Sitaram, the painter of this enchanting scene, was hired to record the travels of Francis Rawdon, the governor-general of Bengal between 1814 and 1821. The painting illustrates the Sang-i Dalan palace complex at Motijhil, Bengal, where the Rawdons traveled in 1817. The artist, working in the picturesque style, has chosen to depict the scene not by foregrounding the site’s majestic palace but rather by emphasizing a romanticized state of decay, with fallen debris from the nearby structures. In doing so, Sitaram creates a melancholic view suggesting a nostalgia for the Mughal Empire before the arrival of the British.
Recently identified, the subject of this painting is the mosque and gateway of the Sang-i Dalan palace at Motijhil, outside Murshidabad, built in 1743 by Nawazish Muhammad Khan. The artist was probably Sita Ram, an accomplished Bengali painter whose work has been admired since the 1970s, when three albums of his watercolors were sold at auction. It was not until 1995, however, that the patron of the watercolors and the circumstances of their creation were ascertained. Inscriptions in a group of eight albums acquired by the British Library, London, in that year explained that they, along with two albums that had appeared in 1974, had been made for Francis Rawdon (2nd Earl of Moira, later 1st Marquess of Hastings; governor-general of Bengal from 1813 to 1823) on a tour of northern India in 1814 and 1815. In his journal, Hastings had mentioned that, at one point on the tour, “a Bengal draftsman who accompanied us was directed to make a coloured sketch of the scenery,” but the “draftsman” had not previously been identified as Sita Ram, and the “coloured sketch” had not been connected with his magnificent watercolors.
Sita Ram’s career can be followed only for the brief but intense span of time when he worked for Hastings, from about 1814 to 1823. During that period, he created the ten albums of the 1814–15 journey and at least two more based on tours in 1817 and 1820–21; contributed to albums of natural history drawings; and made other studies that were later placed in scrapbooks. From this body of work, two facets of Sita Ram’s work are apparent. His natural history drawings are characterized by crisp detail, but in his landscapes, he made use of low horizons and warm light and manipulated scale and perspective for greater effect. Like the other works made for Hastings, this painting no doubt captures what the traveling party saw, but it also suffuses both landscape and architecture with a sense of languor, evoking a timeless mood rather than a fleeting moment from a trip. This impression is further emphasized by the artist’s decision to depict the Motijhil site from behind, excluding the main palace and emphasizing the state of decay of the remaining buildings.
Marika Sardar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. This identification was made by J. P. Losty based on a watercolor of an almost identical view in the Album of Bengal Drawings in the possession of the London booksellers Maggs Bros. in 2009. Personal communication to Navina Haidar, February 21, 2010 (curatorial files, Department of Islamic Art ). Prior to this identification, Joachim Bautze (in Interaction of Cultures: Indian and Western Painting 1780–1910, the Ehrenfeld Collection. Exhibition, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, and other venues. Catalogue by Joachim K. Bautze. Alexandria, Va., 1998., pp. 308–9) and Navina Haidar (in In the Realm of Gods and Kings: Arts of India. Exhibition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Asia Society Museum, New York. Catalogue by Andrew Topsfield and others. London, 2004, p. 218) had suggested that the painting was from a tour of the Gaur district in 1820–21. For Motijhil, see Dani, Ahmad Hasan. Muslim Architecture in Bengal. Asiatic Society of Pakistan Publications, 7. Dacca, 1961, pp. 276–77.
2. An album of paintings of fruits and plants was sold at Sotheby’s London, July 15, 1970. Two albums of views from Murshidabad to Patna and from Sikandra to Agra were sold at Sotheby’s London, July 9, 1974.
3. Hastings, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Marquess of. The Private Journal of the Marquess of Hastings, edited by His Daughter the Marchioness of Bute. Reprint of 2nd ed. 1858. Allahabad, 1907, p. 133.
4. Losty, J[eremiah] P. “The Governor-General’s Draughtsman: Sita Ram and the Marquess of Hastings’ Albums.” Marg 47, no. 2 (1995), pp. 80–84.
5. Losty has since revised his suggestion (ibid., p. 84 n. 2) that Sita Rammay have worked for Dr. John Fleming before entering Hastings’s service; personal communication, September 1, 2010.
6. The albums from Bengal, natural history albums, and scrapbooks were also acquired by the British Library in 1995. See Losty 1995,(note 4 above) p. 81. Selected paintings from the 1817 tour were published in Losty, J[eremiah] P. “Early Views of Gaur and Pandua by the Indian Artist Sita Ram.” Journal of Bengal Art 1 (1996), pp. 189–203.
Probably Francis Rawdon, 2nd Earl of Moira, later 1st Marquess of Hastings, governor-general of Bengal from 1814–21; Private collection, England; William K. Ehrenfeld, San Francisco (in 1998); [ Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd., until 2002; sold to MMA]
New York. Asia Society. "In the Realm of Gods and Kings: Arts of India, Selections from the Polsky Collections and The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 14, 2004–January 2, 2005, no. 88.
Bautze, Joachim K. Interaction of Cultures: Indian and Western painting, 1780–1910: The Ehrenfeld Collection. Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 1998. no. 82, pp. 308-309, ill., pl. 82 and front cover.
Topsfield, Andrew, ed. "Arts of India." In In the Realm of Gods and Kings. London; New York: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2004. no. 88, pp. 218–219, ill. (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 286, pp. 342, 401-402, ill. p. 401 (color).