‘Capturing’ India: Early Colonial Artists & their Depiction of Indian Life

‘Capturing’ India: Early Colonial Artists and their Depiction of Indian Life is an archival project, supported jointly by Victoria Memorial Hall and India Foundation for the Arts, which aims to explore the breathtaking collection of early colonial paintings housed in the VMH. These paintings, prepared mostly by European artists who visited India during the initial phase of colonial rule (roughly 1780s to 1830s), provide a window into the social and cultural world of contemporary Indians – a fascinating world which is otherwise largely lost to us, and which we would do well to recover, glimpse at, and appreciate. Since a vast chunk of these paintings depict Indian landscape, architecture, and day-to-day life, this archive yields valuable information about what India and its inhabitants looked like before the advent of large-scale industrialization and colonial modernity.

What, however, is even more fascinating is that despite being separated from these artists and the world they depicted by almost two hundred years, there is much that we would recognize in their paintings of Indian life. Their elaborate, superbly detailed sketches of the bazaars, ghats, streets, and buildings of, say, Calcutta, would enable any attentive viewer to detect traces of the past which still linger on, notwithstanding the changes brought about by automobiles and electricity. These paintings remind us that beneath the veneer of modernization, much of the built environment we inhabit still bears traces of the past. And it is precisely because some of the travelling artists documented India’s socio-cultural life in such vivid detail that we can now understand exactly which aspects of our urban environment are new, and which ones are relics surviving since precolonial times. While some of these paintings are well known, there are several others which await critical appreciation.

This project, in fact, seeks to specifically shed light on a body of paintings which has received relatively little attention even in histories of colonial art, namely, paintings of ordinary, day-to-day life. We are perhaps familiar with majestic oil paintings of the Taj Mahal prepared by colonial artists and imposing portraits of British administrators dressed in their full official regalia. But sketches and drawings of ‘ordinary’ Indians who are engaged in their mundane vocations, or celebrating their religious festivals, or strolling along the lanes of Calcutta’s ‘black town’, or perhaps simply sitting lazily in front of their houses, are indeed less popular and harder to come by. Such ‘candid’ pictures of everyday life (to invoke the genre of photography so popular in Instagram), prepared decades before the advent of the camera, are not only interesting by virtue of being so unexpected, but also because they enable us to imagine the lives of the artists themselves, who went out among their Indian subjects, visiting places unfrequented by Europeans, simply to make their paintings as authentic as possible. Revisiting their pictures of Indian life, thus, might well be a rewarding