From the eighteenth century various European artists came to India; along with the British traders and rulers. They brought with them the idea of realism. Realism meant that the artist had to depict everything like real life. This was possible with the use of oil painting with which the contemporary Indian artists were not familiar. The use of oil paint made it possible for the artist to make images which looked real.
Picturesque landscape painting was one of the popular traditions of the European painters. In those paintings, India was depicted as a quaint land. Its landscape was shown as rugged and wild; which was yet to be tamed by human hands.
The Daniells: Thomas Daniell and his nephew William Daniell were the most famous of the visiting landscape painters. They came to India in 1785 and stayed for seven years. They travelled to northern and southern India. They produced some of the most evocative landscapes of India. Their large oil paintings on canvas were regularly exhibited in Britain and their albums of engravings were quickly bought up by the British public. The public was always eager to know about Britain's empire.
Portraits of authority
Portrait painting was another popular art form in colonial India. The rich and the powerful (both British and Indian), wanted their portrait on canvas. While the traditional Indian artists made miniature portraits, the European painters made large and lifelike portraits. The person who commissioned these paintings tried to project his importance by the size of the painting.
Johan Zoffany was the most famous of the visiting European painters of portraits. He was a German who migrated to England and came to India in the 1780s for five years.
The portraits of British officials project a lavish lifestyle. The Indians are always shown in the shadow; as submissive people in these portraits.
Many Indian nawabs also commissioned huge oil portraits by European painters. For them, this was the only way to show their power because they already had lost their authority to the colonial power. Moreover, this was one of the various ways in which a nawab could imitate the lifestyle of the British.
History painting was another category of imperial art. Various episodes of British imperial history were projected dramatically through such paintings. Such paintings enjoyed great prestige among the British public as they showcase the British power. These painters took firsthand accounts of travelers to make initial sketches for such paintings.
Imperial history paintings were an attempt to create a public memory of imperial triumphs. Victory was a thing which should be implanted in public memory; both Indian and British. Such paintings were used as tools to showcase the British as invincible and all powerful.
What Happened to the Court Artists?
This was also the period when the artists who used to work in the courts of various kings saw a change in their life and fortune. Some of them continued to paint in the traditional style of miniature paintings and mural painting. For example; Tipu Sultan always resisted the cultural traditions associated with the British. Hence, he gave patronage to various court painters. His palace at Seringapatam was covered with murals done by local artists.
A different trend can be seen in the court of Murshidabad. We should recall that the British had installed their puppet nawabs in Murshidabad. Hence, the court at Murshidabad encouraged local artists to absorb the British artistic style. The local artists at the court of Murshidabad began to use perspective and light and shadow in their paintings.
Some of the local painters were not so lucky. They lost their influence and wealth because of lack of patrons. They turned to the British. Many British officials wanted to collect the depiction of India as done by the local artists. A vast number of images of local plants and animals, historical buildings and monuments, festivals and processions, trade and crafts, castes and communities, etc. can be found to be painted by local artists. These pictures are usually referred to as Company paintings.
Local village scroll painters were called patuas. The potters were called kumors in eastern India and kumhars in north India. Many of them from the surrounding villages moved to Calcutta in the early nineteenth century and settled near the Kalighat temple. This was the time when the city was developing as a commercial and administrative centre. The village artists migrated to the city in the hope of new patrons and new buyers of their art.
The village patuas and kumors used to paint from mythological themes and made images of gods and goddesses. The traditional paintings looked flat; like the traditional paintings from other parts of India. During the nineteenth century, the Kalighat painters began to use shading to give more depth to their painting. But the main characteristic of these paintings was the use of bold lines which were kept to the minimum. Colours were also kept to a minimum to stick to the non-realistic style.
After the 1840s, the Kalighat artists also began to depict contemporary themes from the society. They also began to mock at the attitude of educated Indians towards blind aping of the western culture.
Many of these Kalighat pictures were printed in large numbers and sold in the market. Initially, block printing was used for making reprints. By the late nineteenth century, mechanical printers came into use. This helped in bringing down the price of prints. Thus, printed images became affordable to the masses.
Even some middle-class Indian artists set up printing presses. They had been trained in British art schools. They were trained in new methods of life study, oil painting and print making. Calcutta Art Studio was one of the most successful of such presses. These presses printed lifelike images of eminent Bengali personalities. They also produced mythological pictures. These mythological pictures were made in the backdrop of picturesque landscape. Many of the calendars (with pictures of Hindu deities) which can be seen even today have originated during this period.
Raja Ravi Varma: Ravi Varma came from the family of the Maharajas of Travancore. He had learnt the Western art of oil painting and realistic life study. He painted themes from Indian mythology. He made many paintings; depicting scenes from Mahabharata and Ramayana. From the 1880s, his mythological paintings became a rage among Indian princes and art collectors.
Ravi Varma also set up a picture production team and printing press in Bombay. Colour prints of his religious paintings were mass produced in this press. Such prints could be bought by even the poor people.
Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951): A new group of national artists gathered around him. They criticized the art of Ravi Varma as imitative and westernized. They tried to draw inspiration from traditional Indian styles. They turned to miniature paintings of the medieval period and murals of ancient period to take inspiration. They were also influenced by Japanese style because some Japanese artists had visited India at that time in order to develop an Asian art movement.
In Abanindranath school of painting, we can see the influence of Rajput miniatures, Ajanta cave paintings and Japanese paintings.
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