Company Painting

Here is an example of the style of painting which emerged in India under the British East India Company:

Great Indian Fruit Bat

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Date: ca. 1777–82
Geography: India, Calcutta
Culture: Colonial British
Medium: Pencil, ink, and opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: Mat size: Ht. 27 1/4 in. (69.2 cm)
W. 35 1/2 in. (90.2 cm)

“In 1777, Sir Elijah Impey, chief justice of Bengal between 1774 and 1782, and his wife, Lady Mary, hired local artists to record the specimens of Indian flora and fauna they collected at their estate in Calcutta. Over the next five years, at least 326 paintings of plants, animals, and birds were made for the Impeys. On most of these works, the name of one of three artists—Bhawani Das, Shaykh Zayn al-Din, or Ram Das—appears along with the Hindi name of the animal and the phrase, in English, “In the collection of Lady Impey at Calcutta.” Although this painting bears no such inscription, it is closely related to another painting of a bat by Bhawani Das, and it has always been associated with Impey patronage. One can imagine Bhawani Das and the anonymous artist of this painting working side by side, observing the animals, but whereas Bhawani Das’ painting depicts a tawny-colored female bat centered on the page with both wings outstretched, his fellow artist has created an asymmetrical composition in shades of gray and black of an emphatically male bat with one wing dramatically unfurled.” (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Quite a looker isn’t he? I recently saw an interesting corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which I hadn’t seen before. It was a room labeled “Company Painting in Nineteenth-Century India.” For some reason I just hadn’t come across this room in prior wanderings. I decided to show you all some of the drawings and paintings I saw, with some historically related works interspersed for comparison.

The Company paintings are worthy of our notice because they reflect Indian aesthetic culture in this fascinating, relatively narrow slice of time between the Mughal state and the British state, when India was under Company rule. Mughal trained painters were able to modify their craft to suit British tastes, but this slight change  put them (generally speaking) out of the genre of imaginative, decorative court art and into the genre of scientific sketches, administrative records, or more rarely, a sort of elite tourist kitsch. The Indian artists in this collection have been forced by circumstance to depict less conventionally beautiful plants and animals, and in a more realistic style. The cultural change from luxuriant Mughal court system into the impersonal knowledge aggregating machine of the colonial period is reflected in painting. Its pretty cool.

They are also fascinating because it shows us a period in Indian history where British artists suddenly join Hindus, Muslims in a shared aesthetic genre depicting the Indic subject matter. Take a look at these scientific drawings of plants for example:

Ashoka Tree Flower, Leaves, Pod, and Seed

Date: first half 19th century
Geography: India, probably Calcutta
Culture: Colonial British
Medium: Opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: Page: H. 23 1/4 in. (59.1 cm) W. 17 5/8 in. (44.8 cm)
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Bengali Feminist Sci-Fi: “Sultana’s Dream” by Roquia Hussain

Read the story here! If you find the writing style basic, keep in mind, English was her fifth language. Its an early work of both feminist literature, and science fiction. I think you’ll dig it.

sul·tan·a [suhl-tan-uh, –tah-nuh] (noun)

1: : a woman who is a member of a sultan’s family; especially: a sultan’s wife

2: a mistress or concubine of a sultan

3: A female sultan *

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The Zenana Deodi in the middle of Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajastan. This is from a royal palace, probably a tad fancier than the one Hussein grew up in.

A note on Purdah: This is a customary practice wherein the sexes are segregated, and the movement of females is restricted to the zenana (women’s quarters) with varying levels of severity. It also usually entails the requirement that females wear a veil, burka, or some sort of covering. This was much more common in the middle and upper class than amongst the poor populations. While it exists in both Hindu and Muslim communities, Muslim implementations are generally more severe, hence Roquia Hussain’s consciousness raising efforts.

Some Context: Muslim Reformers in the Bengal Renaissance: Calcutta 1900! A bustling early-capitalist metropolis with a sizable bourgeois and upper class– A set of intellectuals economically capable and philosophically inspired to paint, write, make scientific discoveries, and root out social evils. What a time it must have been to be alive!

Like many intellectual renaissances, the Bengal Renaissance (broadly defined: 1775-1941) entailed a simultaneous harkening back to ancient traditions for inspiration, and a striving for modernity and progress.** Hindu writers and thinkers revived and reinterpreted Vedic/Upanishadic philosophy to combat social ills like sati and the caste system. Likewise, The Muslim intelligentsia entered a period of self-criticism wherein writers looked back to their Islamic traditions for sources of inspiration, and reinterpreted their texts to liberalize Islam from the inside.

Muslim scholars like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, advocated a “continuous, unending process of ijtihad, interpretation according to the needs of the time” and wanted to overhaul the Madrassa system of education much like Hussain. The author Kazi Abdul Wadud honored the prophet Muhammed as “a great man,” and referred to him as “just like a light-house to the sea-voyagers” but denied that he was “omniscient” or an “all-pervading master.” Wazed Ali, another writer, observed “the arrival of a religious reformer is essential for the removal of filth from life. In Muslim society too, high-souled men appeared from time to time to remove filth and to make religion time-befitting.”[1] Do you see a pattern emerging?

Now examine some quotations from our author, Roquia Hussain:

“where there is much rigidity in religion, there is greater oppression of women”[2]

“[religious books are] nothing but man made code.” [3]

“Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female — both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep and pray five times a day.” [4]

“The opponents of female education say that women will become wanton and unruly. Fie! They call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam, which gives women an equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?”[5]   ***

A similar pattern emerges, no?

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Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

Well-intentioned scholars sometimes try to contextualize Roquia Hussain within the global or even western feminist movement.[6] I’ve seen her described as a “contemporary” of Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Virginia Woolf. But in what sense are they really contemporaries? Hussain’s consciousness raising mission was extremely focused on her own social group. She wrote almost entirely in Bengali, and about issues, like purdah and zenana, which impacted the Bengali Muslim upper and middle classes. [7]  Her writing was not intended for, nor read by western audiences.

Hussain may have been more radical than most of her Bengali cohorts, but she was still firmly within their social and literary milieu. The pattern evident in her nonfiction writing is the same pattern we see in other Bengal Renaissance socio-religious reformers: Liberal reforms are advocated through appeals to religious tradition, while simultaneously jettisoning negative or outdated aspects of that same tradition. Hussein’s religion played a major role in her approach to feminism. Her opposition to purdah coexisted with her encouragement of wearing the veil.[8] She believed in universal education– so long as it was segregated by sex and included Arabic in the curriculum.[9] She believed in the earthly origins of scripture, and also in the God of the Qur’an. This is the tension, or confluence (depending on your perspective) at the heart the Bengal Renaissance.

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Other cool Bengal Renaissance stuff:

Complete works of Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali) (English)

Paintings by Abanindranath Tagore 

“The Renaissance in India” a collection of essays by Sri Aurobindo (PDF direct download link)

The Torch Bearers of Indian Renissance,” a PDF detailing the scientific and mathematical minds of the Bengal Renissance

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* This is an amalgam definition from Webster.com, dictionary.com, and wiktionary. I include it because I think the name “Sultana” was intentionally chosen for it’s mixed connotations in regards to female power.

** Call me a colonial apologist but… I think its obvious that the British colonial presence in Calcutta (the capital of British India until 1911) had something to do with the Bengal renaissance, particularly in the contribution of what we conceive of as “modern” ideas. Calcutta received contact with the west earlier, and more strongly than the rest of India. British critiques of Indian culture, classical liberalism, the English language, British artistic and literary techniques, the presence of a colonial hegemon to inspire nationalist reactions– These are all indispensable parts of the Bengal Renaissance. This is not to credit the Bengal Renaissance to the British, but merely to observe that cultural diffusion and the importation of new ideas from abroad has a destabilizing, influence on existing cultural patterns.

*** In Sultana’s Dream when Sultana asks Sister Sara about religion, this is what occurs “What is your religion, may I ask?’

‘Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful.”

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