed. As will be made clear, the manuscripts and other presents sent to William IV in 1834 by his counterpart in Lucknow were in fact rejected on the advice of the Company, which deemed their acceptance politically undesirable. While the other gifts were sent back, the oil painting (fig. 21) remained in England. This was sold to a British army officer and only later bought for the Royal Collection. With the East India Company’s abolition in 1858, the governance of its territories in South Asia formally transferred to the British crown, heralding a new and highly significant change in the relationship between the subcontinent and the British royal family. This relationship would grow closer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as India became ‘the Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire and South Asians played an increasingly important role in the life of modern Britain.

Some of the South Asian paintings and manuscripts in the Royal Collection have enjoyed a long history of being exhibited, both informally to private visitors of the royal family and to visiting dignitaries on grand state occasions. They have also been lent to exhibitions worldwide and made available to academics and students. Queen Mary lent her painting by Abanindranath Tagore to an India Society exhibition of contemporary painters of the Bengal School in 1914.[1] Twenty year later she lent two more recent acquisitions to the society’s exhibition of modern Indian art, the largest display of modern art from South Asia in Britain until the Festival of India in 1982.[2] In 1931, King George V lent the Chameleon (cat. no. 13) by Mughal master Mansur to the Art of India exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club, and it was later lent with several other works from the collection to the Royal Academy’s Art of India and Pakistan in 1947, a major exhibition that marked the independence and creation of the two sovereign states.[3]

Detail of cat. no. 86, Abanindranath Tagore, Queen Tissarakshita

Detail of cat. no. 86, Abanindranath Tagore, Queen Tissarakshita ©

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence in 1997, an important study was made of the outstanding mid-seventeenth-century illustrated Mughal manuscript, the Padshahnama (cat. no. 26), to support its successful international tour. This stimulated global interest and further scholarly response to this one volume, many pages from which have since been lent to exhibitions across the globe. Yet, despite its historic and artistic significance, the Royal Collection’s wider holdings of South Asian paintings and manuscripts have been little studied. We hope that readers will be as impressed by the works reproduced here as was Sir Frederick Madden, then Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, when he first saw the Padshahnama during a visit to the Royal Library with his family in 1847. It was the final volume they viewed. ‘This is a Book of Books. Of all the volumes I ever saw, none comes near it in point of beauty of ornament and delicacy of painting. It is a real treasure, and better worth seeing than all the castle possessions besides [...] It deserves a case of gold’.[4]

 


FOOTNOTES

 

[1] Mitter 1994, p. 326.

[2] Mitter 2007, p. 223 and The Times, 10 December 1934.

[3] See Ashton ed. 1950.

[4] Madden 1847, pp. 273–81.