Pictures of India

THIS sympathetic, beautifully executed watercolor of a trooper of Skinner's Horse was painted by an anonymous artist sometime between 1820 and 1830. The troop (a division of a cavalry formation) had as its uniform a long yellow coat, but here the model, though holding a lance and shield, is not dressed for action. On his head is a red turban -- the picture was clearly made during the hot weather. The painting was once part of the Fraser Album, praised as ``the tour de force among the [East India] Company's genre paintings''; it has only quite recently been dispersed. Ghulam 'Ali Khan may have been the artist -- he was a painter whose draftsmanship, grasp of anatomy, and rapport with his models was greatly admired and who often worked for persons connected with the company.

In 1600 Queen Elizabeth I granted a royal charter to the East India Company, giving it a monopoly on trade with the Orient; a venture similar to those set up in that era by other nations, the Dutch and the French among them. The English, rather late in the field, were extremely successful in this commerce, particularly in India. There, without conscious design, they gradually took over great parts of the country, as otherwise there was no stability for trade since the whole land was weak, divided, and often in semi-anarchy. The Mogul Empire was in decline, the Mahrattas in the north were a loose free-booting association controlled by a number of chieftains; many native kingdoms held sway in different areas; Mysore was forceful but only in the south. The situation was further complicated by the presence of the French, rivals of the English here as they were then in Europe and even in North America.

Familiarly known as ``John Company,'' the East India Company with its powerful board of directors in London had at first established itself in three cities: Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, but soon pushed out into the hinterland, expanding its territory and creating its own army, a government. The company became an immense source of employment and attracted to its service many extraordinarily able men -- legendary figures like Sir John Malcolm, Baron Metcalfe, Mountstuart Elphin-stone, and the Wellesley brothers, one of whom would be the Duke of Wellington.

No commercial company could continue on so grand and powerful a scale indefinitely: The Mutiny of 1857 made this very plain. The immediate cause of this terrible rising was that the sepoys of the Bengal Army believed they had been issued cartridges greased with cow's fat, so when they bit them they would commit sacrilege. In fact, the cartridges had not been so treated, but the mutiny went on for a year and a half. Afterward the whole country was taken over by the Crown, made part of the British Empire, and administered from Whitehall and Delhi.

Many of the company's merchants had become very rich, and the high officials were expected to live in great style. The mansions they built needed pictures, they patronized local painters, hence the expression ``company's genre paintings'' -- works which were supplemented by those of the Western artists, professional and amateur. The word ``Raj'' in Hindi means ``sovereignty'' or ``rule,'' and this term was used to mean the British government in India, which succeeded the company.

Photography had not yet usurped the role of sketching and painting, accomplishments frequently possessed by educated persons. India attracted many artists because of its great visual fascination; their work was eagerly received by the public at home and stimulated the very ancient industry of tourism. Through these pictures travelers became quite familiar with what they might see in India: the Taj Mahal, the Ganges, Benares and its temples, bazaars, luxuriant vegetation, elephants, tigers, peacocks, and a striking people.

India was considered ``picturesque,'' a word that implied rather more than it does today, evoking the romantic, exotic, bizarre. After the muted, cloud-ridden skies of Northern Europe, the quiet landscapes, the intense contrasts between light and shade in India, and the strong colors were very exciting. The flowering trees and spectacular birds, the great heat and drenching rains inspired a host of artists: men like Edward Lear, the Daniells, Zoffany, Hodges, and Chinnery, from whom native painters acquired Western techniques.

Another aspect of the country was recognized by Alfred Lyall when he called it the ``Land of Regrets.'' The Westerners did not settle permanently in India; many had only a very brief stay as the cemeteries of the country amply testify, and those who went home after their periods of service retained a persistent nostalgia and a melancholy for what they might have done. The caricaturists who satirized the Nabobs and Anglo-Indian society touched usually only on superficial aspects that were easy to ridicule; there were always deep causes for dismay.

For a long time there were very few European women in India, and relationships between the British and Indian companions were frequent, resulting in more understanding between the races than was achieved afterward when the two societies were sharply divided. This came to mean a large Eurasian community, underprivileged and impecunious, though many of the children of these unions bore the proudest names in England. Through no fault of their own these young people found no proper niche either among the British or the Indians -- the ``regrets'' were patent here.

One of these persons was Lt. Col. James Skinner (1778-1841), the son of a Scottish officer serving the company, and a Rajput lady. It was evident from the first that this man possessed great martial talents, yet, as he was ``country born'' he could not have a proper commission from his father's people, nor would the Rajputs accept him, so he was obliged to become a mercenary. The French, the Mahrattas, and various native princes were eager to have him. He always stipulated that he would fight for them only if he never had to raise his sword against the British, and after many years, very reluctantly they did recognize him, and partially reward him, so that his troop (Skinner's Horse) was part of the British forces.

He was known everywhere as ``Sikander,'' the memory of Alexander the Great being still alive in India, and Skinner's great moral and physical prowess recalling that hero.

His deputy commander was William Fraser, whose brother, James Baillie Fraser, an amateur artist, put together the album that once contained this picture of the trooper. Indian paintings from the days of John Company and the Raj are a great treasure and deserve to be more widely known. The Pierpont Morgan Library lately mounted a delightful exhibition on this romantic theme, picturesque and pitiful.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Pictures of India
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today