Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Nineteenth-Century Court Arts in India

Up through the seventeenth century, the Mughal emperors had relied on a complex network of local princes to administer their lands. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these princes were forced to switch allegiance to the British East India Company, which was rapidly replacing the Mughals as the main power in northern India. By pledging their support to the British, the princes were able to retain their titles and status. The Mughals managed to remain in power in much the same fashion until 1858, when rule of India passed from the East India Company to the queen of England. After the government of India was taken over by the British monarchy, these princely states were restructured into three ranks according to size and power, and were accorded different levels of jurisdiction over their populations.

Though the political clout of these princes was circumscribed, the royal courts remained vital to the production of art through the nineteenth century. They were important loci for the continuation of indigenous artistic traditions as well as conduits for European influences in both art and architecture. At the beginning of this period, the Mughal court continued to produce elaborate histories; particularly popular were copies of the Baburnama and the Padshahnama, which documented the reigns of legendary emperors Babur and Shah Jahan. While completed in the style of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century originals, some paintings depicted the now ubiquitous Europeans admiring Shah Jahan’s famous monuments such as the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. Early nineteenth-century works from surrounding courts also continued in earlier styles.

But the Mughals were no longer the driving force behind Indian art, and some princes were more interested in other forms of painting. The nawabs of Avadh were particularly active in this regard; Shuja‘ al-Daula (r. 1754–75) hosted Britisher Tilly Kettle at Faizabad for a year, and Ghazi al-Din Haidar (r. 1814–27) hired the British artist Robert Home as his court painter. Raja Rajendra Malik of Bengal furnished his Marble Palace with copies of Renaissance works and originals by contemporary Neoclassical painters, and had family portraits executed by European artists. Thus this period marked the introduction of easel painting and oil paints to India. First brought into the courts by Kettle, Hume, and other European artists, this type of painting was later taught at schools. Academies opened in the 1850s in Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, and then in 1875 in Lahore. With the advent of such formal training for artists, they came to be regarded as professionals rather than mere artisans.

Architecture also witnessed major changes during this period. While some princes used the power allotted to them to reforms affecting women and the poor, others found themselves with vast riches and plenty of time at their disposal. The lavish, European-style palaces they built represented the convergence of two trends in British architectural patronage in India. After the major reconstruction of Calcutta beginning in 1757, its famed Neoclassical palaces were copied throughout the country. After 1858, there was a growing interest in Indian architecture as the British monarchy tried to present itself as successor to the Mughals. Focus shifted from Calcutta to Bombay, where the Victoria Terminus by Frederick W. Stevens (1878) and Prince of Wales Museum by George Wittet (1914) were built. Though essentially of classical design, these buildings incorporated a number of decorative elements from the Indian vernacular for the first time.

The princes who chose to build in such a style often hired British architects. The work of Major Charles Mant at Kolhapur, Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob at Bikaner, and Vincent Esch at Hyderabad is a curious mix of Palladian villa design (popular in England at the time) and Indian architectural ornament. At Lucknow, architecture was much influenced by the work of Claude Martin, the French general who settled in the city and was given charge of several regiments in the nawab’s army. His residence, called “Constantia,” was finished with a number of odd flourishes (such as statues waving from the roof), and this exuberant style was quoted in elements of “Kaiserbagh,” the palace of Nawab Wajid ‘Ali Shah (r. 1847–56) built in 1848–50.

New to the arts scene in the nineteenth century was photography, which reached India soon after its invention in Europe. Maharaja Birchandra Manikya (r. 1862—96) of Tripura was among the many princes who took an interest in the medium, starting his career in daguerreotypes; his son Bara Thakur would become a critically acclaimed photographer. Maharaja Ram Singh II of Jaipur (1835–1880) was another skilled practitioner, noted for his portraits of British notables and women from his court (normally only photographed by other women). It is Lala Deen Dayal (1844–1905), however, who is perhaps the era’s most famous photographer. He worked for both British and Indian patrons, and among his subjects were Lord and Lady Curzon and the nizam of Hyderabad. Dayal was appointed court photographer to Curzon in 1884, where he took portraits and documented such important events as durbars and the construction of new palaces. In 1896, he moved to Bombay and opened a commercial studio there.